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Drawing Political Inspiration From Battlefields

Courtesy Chunae Zoh
From left: Rep. Joe Crowley, Civil War Trust President Jim Lighthizer, former Rep. Michael Arcuri and Rep. Steve Israel at Manassas, Va., in July 2008.

Rep. John Campbell is always ready to go to war.

The California Republican keeps his uniform and rifle at home, just in case. But the war he’s prepared to fight ended nearly a century and a half ago.

The Civil War’s sesquicentennial commemoration kicked off earlier this year, but for Campbell and several other Members of Congress, the bloody conflict has long been an obsession.

Instead of reading history books or watching documentaries, Campbell’s passion led him to spend nearly a dozen years as a Civil War re-enactor for the 19th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Company D — a hobby he gave up when he joined Congress.

Then there’s Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who built his political philosophy on one of the Union’s most incredible and improbable victories — Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s famous bayonet charge at Gettysburg’s Little Round Top.

And for many Members, such as Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Reps. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), their interest in the war centers on legislation protecting the nation’s remaining battlefields and promoting a national discussion on the war.

‘What Was It Like?’
Campbell may have only started re-enacting in the 1980s, but like many Civil War buffs, his fascination began in childhood.

“I’ve got a picture of me in a Confederate uniform when I was 7 — I’m not quite sure why,” he said. “I started reading kids’ books about the Civil War at a very young age and went to Gettysburg at 8 or 9 with my parents. I can remember a friend of mine that I grew up with here in Los Angeles, his family was from South Carolina, and as kids we did Union vs. Confederate toy soldier things.”

Since that childhood photo, though, Campbell has never again put on a Confederate uniform. His ties to the Union run deep as his great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side, a Union lieutenant and doctor named Alonso Conaway, was wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

In his re-enacting days, Campbell always fought for the North in the 19th Indiana Volunteer Infantry or the 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

“If you have an interest in history, you always wonder, ‘Gee, what was it like?’ and you wish the DeLorean time machine from ‘Back to the Future’ actually existed so you could go back and see. You try to imagine the time, the place and what it was like,” Campbell said. “Re-enacting is as close to what it’s going to be until they invent a time machine.”

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