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.”
Campbell’s dedication to historical accuracy mystifies some visitors to his California home, where he keeps on his desk a sepia-toned photograph of himself in period garb taken with an 1860s-era camera.
“They go, ‘Oh my God, is it a relative of yours?’ Everyone thinks it’s an original, old Civil War photograph,” he said, laughing. “And I say, ‘Yeah, there’s definitely a family resemblance.”
For Cochran, remembering the war is about keeping in touch with his roots.
On his office wall, the Mississippi Republican has hung four photographs of Senators from his state who faced difficult challenges.
One is Jefferson Davis, who resigned from the Senate in 1861 to serve as president of the Confederate States of America.
“He led a losing battle on behalf of the Confederate armed forces against the United States,” Cochran said. “My gosh, think about that — someone taps you on the shoulder and they want you take on this challenge? Who’s going to say sure?”
Cochran also has a personal connection, as many of his ancestors wore Confederate gray.
“All of the relatives I had who were actively involved were Confederate soldiers or were supporting the Confederate cause,” he said. “After the war, they went back to their farms and their businesses and tried to make a living.”
Moving past the trauma of Civil War, like his relatives did, is a long time coming for some, Cochran noted.
“We lost. But we’ve recovered. We’ve gotten over it,” he said. “And other people ought to get over it, too.”
For Israel, a visit to Gettysburg with retired Gen. Robert Scales ignited his passion for Civil War history.
The New York Democrat had asked the general to speak with him about the Iraq War, and Scales said, “I can tell you, but I’d rather show you,” Israel recalled.
“I said, ‘Oh, I was just in Iraq,’ but he told me, ‘No, come with me to Gettysburg. If you want to understand what’s going on in Iraq, let me take you to Gettysburg and I can show you everything you need to know about strategy and tactics.’ In one day, I learned invaluable lessons about contemporary military challenges,” Israel said.
Israel now regularly takes his staffers to Gettysburg to share the lesson he learned while standing on Little Round Top.
And in his Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee office, a painting of Chamberlain’s charge dominates the wall. It serves, Israel said, to remind him — and Democratic recruits who come by the office — of his political philosophy: “There’s nothing that can’t be done with enough willpower.”
Israel’s visit to the battlefield also prompted him to form what he first called the House Civil War Caucus — something he realized was a “terrible mistake” after talking to then-Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.).
“He kind of scowled at me and said, ‘Israel, I will join your Civil War Caucus when you rename it the War of Northern Aggression Caucus,’” he said.
As a compromise, the group is now known as the Battlefield Preservation Caucus. The band of Civil War buffs visits battlefields all over the country and plans to head to Fredericksburg this year.
One of Israel’s partners in the caucus is Crowley, who’s long been a history buff.
“It was instilled by my father,” he said. “We didn’t go to amusement parks. We went to forts and battlefields.”
According to Crowley family lore, two brothers named Harton came to the states from County Cavan, Ireland, to fight, though he’s never done the research to prove it.
One thing he has passionately researched, however, is battlefield preservation.
“Coming from the city of New York, where so much has been masked by development, it’s always been an interest of mine to put markers down and preserve historic sites,” he said.
Rep. Mike Simpson says he always offers one piece of travel advice to visitors coming through D.C. — take a trip to Gettysburg.
“When people come to me and ask where to go in Washington, I tell them to go to Gettysburg,” the Idaho Republican said at an April hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment. “When I say to people, ‘You need to take your shoes off,’ they look at me kind of strange and I say, ‘Just go, you’ll understand.’ And then they come back and say, ‘I get it.’”
There’s no doubt the start of the Civil War sesquicentennial this year has placed the conflict — and those deeply interested in it — back in the spotlight. Jackson and Webb have proposed legislation to create a Sesquicentennial Commission.
For Jackson, a commission with historians directing the next few years of activities will help ensure the national conversation about the war is broad-minded.
“Some governors will say some very controversial things around these events because there is no national coordination to help encourage a thoughtful conversation,” Jackson said. “And I’m kind of the last person someone in Congress would imagine that would say, ‘Hey, let’s bring Confederates in the Union and have a conversation.’”
While the commission’s future is uncertain, Civil War buffs hope the sesquicentennial will spark intelligent discussion.
During a recent trip to the Capitol, noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns said the war has been reinterpreted by each generation of Americans.
“I think we’ve already begun to see that we’re not celebrating it as we did at the centennial — we’re commemorating it,” Burns said in an interview while he was visiting the Capitol. “We’ve enlarged the story of it. It’s no longer a story of the battle between northern white people and southern white people. We’ve told a very complicated and heroic African-American story. We’ve understood that women were suddenly changing roles in American society. And the whole country was in an upheaval, even if people weren’t particularly close to a battlefield.”
The war also has lessons for today, Civil War buffs argue.
“I actually think that when people say this country is more polarized now than it’s ever been, that’s just not true,” Israel said. “I think the Civil War is a critical reminder that the country has been more polarized to the point where it was completely divided, but that the pursuit of a higher ground enabled us to reunite and ultimately bring ourselves together and get over the huge, deep divisions that we had.”