Reviewed by Sarah Kay Bierle
The peaceful, harrowing, and adventurous feeling of “battlefielding” comes through the pages of John Banks’s book, A Civil War Road Trip of a Lifetime: Antietam, Gettysburg and Beyond. His creative, non-fiction writing takes readers to popular and obscure historic sites as he follows his favorite stories or quests for answers and meaning. Reminiscent of the late Tony Horowitz’s narrative explorations, the text offers pondering and insightful moments about Americans interacting with Civil War history in a variety of ways. The book is a collection of 36 first-person narratives – delightfully more like short stories than essays – following Banks’s investigative visits. Each chapter ends with a hook, drawing the reader to want to keep exploring through the pages.
Banks writes about the land of battlefield sites, old homes with deep stories, forts with shifting sands or possibly inhabited by ghosts. Though Antietam and Gettysburg feature prominently in the book’s title (always a good tactic for book sales!), the stories offer just eight adventures in the vicinity of those battlefields, and then the travel log is filled with other places in Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Some sites might be familiar to experienced trekkers, but Banks provides his own unique perspective on the well-known sites and then plunges into the brush to find the obscure. The tone of the book is open and curious. While Banks’s personal skepticism and feelings shine through, he remains non-judgmental as he encounters all types of places, people, and historic stories.
For the historical record, this book will be a valuable contribution, recording the accounts and oral traditions of people who care deeply about Civil War history, places, and objects. At most sites, Banks met with a local expert or guide, taking in their stories, enthusiasm, or concerns as he explored. Some of the names may be familiar to readers and the book offers down-to-earth published memories of these history guardians, which will be invaluable for cultural, preservation, and some types of historiography. Some of the dialogue or informal interviews are included, adding to the reference quality for the historiography of Civil War studies and enthusiasm.
A Civil War Road Trip of a Lifetime is beautifully published. Thick pages and glossy photographs give the book a “wow” feel, and it has a casual coffee table book style though comfortably soft-cover and a nice size for holding and reading. With the holiday season approaching, this would be a perfect gift for someone who enjoys history travel writing or enjoys packing the car and heading on Civil War history adventures.
At the end of the book, Banks takes inventory of what he learned on his road trip and the lessons he recorded in his book. There are many good take-aways, but one that resonates deeply is “I learned how deeply people still care…” (308) That idea lies at the adventures and written stories. Banks’s sincere interest and care comes through, and he has connected with people all across the country who have particular interests or guardianship of places or fragments of the Civil War past. By publishing these stories, Banks offers a new and valuable look at the history of Civil War study, enthusiasm, and preservation and all that is possible when people care about something or someone from the past.