DIXON & KWAPISZ: Civil War Adventure (2015)

Civil War Adventure by Chuck Dixon and Gary Kwapisz.  Dover Publications, 2015.  Paper, IBSN: 978-0486795096.  $9.95.
Civil War enthusiasts and scholars alike can take satisfaction in the ceaseless cascade of new volumes examining America’s bloodiest conflict. Yet for the new reader, the challenge is the highly variable accessibility of this literature. Author Chuck Dixon and illustrator Gary Kwapisz have, in concert with several other contributors, happily achieved the goal of producing an accessible narrative in Civil War Adventure, a black-and-white graphic novel containing a collection of historical and fictional tales. These two veterans of comic book publication are to be praised for turning their talents to history.

Modest in length (141 pages) and written in breezy prose, Civil War Adventure should prove appropriate for teenaged audiences and beyond. A handful of typos dot the work, but are counterbalanced by its quality of illustration and the variety of historical subject matter. Admittedly, the use of “adventure” in the title may arouse suspicion among the more cynical. Still, this tome deftly balances the sobering and the sentimental in its range of short stories and longer dramas. For those thoroughly immersed in Civil War history, the contents will prove unsurprising if eclectic—including the First Battle of Bull Run, Charles Ellet Jr.’s victorious ram fleet at the First Battle of Memphis, John S. Mosby’s capture of Union brigadier general Edwin H. Stoughton, and even George A. Custer’s perilous clash at Trevilian Station. Such variety is praiseworthy, yet the novice is bound to develop only an inchoate impression of the war’s geographic and chronological boundaries.

Civil War Adventure is most noteworthy for its authors’ success in presenting several themes that resound throughout the academic literature. One of the main stories follows a Southern father and son as they enlist during the heady days of 1861 and undergo the myriad travails of Civil War service: the challenges of instilling discipline in untrained recruits, the mental shock of witnessing battle for the first time, the temptation to desert in response to difficulties at home, and the psychological strain of service.  All of these receive brief though poignant attention.

A focus on the soldier’s experience is both engaging and historically relevant, but a few cautionary words are in order. For the unacquainted, it presents the thematic risk of implying that bombastic clashes of arms and tales of woe on the march define the Civil War.  A broader series of stories touching on the plight of escaped slaves and prisoners-of-war, for instance, could serve as a corrective.

Also, the book does not actually present an introduction to the Civil War writ large, and while this could easily fill several volumes on its own, a short, introductory narrative would no doubt be welcome. Fortunately, the authors have seen fit to include a succinct guide to additional tomes.

There is little doubt that this kind of ably-illustrated material will capture the imagination, but the methodology underlying it also holds a valuable lesson for researchers and authors. Scholars sometimes find fault with Civil War narratives that prioritize excitement over deep analysis. After all, the ever-mounting death toll (now estimated at 750,000) is a powerful testament to the horror that lies behind the surreal. However, making history compelling is arguably more important than ever before, considering that the printed page now competes with many distractions, digital and otherwise. For those who remain wedded to the sadly enduring impression of history as a tiresome list of names and dates, this contribution is a breath of fresh air. Civil War Adventure reminds readers that while more than 150 years now separate us from the conflict, that distance can never erase the sense of peril that animated the war—a war that exposed both the greatest and worst aspects of human nature.


Alexandre Caillot earned a B.A. in History at Colby College and is a Ph.D. student in History at Temple University. His work focuses on eighteenth and nineteenth century American military history.   

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