History Channel // 2008 // 593 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 17th, 2008
The stories of lost battles and covert missions finally revealed.
Despite the title's implications, Secrets of the Civil War isn't going to reveal anything too surprising. Everything here is pretty well-documented in history books. If you're hoping to learn some juicy info about Jeb Stuart's cross-dressing fetish, or about a battle that was fought with nothing but acorns, you'd be better off reading The Onion. Secrets of the Civil War is nothing more than a misleading title that is probably intended to boost sales. Perhaps you'll learn some new things here, but most of the programs included in this set were not produced with the intention of revealing secrets. In fact, the programs here are not part of a single series, but rather individual specials that have been compiled into four-disc War Between the States goody bag of sorts.
The nine specials included on the disc are:
The Most Daring Mission of the Civil War: This 67-minute feature tells the story of Union officer William Cushing, a fierce and fearless soldier who had an obsession to destroy the powerful Confederate ironclads. His ultimate goal was to sink The Albemarle, the most frightening ship in the confederate fleet. Quite a fascinating tale.
April 1865: A 90-minute documentary that offers a comprehensive look at the final month of the civil war. Lee's surrender, Lincoln's assassination, and the governmental conflicts on how the South should be treated are all covered here. This is perhaps the best documentary of the bunch, as it puts aside the statistics and focuses on the diverse emotions the war's conclusion generated.
The Civil War: Antietam, Gettysburg, and Shiloh: These three 45-minute segments were part of the Battlefield Detectives series, and offer a close look at these important civil war battles. As you might imagine, the Gettysburg entry is the most compelling, though all three are certainly worth a watch. A bit clinical at times, but interesting.
Secret Missions of the Civil War: A number of somewhat odd military strategies are discussed here. Some were successful, some were unsuccessful, and some were never actually employed. A large portion is dedicated to the peculiar situation surrounding the Confederate train The General. The most fascinating segment deals with attempts to attack Confederate positions by digging a tunnel underneath the trenchs and setting off explosives. 90 minutes.
The Lost Battle of the Civil War: This documentary tells the story of the Battle of Mine Creek, the largest Cavalry battle in the Civil War. This particular section actually lives up to the Secrets of the Civil War title, as very few people actually know about this particular fight. This was part of the Investigating History series. 45 minutes.
Guns of the Civil War: This entry was broadcast as part of the Tales of the Gun series. It focuses on the different times of firearms and ammunition used during the civil war, and is sure to be of interest to gun enthusiasts. While there is some interesting info here about how different types of weaponry affected particular battles, I found this to be the dullest entry of the set. 45 minutes.
80 Acres of Hell: The 90-minute story of a Civil War concentration camp. You're probably thinking of Andersonville, the famous Confederate camp. No, this documentary actually focuses on Camp Douglas, a Union camp that was equally brutal in its treatment of captured soldiers. This is a rather harrowing and revealing documentary that puts a significant dent into the idea that the North could claim significant moral superiority during this bloody war.
I found Secrets of the Civil War to be quite interesting viewing. When everything is viewed over the course of a couple days, it feels a little scattershot, just because these individual pieces were never intended to be collected as a series. Still, each individual part is compelling enough in its own right, and I was never bored. Even the slightly dull gun documentary has enough merit to be worth viewing once, and those who are more interested in such things than I am will undoubtedly like it even more. If you're something of a history buff and typically enjoy watching The History Channel, the set earns an easy recommendation. If you're not really sure what exactly the whole Civil War thing was about, the first place to start would undoubtedly be the superb Ken Burns documentary The Civil War. This set is missing too many crucial pieces for those without a reasonable knowledge of American history.
Actually, the only real problem I have is in the video department. First of all, the transfers are pretty crummy. The documentaries range from acceptable to painful, in terms of video quality, with color bleeding and blurry images all over the place. It's pretty rough. I can't say for sure, but I imagine that it might have looked even better on television. At one point, there was a should-be-gorgeous shot of a lake and some trees that was so painfully awful that I could only wince. Thankfully, these talking-head dominated documentaries aren't as reliant on strong video quality as the average television program. Another problem: roughly half of these documentaries are presented in non-anamorphic transfers (the rest are full frame), which will undoubtedly annoy viewers like myself who own a widescreen television. The 2.0 audio is just fine, if a bit unremarkable. Occasionally, I could hear a little distortion, but nothing too bad. There are no extras of any sort on the disc. Considering all of this, perhaps a rental would work best for most viewers. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 593 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated