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Civil War in Old Time Radio
 
  Tim DeForest
by Tim DeForest
 
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Civil War Artillery

LincolnThe American Civil War was a vital, albeit bloody, turning point in the history of our country. Abraham Lincoln had said that the nation could not long endure half-slave and half-free. He was right, but it cost a half-million American lives to find this out.

The war has been re-fought in history books, novels, movies and television shows countless times. It’s not surprising that Old-Time Radio dipped its hand into this subject matter as well. Stories of heroism, cowardice, honor and human dignity always make for good drama.

In fact, it’s possible to trace many of the important events of the war chronologically through various radio shows—with a little bit of historical fiction thrown in along the way.

The Civil War had been brewing for decades before the shooting finally began. Slavery, of course, was one of the most contentious issues dividing the North and the South. And many brave men and women—such as escaped slave Harriet Tubman—worked in secret to bring those fleeing slavery to liberty.  We here Harriet’s story on Destination Freedom, in the episode "Railway to Freedom," broadcast on July 4, 1948.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter

The North and the South continued to bicker over the issue of slavery, with desperate compromises staving off war on several occasions. But the election of Abraham Lincoln finally drove many Southern states to secede. On April 12, 1861, open war broke out between the Union and the newly formed Confederacy:

You Are There:
"The Bombardment of Fort Sumter" 5/22/49

Battle of Bull Run

Both the North and the South rushed to form armies. Both sides were confident of a short war and certain victory. But the bloody battle at Bull Run on July 21, 1861 proved to everyone that the fighting would be long and bitter:

You Are There:
"The Battle of First Bull Run"10/3/48

It was at this battle that a hero of the South earned himself the nick-name "Stonewall":

American Portraits:
"There Stands Jackson 7/31/51

Monitor vs. MerimacIn 1862, the Union army marched into Virginia with the hopes of capturing the Southern capital of Richmond. The North was convinced of their naval superiority during this campaign, but the arrival of a Confederate secret weapon on March 9, 1862 changed warfare at sea forever:

You Are There:
"Monitor vs. Merimac" 4/4/48

Farther west, Union troops were hoping to drive the Confederates out of the border state of Tennessee. To this end, a secret agent came up with a bold plan to steal a train and use it to burn railway bridges along the Southern supply line. On April 12, 1862, this plan was put into action:

Cavalcade of America:
"Venture in a Silk Hat" 1/14/46

Red Badge of CourageBack east, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia met in battle again and again throughout 1962. It was the battle of Chancellorville, fought from April 30 through May 6, that provided the setting for Stephan Crane’s classic novel about a young soldier who struggles to find the courage to fight. The University Theater adaptation is excellent—featuring a faithful script and many of radio’s finest character actors (such as John Dehner and Parley Baer) as it brings the novel to life.

NBC University Theater:
"The Red Badge of Courage" 5/8/49

Another work of fiction—a creepy short story by Ambrose Bierce—provides us with the story of a Southern army officer who barely  escapes a hanging. Or does he?

Escape:  
"An Occurrence at Owl
Creek Bridge" 12/10/47

 

GettysburgJuly 3, 1863 was the High Tide for the Confederacy. General Robert E. Lee had brought his ragged troops into Pennsylvania, where it encountered the Union army at a small town called Gettysburg.

You Are There:
"The Battle of Gettysburg" 2/22/48

Two more years of bloody war passed before General Lee finally admitted, on April 9, 1865,  that he was beaten. But would General Grant, known for his demands of unconditional surrender, give the Confederate troops honorable terms?

You Are There:
"Appomattox" 11/7/48

Assassination of Lincoln
The war was finally over, but the killing was not yet done. On April 14, 1865, a fanatical Southern actor named John Wilkes Booth would perform one last act of vengeance for the fallen Confederacy. Old Time Radio gives us two excellent perspectives on this event. One is a "news" report that abruptly switches from a fluffy report about Lincoln attending a play to a frantic account of an unfolding tragedy. The other is told from the point-of-view of Lincoln’s incompetent and alcoholic bodyguard.

You Are There:
"The Assassination of Lincoln" 7/7/47

Crime Classics:
"Lincoln Assassination" 12/9/53

John Wilkes BoothBooth did not long escape the consequences of his actions. Union troops ran him to ground on April 26, 1865.

You Are There:
"The Capture of
John Wilkes Booth" 5/29/49

Sadly, the bitterness between North and South lasted for years after the war officially ended. Matt Dillon had to intervene when two men decide to lynch a man born in the South because he served in the Union cavalry:

Gunsmoke:
"The Guitar" 12/26/53

The troopers at Fort Laramie had to wonder if a former Confederate who joins the cavalry to get out of prison can be trusted:

Fort Laramie:
"Galvanized Yankee" 10/7/56

And the Lone Ranger must seek the help of Robert E. Lee to convince a group of Texans not to take up arms once more:

The Lone Ranger:
"Conference with General Lee" 2/9/53

Whether based on fact or on fiction, these OTR episodes all draw faithfully from the events of the Civil War to tell compelling stories with the drama and excitement that only the Theater of the Mind can generate.

 

Confederate Flag

For all these an additional recordings, see also:

 


See also the articles:


Radio By the Book
Tim DeForest
has been geeking out on various elements of early 20th Century pop culture for most of his life. He is the author of several books on old-time radio, comic strips and pulp fiction. His first book—Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America--was published in 2004. Radio by the Book: Adaptations of Fiction and Literature on the Airwaves, was published in 2008. Tim also maintains a blog about comics, radio and pulp fiction.

Tim has also written magazine articles on military history and the American West. He regularly teaches several Bible studies and has served as a short-term missionary in Haiti and south Sudan.

 



 
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