Sidelines: NFL editor, Civil War buff
Senior Deputy Editor John Banks oversees ESPN.com’s NFL coverage, but away from the job he’s a passionate Civil War historian who started his own blog on the subject.
Two days after the 148th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg — and in the midst of the Independence Day holiday weekend — Banks discusses his hobby and how he became so interested in this subject.
FR: How long have you been interested in Civil War history?
JB: My parents took my brother, sister and me to Gettysburg — we lived in suburban Pittsburgh — when I was about 11. My dad bought me three real Civil War bullets at one of the gift shops, and my interest just took off from there.
FR: How much time do you spend on this hobby?
JB: Every waking moment. During the NFL offseason I have much more time than I do during the season to dive into this, but I don’t have to go very far from my home in Connecticut to dig up stories. I can literally go right down the road. Every little town in the area has a Civil War memorial, and I enjoy finding the story behind the story. For example, I researched and wrote about a Litchfield, Conn., family whose three sons were killed in Virginia in a span of 18 days in late May and early June 1864 near Richmond, Va., just a really sad story. Imagine the news media coverage if that were to happen today? I especially like telling stories of the common soldiers who are forgotten for the most part.
FR: How many Civil War battlefields have you visited?
JB: I have visited all the major battlefields except Chickamauga in Georgia and maybe one or two others. Gettysburg, Antietam, Cold Harbor, Vicksburg, Shiloh, Petersburg, Harper’s Ferry, Wilderness, Fredericksburg – I have hit them all. I visit Gettysburg and Antietam every year.
FR: What battle or aspect of Civil War history interests you most?
JB: Antietam, in Sharpsburg, Md., is my favorite. On Sept. 17, 1862, more Americans died at Antietam — the Battle of Sharpsburg is what Southerners call it — than on any other day in American history.
There were 3,700 killed, approximately 17,000 wounded, about nearly 1,600 captured or missing. Pretty amazing…and shocking. Several photographers descended on the battlefield after the fighting was over. Photography was in its infancy then. Photos of dead soldiers were later displayed in Matthew Brady’s gallery in New York. It stunned the American public, which saw for the first time photos of the horrors of war. It was an amazing time in American history. To put it in perspective, about 620,000 died during the Civil War; an equivalent portion of today’s population would be about six million.
I love Antietam. It’s much like it was in 1862, and, unlike Gettysburg, it’s not overrun by fast-food franchises and the like. If a Civil War soldier were to come back to life and visit there today, he would recognize the place. After Antietam, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed many slaves. That, of course, was hugely important.
FR: Do you collect artifacts? If so, what is your most prized collectible?
JB: I mainly collect photos of soldiers – they’re called ambrotypes and tintypes — although I do have bullets and the like in my collection too. I aim to find photos of identified soldiers whom I can do research on, either in the National Archives in Washington or elsewhere. With all the resources on the Internet, it’s not hard to find info online. It’s fun making these soldiers come back to life, so to speak, on my blog. I have a thread on the blog called Faces of the Civil War that I enjoy doing.
My most prized collectible is a case with two photos of New Jersey brothers. One was at Gettysburg and the other served in the South. Both brothers survived, but one of them supposedly died after the Civil War when he was struck by lightning. Imagine that.
FR: Anything you would like to get that you don’t already have?
JB: A friend of mine in Seattle has a document signed by Abraham Lincoln. It’s a struggle to get him to part with that.
FR: When did you start your blog and do you get a lot of feedback on it?
JB: I started back in 2005, but I got really, really serious this year, after the NFL Draft. I get some nice feedback, especially from like-minded people. There are a ton of folks doing Civil War blogs, many with a particular aspect of the war in mind. Many are quite good. I focus mine on the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg, anything that has to do with Connecticut, and revealing the story of those who served – especially the common soldier. Thanks to some Internet research, I helped re-unite a woman in New Mexico with four family photos, including an ancestor who was killed at Gettysburg. I wrote about it on my blog. That was really cool.
FR: What do your family and ESPN co-workers think about your hobby?
JB: My co-workers kind of humor me about it. And they all wonder if I am a re-enactor — which I am not. My wife thinks I am a little odd. But she has known that since we were married in 1992.
FR: Any similarities between your day job and this hobby?
JB: Occasionally I march around the office with a bewildered look on my face. Other than that, not a big connection there.