Some stories I first experienced at a young age feel as if they’ve always been a part of me. The 1982 miniseries The Blue and the Gray is one such tale. I can’t remember the first time my parents rented it on VHS. Nor the first time I made friends with the characters who inhabit it. It’s as if I’ve always known the Geyser family, their history, and how it’s bound up with our country’s struggle to become “the land of the free.”
The Blue and the Gray follows the adventures and struggles of a young man named John Geyser (John Hammond). Born and raised on a Virginia farm but employed by a Northern newspaper as a sketch artist, his loyalties and affections are tugged this way and that as the nation staggers toward open conflict. When a free Black friend of John’s gets lynched for harboring fugitive slaves, John becomes a staunch abolitionist in one night, storming away from his family and vowing he’ll have nothing more to do with them.
John makes friends with a Union officer named Jonas Steele (Stacy Keach), who is my favorite character. Jonas is a secretive, mysterious man who is part spy, part Secret Service agent. Things in his past haunt him, though he won’t speak much of them. He takes a liking to John Geyser, recognizing his artistic talent, and their paths cross often. Jonas sometimes gets John a little closer to an important event or other, and John eventually invites Jonas back to his uncle’s home. There, Jonas falls in love with John’s cousin Mary (Julia Duffy).
Between them, John and Jonas seem to be present at just about every important occurrence during the American Civil War. They meet at John Brown’s trial and hanging. John meets his future wife at the First Battle of Bull Run. Jonas introduces John to President Lincoln (Gregory Peck) so John can sketch his portrait. John stumbles about the aftermath of the Vicksburg siege in search of his sister. And weaving all around them are John’s siblings and cousins, some fighting for the North, others for the South.
John learns over the course of the story that life is more complicated than the black and white drawings the newspapers print. Life is like his original drawings, shaded with many variations of gray. Shadows and light intermingle on the paper and in the real world. He must come to terms with his own human frailty and fierceness and the mixture of good and evil around him. For a time, it seems as if the horrors of war he witnesses will overwhelm John’s sensitive nature. Tragedy strikes his family again and again, just like every family involved in the war. But good comes out of it too. John and his family members tentatively begin healing, just as the country begins to do, when the war finally ends.
It’s hard for me to think of many Civil War battles and other events without thinking of this miniseries, especially now that I live in Virginia. I’m not far from Manassas, site of the first and second Battles of Bull Run. John loses one of his brothers in the horrible inferno that consumed much of the Battle of the Wilderness; I live less than an hour from where that battle occurred. In fact, I have to drive through the Wilderness Battlefield State Park when I visit friends. It is always unsettling and eerie, for bits of this series flit through my memory and make me shudder. Of all battles in that war, I think the Wilderness scares me the most, and that’s largely due to how it’s portrayed in The Blue and the Gray. Sometimes, film and fiction can be almost too real to me.
On the other hand, I’ll always imagine that President Lincoln sounded like Gregory Peck. That’s a wonderful voice to hear in your head when you read the Gettysburg Address. This miniseries also introduced me to the music of Bruce Broughton, whose scores have delighted me ever since. More than all of that, this story instilled in me early on the conviction that freeing slaves was a just and righteous reason to fight a war, but there were good and decent people on both sides of the conflict. Neither side was all good or all bad, but had people of both light and shadow.
Above all, The Blue and the Gray impressed on me the awful toll that war takes on people. War tears families apart, injures people’s minds and their bodies, and affects every aspect of the lives of those involved. That’s a lesson I’ve held onto all my life, and it informs my own storytelling to this day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com