The Civil War Battlefield: ‘His life is about the power of self-education in a subject you love’
The discovery of an unknown cousin with a formidable memory leaves a Civil War buff in awestruck retreat.
Tread carefully: a battlefield visit can take over your life. The American Civil War can grab you by the throat.
Last year, I was launching a Civil War history - an addition to the 50,000 books on the subject - this one about guerilla violence in Missouri. I was at the University of Sydney with scholars and enthusiasts. One introduced himself as Len Traynor.
He told me he was my cousin and that we shared a Civil War ancestor.
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He had served in the Union Army, the Irish Brigade. He was a forebear with the surname of my dad’s mother, Traynor.
It took some time to absorb.
I have been besotted with US politics since, as a university student, I watched from afar the presidential election of 1968. But my interest in the Civil War came later, mainly through Ken Burns’s nine-part TV documentary series released in 1990 and the 1993 movie Gettysburg. I’ve visited battlefields. I know the timeline of the Civil War narrative and the personalities.
Pathetic. Derisory. A toehold only on this blood-soaked universe.
A few conversations with Len mean I now retreat apologetically if anyone welcomes me as a Civil War buff. It turns out he is regarded by many as the doyen of the Australian enthusiasts. The Atlanta History Museum, which I’ve visited, bought most of his private museum. A fellow collector of war mementoes, Andraus Tonismae, says: ”He astounds me. I’ve never come across such amazing recall. It is a steel-trap mind. And he had the best collection of artefacts outside the US.”
Seventy-five-year-old Len seems to know everything that happened in America from 1860 to 1865.
He acquired this knowledge, his collection and a library of 1800 books on the war, while he slapped gun-metal grey on the steel framework of the Sydney Harbour Bridge or embossed gilt in art deco cinemas and offices. For 20 years he was a painter and decorator. Later he became a paint salesman, then a workplace inspector.
His story proves, in his words, that ”the Civil War belongs to the world”. It probably proves something else as well: the enchantment of history, that all can fall in love with the sequences of the past, even if you spend your working days hanging wallpaper or staining and polishing. His life is about the power of self-education in a subject you love.