Class of ’61: Disappointing and Forgettable Historical Drama

This made-for-TV drama meanders through the opening salvos of the American Civil War.

Written by Jonas McCord, directed by Gregory Hoblit, and produced by Steven Spielberg, Class of ’61 premiered on ABC in April 1993. This confusing drama follows members of the West Point class of 1861 and their families as they head off to join opposing sides of the war. It’s notable for an early appearance by Clive Owen, who is the only actor to stand out among the myriad of stock characters.

As the film opens, three friends, Shelby Peyton (Dan Futterman), George Armstrong Custer (Josh Lucas), and Devin O’Neil (Clive Owen), are attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. Tensions are high as Confederate troops fire on Fort Sumter, leaving cadets with divided loyalties. Shelby Peyton, a Virginian, decides to resign and head south to join the Confederacy, despite his engagement to O’Neil’s sister, Shannon (Sophie Ward).

Back home in Maryland, Devin O’Neil learns his brother Terry (Christien Anholt) has joined pro-Southern partisans, which upsets his pro-Union Irish family. Things get complicated when O’Neil is unable to secure a commission in the Union Army. He rooms with George Custer in Washington, DC, where he falls in love with Lily Magraw (Laura Linney), who also happens to be a Southern spy.

Things get even more complicated when Shelby Peyton returns to his plantation, where his favorite slave, Lucius (Andre Braugher), has killed two slave catchers in an escape attempt. He is forced to flee northward in the Underground Railroad, leaving his pregnant wife behind to an uncertain future. Will destiny reunite all these characters at the First Battle of Bull Run?

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Antietam National Battlefield

The Battle of Antietam was fought on September 17, 1862 near Sharpsburg, Maryland, between Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. The battle ended inconclusively and resulted in approximately 22,717 total casualties.

Established August 30, 1890, Antietam National Battlefield preserves 3,230 acres of the original battlefield east of Sharpsburg. A self-guided driving tour of the park is 8.5 miles long with 11 stops. They also offer several smaller walking tours at principal battle sites, with accompanying full-color booklets. The booklets are available in the Visitor Center for $1 and offer detailed maps, photos, and a narrative of events. It’s a great way to experience the battlefield outside your car, and really understand the battle in relation to the fields, forests, and landmarks.

The Battle of Antietam unfolded in three stages: morning (north), mid-day (center), and afternoon (south), with three uncoordinated Union attacks. The much smaller Confederate army was able to shift forces to meet each attack individually. The fighting was desperate and deadly, some of the bloodiest of the war. Lee’s army was at a low point in terms of manpower because many Confederate soldiers had gone home to harvest their fields. General Lee believed Marylanders would join his ranks as he moved north, but with a few exceptions, they stayed home.

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Mount St. Mary’s University and Father Brute’s Ghost

The ghosts of a Catholic priest, and a Confederate soldier mortally wounded at Gettysburg, are among the most famous phantoms said to roam here.

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Mount St. Mary’s is a private Catholic university outside Emmitsburg, Maryland in the Catoctin Mountains. It is a small school on a 1,400 acre campus, with a little more than 1,700 undergraduates. It has a storied history, with a legendary foundation.

In 1805, a French priest named Father John DuBois saw a light in the hills as he passed between Frederick and Emmitsburg. It was growing dark, so he traveled toward the light, thinking it was a farmhouse. Exhausted, he laid down for the night beneath a large oak tree. When he woke up, he saw he was in a beautiful spot in the Catoctin Mountains. Local Catholics called it “St. Mary’s Mountain,” so it seemed an ideal place for a church.

DuBois also established a school, which grew into a seminary. Father Simon Bruté became a teacher there in 1812. The university was officially founded in 1830, and it doubled as a boarding school until the early 1900s. Bradley Hall is a remnant of those boarding school days. Not far from where Father DuBois erected his church, he also created a small shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is now known as the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, with extensive gardens and statuary.

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Monocacy National Battlefield

Monocacy National Battlefield is located along Urbana Pike, outside Frederick, Maryland. Fought July 9, 1864, the battle pitted Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s Corps against Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace’s VIII Corps in the American Civil War. The battle resulted in approximately 2,200 total casualties.

While Antietam is a well-known and popular battlefield, many are unaware that a second battle took place in Maryland. This battle was part of Jubal Early’s 1864 campaign to threaten Washington, D.C. and draw forces away from Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Petersburg, Virginia.

While the battle was a Southern victory, Union forces delayed the Confederates long enough for reinforcements to arrive in Washington, D.C., earning Monocacy the moniker “the Battle that Saved Washington.” Nicely-designed interpretive signs explain various stages of the battle along a six-mile driving tour route.

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