In October of 1864, 2,500 Union cavalry routed 7,500 Confederates in Kansas and beat them decisively. If you knew that fact before reading it, then Secrets of the Civil War is probably the DVD collection for you. This four-disc collection is from the History Channel and consists of nine documentaries that have already aired on TV. It is an excellent collection, but it's not going to thrill anyone who doesn't have a passion for history. Personally, I found it fascinating.
Now, calling this set "Secrets" is a little misleading, which I'm sure is deliberate. That name makes it sound more intriguing, but the documentaries are not all supposed to be full of new revelations; they simply cover very specific subjects of the American civil war. They are not, technically, even part of the same History Channel series, but their subjects make them ideal for this box set.
The quality of these features is good, just as any of us who watch the History Channel expect. They consist of a lot of narration and voice-overs, both from the main narrators and from the myriad historians and experts that are interviewed on-screen to try to piece together everything that happened in the great conflict of the 1860's. A lot of the video consists of still photographs and maps, but there is footage of reenactments, too. These tend to be relatively low-quality, but the viewer can forgive that in light of the interesting historical facts that the reenactments are shedding light on.
This is typical History Channel stuff. Take it or leave it.
Part 1 "The Most Daring Mission of the Civil War"
This deals with William B. Cushing, the Union soldier who was responsible for the sinking of the Confederate ship Albemarle. 67 minutes. 4x3.
Part 2 "April 1865: The Month that Saved America"
This is about the precarious situation that the United States was in as the Civil War was ending and how Abraham Lincoln was able to prevent the nation from splitting. 90 minutes. 16x9, not enhanced.
Part 3 "Battlefield Detectives: The Civil War: Antietam"
This is about the single deadliest day in American history, September 17, 1862, on which the Battle of Antietam Creek took place. 45 minutes. 16x9, not enhanced.
Part 4 "Battlefield Detectives: The Civil War: Gettysburg"
This documentary is about one of the most famous battles in American history: Gettysburg, and new evidence that suggests it ended differently than long thought. 45 minutes. 16x9, not enhanced.
Part 5 "Battlefield Detectives: The Civil War: Shiloh"
This is about April 6, 1862, which turned out to be a loss for the South, even though they had an advantage. It focuses on forensic evidence that suggests a new reason for the change of fortune. 45 minutes. 16x9, not enhanced.
Part 6 "Secret Missions of the Civil War"
This covers some of the non-traditional tactics and plots used by both sides during the Civil War, many of which never came to fruition, like a plot to burn down New York City. 90 minutes. 4x3.
Part 7 "Investigating History: The Lost Battle of the Civil War"
This covers the Union victory at Mine Creek on October 25, 1864, which is a relatively unknown battle from the Civil War. 45 minutes. 4x3.
Part 8 "Tales of the Gun: Guns of the Civil War"
This documentary amounts to an encyclopedia of all of the guns and cannons used to fight the Civil War. 45 minutes. 4x3.
Part 9 "80 Acres of Hell"
This covers Camp Douglas, a Northern POW camp that amounted to a Nazi concentration camp. 90 minutes. 16x9, not enhanced.
All of these documentaries are worth watching, and, for any of you who are not history experts, they will no doubt give you so much Civil War information that you can't process it in one viewing. For those of you who already know a lot of this stuff, the History Channel has done their homework to bring together experts who shine new light on these old events.
Secrets of the Civil War is contained on four discs. A cardboard slip contains two standard-sized DVD cases, each containing two discs. The content adds up to about 9 hours and 53 minutes. There is absolutely nothing on the discs except for the nine main features.
The video on Secrets of the Civil War is generally pretty good, but it's never exceptional. The documentaries, as noted above, come in two aspect ratios: 4x3 and 16x9. Unfortunately, not a single second of this set is enhanced for widescreen TV's, so to watch the widescreen docs on one you will have to zoom in to fill your frame. Other than that, the video quality is fine, with plenty of bright shots of the American countryside that look great upconverted. The reenactment sections often look like they were shot on home video in my back yard, but those are the only sections on any of these documentaries that distract from the show.
The audio does a fine job on this set, with good music and clearly recorded narration and voice-overs. The only audio available is English 2.0, so don't plan on pulling out the surround for this one. The bass, during cannon fire, is relatively deep, but not enough to scare your neighbors into thinking you've rangled up a functioning howitzer. Basically, the audio on these DVD's does its job and nothing else; you shouldn't come to this set looking for something to show off your home theater.
There are no subtitles.
There are absolutely no extras on this set, just the nine primary documentaries.
This is a big set that will last any Civil War buff a while, unless that buff has already recorded these off cable. The History Channel has done a great job, as usual, but the DVD's are not the most stellar quality possible. That really doesn't matter though, as the type of person who wants to know about history enough to watch this whole series would probably just as soon read up on it.
If you're still reading this far into my review, then you probably already know that this DVD collection is for you. "Recommended."