On the Record with Greg M. Romaneck

DeKALB – Like many people, Greg M. Romaneck spent a lot of time watching movies during the pandemic.

Romaneck used his extra time at home to watch films and programs related to the Civil War, and he wrote reviews of everything he watched.

Romaneck has published an e-book, “My Pandemic Year With the Civil War: 306 Critical Reviews of Movies, Documentaries, Miniseries, and Programs.” It can be purchased online at Amazon.com.

Romaneck is a retired educator with 34 years of experience working in schools. His positions included special education teacher, assistant principal, elementary principal, adjunct professor, director of special education and associate superintendent for human resources. He also trained as a counselor and worked in crisis intervention, mediation, problem solving and conflict resolution.

Romaneck is married to his wife, Jane, and they have three children, Kyle, Erin and Colin, and two grandsons, Lincoln and Sawyer.

He has two graduate degrees in history and has had several books and numerous articles published on a variety of Civil War subjects, as well as having been a living historian for a number of years. He also has been published in areas such as education, psychology, self-improvement, backpacking, eastern philosophy and poetry.

Romaneck has lived in DeKalb since 1975 and enjoys spending time with his family, hiking, kayaking, backpacking, reading and writing.

Romaneck spoke with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about the 306 reviews he wrote, the importance of the Civil War and his must-see and must-skip recommendations.

Milton: Why did you choose the Civil War?

Romaneck: I’ve always been interested in the Civil War. I remember an elementary school librarian recommending a book about the Civil War, and I loved the topic back then. I was a Civil War re-enactor for years, and I visited every battlefield, about two or three dozen in total. I’m also a huge film buff. I courted my wife by going to the movies together and getting ice cream afterwards. I retired in 2013, and I usually spent most of my time with my family and visiting my grandchildren. When the pandemic came, we were all in lockdown and in isolation. I was separated from my daughter and grandchildren for a period of months, so I decided to start watching Civil War movies and shows. I thought it would not only fill the time, but I could also be of service if I wrote reviews.

Milton: How did you settle on 306 reviews?

Romaneck: My goal was to watch and write about 100 Civil War films, miniseries and documentaries, but I don’t think anyone expected the pandemic and shutdown to last as long as it did. I saw a total of 306 movies, documentaries, miniseries and programs. Since it was all during a calendar year, I called the book “My Pandemic Year with the Civil War.” I spent more than 1,000 hours viewing and more than 1,000 hours doing research and writing.

Milton: What are a few of your must-see recommendations?

Romaneck: Three that you have to watch come to mind. The first is “Lincoln” with Daniel Day-Lewis. The movie is thoughtfully done and excellent. It is about more than the penultimate leader during the Civil War, it includes the politics of the day. The finest documentary series is Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” Then, my third recommendation is my all-time favorite, “Glory,” starring Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes. It’s a powerful war film, a story of bravery about men who sacrificed nearly everything for their freedom.

Milton: Why is the Civil War still relevant today?

Romaneck: The Civil War was a complete turning point in American history. Slavery ended, which meant 4.5 million people were no longer enslaved. It also started the Homestead Act, the transcontinental railroad and migration west. America fundamentally changed. Before the Civil War, we said “the United States are,” plural, and after the Civil War, we said “the United States is,” singular. The issues that were raised during the war, including systemic racism, still persist. They never dissipated. Some issues were resolved politically, but not socially. Also, if you look at a political map, of who votes for which candidate, and compare that to which states succeeded, the maps don’t look a lot different.

Milton: Is there a tie between the Civil War and the pandemic?

Romaneck: During the Civil War, 620,000 to 630,000 soldiers died, a total of 700,000 to 750,000 people. All casualties in all wars America has fought before and since are less than the total deaths of the Civil War. The pandemic has just surpassed 800,000 deaths. When you compare the war and the pandemic, you see how people come with devastation, loss of life and how they remain resilient.

Milton: How can people watch what you reviewed?

Romaneck: Each review includes information about how to access the film: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube, the library, whether it’s streamable or purchasable. I include a scale from zero to five on its ease of access and where people can find it. All 306 are accessible.

Milton: What about “Gone with the Wind?”

Romaneck: “Gone With the Wind” was a colored film made in the 1930s when most films were in black and white. It is dynamic and very popular, but it focuses on the south’s lost cause mythology and completely wrong history: the slaves are depicted as happy, southerners were good, everything was wonderful before the war. The movie is a guilty pleasure, and I compare it to a beautiful wedding cake that’s actually a plaster mold. Watch it with the caveat knowing that it’s not real.

Milton: What was the worst film you watched?

Romaneck: The worst was “The Birth of a Nation” by D. W. Griffith. The movie was a silent movie, and featured a lot of experimental techniques, which were new at the time. However, it follows the racist ideology of the director. It was a vastly successful film. President Woodrow Wilson enjoyed the movie and had a special White House screening. The star of the film was the KKK. It’s a celebration of the KKK, based on racist tropes. I gave that film a zero. I pledged I’d view and review all, but that one was difficult to get through. It was just full of racist hate.

Milton: Are westerns included in your book?

Romaneck: I watched a few spaghetti westerns, including “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” which is one of my top 10 films. It’s very entertaining and has a good story. Two miniseries I watched, “The Rebel” and “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” were about postwar bounty hunters. A lot of movies and shows are about the western migration, how soldiers and their families moved west after the war. Many of the soldiers, if they came home at all, had PTSD. Of course, it wasn’t called that then. It was called soldier’s heart during the Civil War, shell shock in World War I and battle fatigue in World War II. … One out of four soldiers were killed or were seriously wounded during the Civil War. Most came home with physical or psychological wounds.

Milton: Why is history important?

Romaneck: To me, history is not just facts and dates, it has the word “story” embedded in it. It’s the stories of everyday people, people who lived their life. But then the Civil War came. It was a very religious age, very faith-based. They had the idea of “the good death:” dying quietly at home surrounded by loved ones, being able to say your last words before dying a peaceful death. Many soldiers did not die a good death during the Civil War. They were young and not supposed to die. There are thousands of unmarked graves at prisoner of war camps and battlefields.

Milton: Why did you write the book?

Romaneck: Writing a book was a good way to pass the time during the pandemic. I know I’m not Stephen King, I’m just a regular guy in DeKalb that’s retired, writing about Civil War history. … The book is meant for people who are interested in films, TV and documentaries and for history buffs. The book is an e-book, so people can read it on their Kindle or through the Kindle app. It’s meant to be a guide for those who are interested.

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.