“I shall not be returning home quite yet,” Capt. Andrew Luck noted last weekend, soon after the Indianapolis Colts claimed an unlikely playoff spot with a victory over the Tennessee Titans in the final game of the NFL regular season. “Our unit was victorious in the hard fought, rain-soaked battle against the Titans. Jubilation.”
The tweet was an exclamation point on a remarkable season for the Colts — and for Capt. Luck. A dismal 4-12 a year ago, the Colts started 1-5 before a 9-1 finish, dramatically clinching a wild-card berth and setting up a first-round playoff game Saturday at the Houston Texans.
Leading the resurgence is (the real) Andrew Luck, the team’s star quarterback who missed last season after surgery to repair a torn labrum. And narrating his odyssey has been a parody Twitter account that comments on real-time events in Luck’s voice — assuming, that is, that Luck is a leader on the front lines of the Civil War, corresponding with his mother. Yes, it’s kind of weird.
“I stood upon the battlefield once more — and the feeling was glorious,” Capt. Luck tweeted when Luck returned to training camp in August.
“I write you so full of joy, I might burst,” the captain tweeted after the Colts surged into playoff contention with a five-game winning streak. “Our unit secured yet another victory. That makes five straight, or an entire hand.”
As Luck reemerged this season, the parody account, which now has more than 400,000 followers, has had its own star turn. It was the subject of a segment on ESPN’s “NFL Countdown,” and Luck joined in the fun by reading some of the tweets on a Men In Blazers podcast. (“Dearest Mother,” he read with a chuckle. “I have received your sweetened opossum strips and crow cakes.”)
The parody account, which has been active for several years, works so well because of its authenticity, its earnest embrace of Civil War nostalgia.
“It rings true, and the language sounds like it’s from the 19th century,” said Caroline Janney, a history professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in the Civil War. Janney noted that the tweets seem to mimic the tone of a famous letter written by Union soldier Sullivan Ballou that was unearthed by Ken Burns and featured in his 1990 documentary miniseries on the war.
But Capt. Luck is also effective because of the quarterback who inspires it. Luck sports a prominent neck beard, an awkwardly formal demeanor and a bookish mien — Exhibit A: the Andrew Luck Book Club — that make him feel convincing as a Civil War-era leader, or at least more so than his contemporaries might.
Who could imagine Tom Brady or Drew Brees snacking on sweetened opossum strips?
With Luck back in the playoffs and Capt. Luck tweeting away, it felt like an appropriate time to dig deeper into this vision of Luck as a Civil War hero. With all the attention paid to the fictional Capt. Luck, might there be a Civil War officer whose story his mirrors — a young swashbuckler of another generation, felled by a lengthy injury only to return to glory?
The writer of the Capt. Luck tweets, who remains anonymous, is a self-described history buff familiar with the Burns series. But he said there was no one in particular he associated with his imagined character. So The Washington Post turned to several Civil War historians, and a few were kind enough to weigh in.
If you’re looking for a combatant who returned from serious injury to lead his soldiers to victory in battle, Oliver Otis Howard, a founder and the namesake of Howard University, is an option, said Judith Giesberg, a professor at Villanova University and the editor of “Journal of the Civil War Era.” Howard injured his right arm — the same appendage as Luck — during the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia in 1862. He returned to the battlefield, though he lost his arm, and fought valiantly first at Chancellorsville and then alongside William Tecumseh Sherman on his March to the Sea.
Francis Channing Barlow is another choice, Janney said. Barlow rose quickly from private to colonel by 1862 — “Not exactly a first pick in the draft, like Luck,” she conceded — and was a future star in the Union army when he suffered a severe groin injury at Antietam. His recovery, much like Luck’s, was marred by complications, including malaria. Luck never had malaria, but his recovery was slowed by a snowboarding accident.
At Gettysburg, Barlow was left for dead on the battlefield — some considered Luck’s shoulder injury to be career-threatening last season — before he found redemption fighting at Spotsylvania and at Appomattox alongside Ulysses S. Grant.
Die-hard Colts fan Peter Carmichael, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College and author of “The War for the Common Soldier,” pointed directly to Grant. Early in the war, Grant earned acclaim during conflict in Tennessee, but his troops were ambushed at Shiloh in 1862, almost costing the Union army the battle. And though he was not injured, his career as an officer was in peril, Carmichael said.
“There were rumors that Grant had started drinking again,” Carmichael said. “President Lincoln didn’t know if he could count on him, just like we didn’t know if we could count on Luck to return from injury.”
Grant, like Luck, redeemed himself, beginning with the 1863 Vicksburg campaign. Although that campaign started slowly — the Colts began 1-5 this season — Grant would emerge victorious.
“This Colts season is exactly like Vicksburg,” Carmichael said. “Grant commanded mostly Midwestern soldiers; he separated them from their supply chain, and they had to live off the land. They were tough, like Luck’s offensive line this year.”
Of course, those Union soldiers' happy endings were helped by being on the winning side of the war. And perhaps Luck’s return to the playoffs is happy enough after an injury that put his career in jeopardy.
Still, not every Civil War historian has enjoyed the captain’s tweets. Asked for his thoughts via email, University of West Georgia professor Keith Bohannon replied, “The Andrew Luck Twitter posts look like silly nonsense to me written for NFL fans."
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