Ken Burns' Civil War: How the documentary changed the way we think about the war.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 7 2011 7:03 AM

Thanks a Lot, Ken Burns

Because of you, my Civil War lecture is always packed—with students raised on your sentimental, romantic, deeply misleading portrait of the conflict.

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But it was Burns' film, with its tidy vision of national consensus, that consummated the growing romance with the Civil War. The film was perfectly calibrated to please most every constituency in the post-Vietnam culture wars. While many noted an anti-war crosscurrent in its brutal images of mangled limbs and bloated corpses, the film's dominant notes present an unapologetic patriotism and an appealing vision of war as a source of honor, high ideals, and unity of purpose—precisely what had been lost in Vietnam and its aftermath. Burns' Civil War was arugula and red meat happily sitting together on the same plate.

For all its appeal, however, The Civil War is a deeply misleading and reductive film that often loses historical reality in the mists of Burns' sentimental vision and the romance of Foote's anecdotes. Watching the film, you might easily forget that one side was not fighting for, but against the very things that Burns claims the war so gloriously achieved. Confederates, you might need reminding after seeing it, were fighting not for the unification of the nation, but for its dissolution. Moreover, they were fighting for their independence from the United States in the name of slavery and the racial hierarchy that underlay it. Perhaps most disingenuously, the film's cursory treatment of Reconstruction obscures the fact that the Civil War did not exactly end in April of 1865 with a few handshakes and a mutual appreciation for a war well fought. Instead, the war's most important outcome—emancipation—produced a terrible and violent reckoning with the legacy of slavery that continued well into the 20th century.

These are important realities to grasp about the Civil War, but addressing them head on would muddy Burns' neat story of heroism, fraternity, reunion, and freedom. It would also mean a dramatically reduced role for Foote, the film's de facto star. Foote's wonderful stories and synopses of the war's meaning, which manage to be at once pithy and vague, cast a spell on the viewer. When Foote tells us that "the Civil War defined us as what we are and … opened us to being what we became, good and bad things," we may not be quite sure what he means. But his accent, his beard, and his hint of sadness incline us to think there must be profound depths in his tortured language.

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Too often, Foote's grand pronouncements and anecdotes become substitutes for more serious consideration of difficult historical dynamics. In the first episode, "The Cause," Foote nearly negates Burns' careful 15-minute portrait of slavery's role in the coming of the war with a 15-second story of a "single, ragged Confederate who obviously didn't own any slaves." When asked by a group of Yankee soldiers why he was fighting, the Rebel replied, "I'm fighting because you're down here," which, according to a smirking Foote, "was a pretty satisfactory answer." In similar fashion throughout, Foote asks us to put aside the very troubled political meanings of the Confederate Lost Cause and join him in an appreciation of both its courtly leaders and its defiant rank-and-file soldiers.

Foote's powerful and affecting presence in the film would be less problematic if he shared airtime more equally with other talking heads. However, as he gets the starring role and the literal last word of the film, Foote creates an irresolvable tension at its center. As much as we want to remember the Civil War as a war for freedom, emancipation, and the full realization of American ideals, there is Foote calling us into the mythical world of the Confederacy and the Old South in spite of all they stood for.

Make no mistake, Burns' Civil War is a monumental achievement that has done incredible service in making this history appealing and accessible to wide audiences. I'm grateful to Burns for the full classrooms he's given me. But as we revisit the history of the war on its 150th anniversary I wonder if we might move beyond the version of story that goes so well with the "Ashokan Farewell." If Ken Burns created an endlessly compelling vision of heroism and reunion amidst the profound cultural divisions of the early 1990s, what kinds of stories about the war will we now tell ourselves as those very divisions persist, in spite of Ken Burns' best efforts?

Correction, June 7, 2011: The article originally misstated the name of Sullivan Ballou's wife.

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