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.

Still from Ken Burn's 'The Civil War' Documentary.
Is Ken Burns' Civil War accurate?

Whenever I teach a course on the American Civil War I see a spike in the number of students eager to spend three hours a week with me. This would be flattering if it had anything to do with my particular talents as a teacher. But as I hear the pleas of wait-listed supplicants begging for spots in my class, I am reminded that I owe my popularity to the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and his legendary series The Civil War.  

I listen to students tell me how much they love the film with a certain measure of dread. I know from experience that notions about the war's transcendent meaning forged in the sentimental fires of the film make it harder to talk about the conflict in all of its complexity. And I know that no matter how much I work on my Shelby Foote impression, I can never possibly live up to the real thing.

As we commence our sesquicentennial retrospection on the Civil War, it is worth remembering that much of the enthusiasm for the anniversary derives from Burns' film, which first aired on public television just over 20 years ago. Over the course of nine parts and 11 hours, Burns' camera peers into thousands of ghostly faces and pans across faded images of body-strewn battlefields guided by David McCullough's stately baritone and Foote's oracular drawl. All the while, the unmistakable, melancholy strains of the series' theme, "Ashokan Farewell" ring out—at times, it seems, from the nation's collective heartstrings. Running on consecutive nights at the height of network television's new season in the fall of 1990 (when network television's new season still mattered), the series became an unlikely hit. Some 40 million people chose to forego Cheers, Roseanne, The Wonder Years, and America's Funniest Home Videos for a PBS documentary featuring nothing more than old photographs, footage of empty battle fields, and talking heads they likely had never heard of.

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As ratings soared, George Will summed up the rhapsodic critical response, calling Burns' series a "masterpiece of national memory." "Our Iliad has found its Homer," Will said. "[Burns] has made accessible for everyone the pain and poetry and meaning of the event that is the hinge of our history." The 37-year-old Burns became the nation's unofficial documentarian-laureate, while Foote, the shy Mississippi novelist who stole the show with his endless supply of anecdotes, became a national celebrity, profiled in Newsweek and People. The comparisons to Homer showered on both Burns and Foote were apt. Together, they refashioned the history of the Civil War into a semimythical narrative, one of collective sacrifice in the name of freedom and national unity.

Revisiting the film now, it's not hard to see why the series had such a strong, and lasting, impact. Borrowing something from Ulysses S. Grant's tenacious military strategy, Burns stages a relentless, multifront assault on viewers' emotions. Morgan Freeman voices Frederick Douglass' "unutterable loathing" as the camera tracks down the Mississippi River. Union Major Sullivan Ballou's never-delivered letter to his wife Sarah demonstrates that the sentimentality of 19th-century romanticism can still jerk a tear.   Foote's face fills the screen as he tells of a frightened Confederate sentry talking to an owl and you can smell the bourbon and pipe smoke and feel the terrible weight of Southern history in your living room.

Burns performs an impressive kind of alchemy. Working in the soft glow of nostalgia, he manages to take a knotty and complex history of violence, racial conflict, and disunion and turn it into a compelling drama of national unity. "Between 1861 and 1865," David McCullough tells us in the series' introduction, "Americans made war on each other and killed each other in great numbers—if only to become the kind of country that could no longer conceive of how that was possible." Foote reminds us that the Founders' republic had been a loose federation of states, referred to in the plural, as in "the United states are." But the Civil War forged something different—the powerful modern juggernaut that we boldly and ungrammatically refer to in the singular—"the United States is." And that, according to Foote, "sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an 'is.' " The moment of the most intense division in American history thus becomes our real national genesis—a mythic struggle in which we expressed our deepest feelings, our truest sentiments, our noblest words, and became our modern selves.

The film's powerful call to national unity in the face of profound division seemed ideally suited to the bitter post-Vietnam cultural climate. In 1989, in his inaugural address, George H.W. Bush had asserted that "the final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory." Interest in the Civil War, which had been growing since the mid-1970s, suggested that America could in fact be united by one. Michael Shaara had shown as much in 1974, when he published his much-beloved novel, The Killer Angels. His page-turning account of the Battle of Gettysburg offered an appealing portrait of valor, honor, and patriotism that stood in stark contrast to the painful scenes of America's last days in Vietnam. Burns himself was one of many fans of the novel to be swept up in a rising tide of enthusiasm for the Civil War that made James McPherson's massive history of the war, The Battle Cry of Freedom, an improbable bestseller in 1988.

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