Publication Date

September 1, 1990

Perspectives Section



  • United States


Military, Visual Culture

Editor’s note: In this month’s Film and Media column historians review two completely different approaches to the Civil War era on film. Both productions are landmarks in reexamining the war from the perspective of our own generation.

The story of the Civil War never ceases to intrigue, and the popular media have frequently tapped the public’s interest in the subject. Hollywood classics such as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind dealt with Civil War themes, and recently Glory (see the film review by Sterling Stuckey, p. 21) showed that a serious movie about the black experience in the Civil War could draw substantial audiences and win Oscar nominations. Now comes The Civil War, an expensive and colorful eleven-hour documentary series that will occupy an entire week of prime time on PBS Television beginning September 23, 1990.

The producers, financial contributors, and sponsoring television stations evidently believe that the wells of public interest in the Civil War run so deep that it is worthwhile to promote this series as few other educational programs have been supported. Brochures and announcements are arriving at college and high school campuses, public forums dealing with the film are being presented in diverse locales, newspapers are featuring articles about the making of the film, and a companion book for the series is in mass printing and has been selected as a featured work of the Book of the Month Club. This tremendous commitment of money and energy suggests that many people believe The Civil War will demonstrate that television can present history in a manner that is at once entertaining and educational. Underwriters for the series are likely to find their hopes realized, for the programs are so polished and interesting that in years to come popular discussions of the Civil War are likely to contain frequent references to this media event. The Civil War may become the Gone With the Wind of documentaries.

Producer Ken Burns (along with Ric Burns) employs many of the techniques of historical presentation that he developed in other documentaries such as The Brooklyn Bridge, The Shakers, The Statue of Liberty, Huey Long, and The Congress. While traditional documentaries often rely heavily on photographs from the war, Burns supplements the presentation with beautiful modern-day cinematography, authentic music of the war era, paintings, letters, historic documents, and quotations from historic figures. Many of the battle scenes feature deceptively simple visuals. Often the camera pans the empty site of a battlefield while sound carries the information load. Audiences hear horses galloping, men shouting, and cannons and muskets firing. Eyewitnesses to history—famous and obscure people from the Civil War era—describe their impressions through quotations read by actors.

The quotations help to carry much of the story. There are more than 900 commentaries from figures such as Abe Lincoln (read by Sam Waterson), Frederick Douglass (Morgan Freeman), Mary Chesnut (Julie Harris), Ulysses S. Grant (Jason Robards), General William Tecumseh Sherman (Arthur Miller), General Benjamin F. Butler (Studs Terkel), and Stonewall Jackson (Jody Powell). Some readers, such as Kurt Vonnegut, Derek Jacobi, and Jeremy Irons, play multiple roles. Garrison Keillor is a particular favorite of the producers, he plays the part of Walt Whitman and an impressive variety of soldiers and citizens.

The first-person observations, drawn from letters, diaries, and memoirs, introduce television viewers to a treasure of pithy quotations already familiar to historians. Lincoln is the most eloquent of the speakers, and Sam Waterson’s superb rendition highlights the President’s astute political mind and skill with words. Mary Chesnut’s perceptive comments on Confederate fortunes, as recorded in her diary, have a prominent place in the series. Also prominent are Frederick Douglass’ biting editorials aimed at making war for the Union a war against slavery and Sam Watkins’ simple eloquence and humor about the life of Confederate footsoldiers, which he recorded in his memoir, Company Aytch. The film balances Watkins’ observations with quotations from a Yankee common soldier less familiar to students of the war. Producer Ken Burns learned about the informative diary of Rhode Islander Elisha Hunt Rhodes (first published in 1985) from his neighbor, Elisha’s great grandson.

Historians contributed significantly to the planning of the series. The advisers included Don E. Fehrenbacher, Barbara J. Fields, C. Vann Woodward, William S. McFeely, James M. McPherson, Stephen W. Sears, Ira Berlin, Eric Foner, Robert Johannsen, Bernard Weisberger, and Shelby Foote. Richard F. Snow, managing editor of American Heritage, also worked closely with the project.

Scholars and writers such as Stephen B. Oates and Ed Bears enjoy a few cameos in the film. David McCullough, historian and a familiar television host, serves as the voice-over narrator. The most prominent on-camera figure with scholarly credentials is Shelby Foote, author of a well-respected three-volume history, The Civil War. Throughout the film, Foote recites a number of amusing anecdotes about people and events. He entertains and instructs, much like the late Bell I. Wiley did when he told human interest stories from his books, The Life of Billy Yank and The Life of Johnny Reb. In many respects, The Civil War is Foote’s film as well as Burns’, for, when key questions of interpretation come up, Foote almost always makes an appearance. For example, the series carefully avoids extensive discussion of an issue that has animated scholarly debates for years: Did the Confederacy truly have a chance to win the war? The 1986 publication of a weighty volume on the subject by Richard E. Beringer, et al. (Why the South Lost the Civil War) did not establish consensus; instead it excited more debates. Burns’ film, after providing much information without editorial comment about the respective strengths and weaknesses of the North and the South, allows Foote to conclude, “I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that war.”

Most of the presentation of people and events follows the grain of popular scholarship. Grant and Sherman receive praise for their battlefield tactics, along with figures such as Stonewall Jackson and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Robert E. Lee, the “marble man,” is treated with great respect. “He is a very great general,” Foote observes. “He took long chances, but he took them because he had to. … The only way to win for Lee was with long chances, and it made him brilliant.” Foote also displays admiration for the Confederates’ guerilla warfare expert, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Foote calls Forrest one of the authentic geniuses of the war, but he and McCullough balance this praise with critical references to Forrest’s virulent prejudice toward blacks.

The assessment of Jefferson Davis may surprise viewers who are familiar with popular criticisms of the Confederate president. Historians frequently compare Davis unfavorably with Lincoln, noting that Davis seemed haughty and severe, failed to communicate with the masses, interfered too frequently in military planning, antagonized his field commanders, supported personal favorites such as the incompetent General Baxton E. Bragg, and failed to deal forcefully with serious problems on the home front. Years ago David M. Potter presented the case in particularly dramatic terms by writing, “In the light of Jefferson Davis’ conspicuous lack of an instinct for victory, his lack of a drive and thrust for action and results, his failure to define his office in terms of what needed to be accomplished, it hardly seems unrealistic to suppose that if the Union and the Confederates had exchanged presidents with one another, the Confederacy might have won its independence.” In the film Foote has the last word. Davis was not an “icy-cold man,” says Foote, but “an outgoing, friendly man, a great family man who loved his wife and children and had an infinite store of compassion.” The assault on Davis’ record, says Foote, began during and after the war with the Southerners who blamed him rather than the generals for the South’s failures. It is “as if a gigantic conspiracy was launched” against Davis, he observes. Foote’s comments stand as the preferred assessment of Davis; no other historians are heard challenging his conclusions even though Foote’s judgments are moot.

Dramatic stories need a villain, and in a number of respects, General George B. McClellan fills that need. The film portrays McClellan as arrogant, uncooperative with the President, and mistaken in his inclination to hold back his armies at crucial moments in the Virginia campaign. It suggests that McClellan could have helped to bring the war to an early close if he had been willing to commit his men to battle. Far too often, the film notes, McClellan exaggerated the enemy’s strength and made unrealistic demands for his reinforcements.

While this interpretation has abundant support in the popular histories, the record of hard fighting in the later years of the war (well chronicled in this film series) raises questions. If Grant faced months of bloody fighting and terrible casualties when he threw huge armies into battle against Confederate foes at the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, would victory have really been within easy reach if McClellan had pushed forward a few years before? Can we not acknowledge McClellan’s faults (possibly critical faults if appropriate action could have ended the war early), while appreciating his reluctance to hurl armies into a slaughter? McClellan may have missed valuable opportunities in Virginia (and later at Antietam), but victory probably would not have come cheaply. The film, which shows great sensitivity to the pain and suffering arising from the war, does little to credit some of that sensitivity to McClellan. Stephen W. Sears, adviser to the producers and author of a recent McClellan biography agrees with the overall thrust of the film’s treatment of the general, although he counseled against a heavy-handed “McClellan-as-villain” portrayal during the planning discussions. Burns concedes that McClellan was an attractive subject for criticism in the medium of television, and the film’s presentation makes McClellan “walk the plank.” Indeed, notes Burns, McClellan emerged as the only real villain of the principal characters in the documentary.

The Civil War tries to throw light on all major facets of the war, but film is not a good format for presenting a comprehensive overview. There is simply not enough time available to explore numerous subjects in depth. Wisely, the producers established priorities and worked effectively with the subjects they chose to emphasize. The series presents moving stories of generals, soldiers, and battles. It also effectively identifies the critically important role of slavery in bringing on the war, and it does a good job pointing out the impact of emancipation on the social, political, and military developments. The series devotes much less discussion to the home front and to subjects such as industrialization, finance, inflation, the draft, dissent, and the Constitution. Each subject is touched upon, but only briefly. The important topic of foreign policy, particularly the issue of whether the Confederacy could gain recognition from France or Britain, receives only fleeting attention. Women make appearances in the programs through the observations of Mary Chesnut and in reports on the achievements of individual women such as Clara Barton, but there is no sustained discussion of how the war changed women’s lives in the North and the South. The discussion of women is anecdotal rather than analytical. Some aspects of the fighting also receive only cursory attention. After presenting a graphic and fascinating description of the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack, the film reports relatively little on naval warfare. It does not say much about the Union blockade of Confederate ports, the role of Southern blockade runners, or the significance of ironclads after the Monitor-Merrimack confrontation.

The producers’ choices tell us something about the strengths and shortcomings of film in conveying an understanding of history. The medium is attractive for showing dramatic confrontations and violent action. It also serves well to relate the personal side of the past, introducing audiences to the people who made and observed history. As for social history, film may work effectively in presenting individuals from the American landscape, but it is a difficult instrument to use for an analysis of general trends. Furthermore, theoretical discussions pertaining to the financing of the Civil War are not the spice of television entertainment. Nor does the television documentary seem to offer an attractive format for exploring Constitutional issues related to the war, such as civil liberties, the right of secession, or federal versus state power. The Civil War refers only briefly to these topics and seems to encourage viewers to pursue more thorough knowledge through the printed word. Ken Burns acknowledges that documentary films suffer limitations when presenting a didactic or analytical approach to history. In other respects, however, he finds great potential in the medium. “Emotion is the great glue of history,” he says—the cement that makes the meaning of facts stick in our minds. It is in the realm of presenting specific information and sharpening feeling for the importance of that information that film offers particular promise.

The notion that film can bring facts to life may seem a clich, but some of the achievements of this series remind us that there is a substantial degree of truth in the familiar expression. An intelligent film maker can help us to appreciate the impact of events on the people who lived through them. In a number of instances the producers of The Civil War succeed in exciting the audiences’ emotions as well as or perhaps better than any author of a book on the Civil War experience. The producers are particularly adept at conveying the meaning of emancipation for blacks and the tragedy of war for the soldiers and their families. Some of the best achievements appear near the end. The reporting on Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, the impact of his assassination, and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox display sharp appreciation for the drama in historical events. The film makers combine old photographs, present-day cinematography, music, and quotations in imaginative ways. No other film with which I am familiar so effectively helps us to sense the emotions of the moment when Lincoln sat down at Jefferson Davis’ desk in Richmond or in the exchange of words between Grant and Lee as the generals reviewed the conditions for the war’s termination. The treatment of Lincoln’s visit to Ford’s Theater is brilliant. As viewers see the interior of the theater and listen to the dialogue of the play that Lincoln watched (Our American Cousin), they sense the magnitude of the tragedy about to take place.

The most memorable message of the entire series is that war was hell on the people who experienced it. How will the millions of war buffs who view the television programs react to this theme? Many of the Civil War enthusiasts who collect muskets, shells, and uniforms, participate in battlefield reenactments, and meet at Civil War roundtables prefer stories of courage and glory. While they are aware of the terrible consequences of the Civil War, their interest is in the history of combat. They will find plenty of exciting details of fighting in Ken Burns’ film, but they will also encounter abundant reminders of the war’s human costs. No description of a major battle passes on the screen without some reference to the stench of dead bodies, the horror of amputations, or the primitive state of medical care. The film reminds us of the war’s heavy price: the death of one-quarter of the South’s men of military age; national casualties amounting to approximately two percent of the American population; twice as many deaths from disease as from battlefield wounds. After hearing and seeing this evidence through eleven hours, will some viewers still walk away infatuated with the glamour of war?

In this regard The Civil War is a product of a particular era in American history. The producers composed this series in the late 1980s, a time of regrets about America’s involvement in Vietnam and growing unhappiness about years of dangerous posturing in the Cold War. Burns acknowledges that there is a “dark and antiwar” quality in his film’s treatment of the fighting. Too often the war is presented as a “gallant, bloodless myth,” he says. “We’ve forgotten the obvious fact that we murdered each other.” Burns points out that each generation rediscovers meaning in its history, and the evidence of similar perspectives in recent war films suggests a significant cultural development. Indeed, a trend can be observed in recent productions, although the signposts are not uniform. Rambo-style movies continue to entertain audiences, but there is also interesting evidence of a more reflective attitude toward war. Audiences in the United States (and in much of the world) today are less tolerant than in earlier years of the gung ho approach to combat evident in John Wayne’s films of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Born on the Fourth of July (1989), for example, shows how the experience in Vietnam could wreck a young man’s life, and it appropriately reveals a copy of All Quiet on the Western Front in one of its scenes. Similarly, Glory (1989) portrays combat as a brutal and ugly slaughter even though it celebrates the blacks’ commitment to fighting for the Union and freedom. Clearly Burns shares a perspective with other producers who have tried to reveal the dark side of war.

In sum, The Civil War does not present a comprehensive view of developments in the 1861-1865 period, but it does examine history in a way that maximizes the strengths of film. Above all, the film helps audiences to remember history. The abundant personalities, battlefields, cities, and other details about the war sharpen in the viewers’ memory after exposure to the multiple stimuli of Burns’ documentary. The juxtaposition of photographs, narration, quotations, and other evidence give shape, texture, and meaning to the mass of information. Viewers walk away with a keener sense of Lee’s and Grant’s personalities, of the topography at the Battle of Lookout Mountain, and the carnage at Antietam. The words of the Gettysburg Address, seen on paper many times before, are appreciated in a different way when heard in the context of the film’s moving description of Lincoln’s dedication of a cemetery in November, 1863 in the small Pennsylvania town. The documentary provides emotional points of reference for our historical memory.

Robert Brent Toplin is professor of U.S. and Latin American history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He also serves as the editor of the Movie Review section of the Journal of American History.