Remembering Ken Burns’s The Civil War: A Documentary of Difficult Ideas

September 21, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 1 4 min read

coverKen Burns’s series The Civil War turns twenty years old this month. A plain old documentary it isn’t; in fact, by the standards of most “historical” documentaries, it lacks a certain testicular fortitude. It boasts neither flashy 3-D maps nor live-action re-enactments; what few live shots there are of battlefields were mostly taken after dusk, giving them a surreal, almost dreamlike quality. Its scoring is simple, its narration restrained. It is, well, rather bookish.

For starters, it is expansive in subject and magisterial (some might say boring, but then, people say that about books in general) in pacing. It has a distinctive style, both in terms of the visuals and the narration. It is split into chapters and sub-sections, with little digressions from the main narrative in between.

Like the back of a dust jacket, the film also parades out the literati. We hear quotations from Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, and John Stuart Mill; we see interviews with writers like Shelby Foote and William Safire; we even hear literary giants doing voice overs – Arthur Miller as William Tecumseh Sherman, Studs Terkel as Benjamin Butler, Garrison Keillor as almost everyone from New England, and Kurt Vonnegut, though his specific role isn’t listed.

Superficialities aside: The Civil War has an argument to make. It does not glorify its subject. As historian Barbara Fields puts it, the Civil War was an “ugly, filthy war with no redeeming characteristics at all.” And the documentary hammers that point home by placing all those stories of brilliant generalship and courage and gallantry alongside accounts and pictures of the human cost of “honorable manhood.” So, at the same time that we hear Stonewall Jackson proclaim that “God has been good to us this day” after the battle of Antietam – the bloodiest single-day battle in American history – the camera pans over rows of Confederate dead in Bloody Lane. And we hear Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s account of nightfall after the battle of Fredericksburg, during which time he and his decimated regiment huddled against the frozen ground, using dead bodies as protection against continuing Confederate fire, for as long as we hear about the battle itself.

But neither does it entirely vilify the war, Michael Moore-style. Instead, Burns casts the Civil War as an armed extension of a national conversation, one that touched on race, rights, justice, the organization of society, and much else besides. And Burns reminds the viewer that the center of the conversation – for all the talk of states’ rights, tradition, economics, electoral wrangling, and voter disillusionment – was always slavery.

It’s surprising, then, to be reminded that slavery was in the 1860s not a clear-cut moral issue, but a debated political topic. Burns throws cold water on abolitionists like Horace Greeley and even The Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, himself, as their political support for abolition wavers in the face of military defeats and an unpopular war. Conversely, he shows the conviction with which some Southerners clung to the wrong side of history, even those without a particular animus against slaves, such as Jefferson Davis, who called the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” Only former slave Frederick Douglass holds his course throughout the entire war; everyone else takes years to admit, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that “emancipation is the demand of civilization; all else is intrigue.”

And it doesn’t rely on words alone to make the point that slavery was the issue of the war. For much of the first few episodes, we’re treated mostly to traditional European and American folk instruments – piano, fiddle, guitar, and the occasional brass band. But after the Emancipation Proclamation is announced in episode 3, we start to hear something new: the human voice. The episode ends with the Abyssinian Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and from then on the music of gospel choirs begins to leaven all of the instrumentals. One colonel called the singing of freed slaves right after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued “the choked voice of a race at last unloosed”; Burns seems to have taken that to heart.

So The Civil War describes its subject as a story of national redemption that came close to failure many times. And he shows that all of the gentlemanly military stuff was a thin veneer of civilization over a five-year-long nightmare of butchery. It’s a brave argument to make, when so much of our collective memory of the Civil War has more to do with half-remembered textbook summaries and re-enactments – both live and on television – than with reality. And in an age where most historical documentaries are content to celebrate warfare, or wax nostalgic for a world in which moral issues were clear-cut, Ken Burns’s refusal to do so really does seem old-fashioned. But old-fashioned, in this case, is no bad thing.

Which makes The Civil War pretty book-like, in the best sense of the word. As novelist and professor of law Stephen L. Carter wrote, “Books are essential to democracy… Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share. And if we are willing to work our way through difficult texts, we are far more likely to be willing to work our way through our opponents’ difficult ideas.”

In other words, The Civil War simply relies on a constant immersion in a world of challenging and complex ideas. And that makes it just like the best books out there.

lives in Seattle, edits The Bygone Bureau, tweets as @djcampb, and will appear as a contestant on Jeopardy! on June 27, 2013.

One comment:

  1. Ken Burns, still hard at work, appeared on Keith Olbermann last night talking about his new baseball documentary, and I believe he’s also working on one about the time period of my work, the Dust Bowl.

    It’s rare to find a film these days that has a civilizing effect, but Burns’ always do: another way in which they’re “book-like.”

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