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.
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. The article originally misstated the name of Sullivan Ballou’s wife.“> 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.
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.
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.