Skip to comments.Historians question 'Civil War'conclusions
Posted on 09/22/2002 11:22:23 PM PDT by stainlessbanner
Perhaps the most moving moment of Ken Burns' 11-hour documentary "The Civil War" is the reading of Sullivan Ballou's July 14, 1861, letter to "My very dear Sarah," written days before he was killed at the first Battle of Bull Run. Americans hearing his words 129 years later treasured them almost as much as the Union major's widow must have, reciting the letter at weddings and funerals.
The Ballou letter epitomized the great achievement of Burns' film, which PBS is rebroadcasting over five nights beginning tonight. (8 p.m. on WEAO Channel 45/49 and at 9 p.m. on WVIZ Channel 25).
Burns gave viewers "the impression of being present in the past," as historian Robert Brent Toplin puts it. When the film first aired in 1990, 40 million Americans were riveted. Gabor Boritt, director of Gettysburg's Civil War Institute, says it's the "finest evocation of the Civil War ever attempted," challenging our very idea of what history is.
But the version of history that "The Civil War" tells was itself challenged; historians questioned the documentary's themes, interpretations and conclusions even as they admit Burns' storytelling brilliance.
The debate, in Toplin's words, was a kind of lovers' quarrel, and one largely conducted out of public view. The film so successfully evoked the 1860s that, as Toplin's book suggests, for many Americans today, it is the war. And it is still contentious ground. Burns' film - like the historian's work - is filled with interpretation and points of view.
"We, as filmmakers, had no set agenda," Burns wrote in answer to his critics. "We felt that slavery was bad, George McClellan timid, but that the rest of the war, North and South, male and female, black and white, civilian and military, was a vast and complicated family drama."
Toplin, editor of film reviews for The Journal of American History, was so intrigued by the debate that he invited a number of historians - as well as Burns and his chief writer, Geoffrey C. Ward - to contribute essays to the 1996 book "Ken Burns' The Civil War: Historians Respond."
A number of respected historians - knowing the obstacles better than most - openly admired Burns' attempt. Still, they lament what they call missed opportunities.
Gary W. Gallagher, a prominent Civil War scholar at the University of Virginia, finds that Burns leaves viewers with "a skewed sense of the war's military dimension." In the first episode, viewers are told that "the odds against a Southern victory were long." But the South, as Gallagher details, had advantages that "evened the initial balance sheet." The Confederacy's size alone was an obstacle to Northern troops.
On-camera historians were chosen to convey the war's complexities, nuances and disagreements, explains Ward, who wrote the script as well as the film's companion book, also titled "The Civil War." The constant challenge before them, as Ward saw it, was trying to impart the essence of the war to an audience that may or may not know much about it.
When one of those historians, Barbara J. Fields, is asked today to describe how she judges the film's historical success, she uses the word "dissatisfaction." Fields, a Southern historian at Columbia University, captured a nation's imagination with her on-camera eloquence, repeatedly asserting the central role of slavery and emancipation in the war and its legacy.
What Fields regrets, as she puts it, is the absence of critical pieces of the story. What is left unsaid, she argues, is why Northerners who did not care about slavery one way or the other ended up supporting a war that became as much about emancipation as reunion. Nor does she believe that the film adequately explained the Confederacy to viewers, or helped them understand why so many white Southerners who did not own slaves - which was most of them - supported the Confederate cause.
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Well, her comments are more evenhanded than the "four legs good, two legs bad" school we've been hearing from the McPherson defenders, but the emphasis on "liberation" and anti-slavery is essentially the Marxian influence again.
Burns had it right -- the Civil War was far too large to get one's arms around with a couple of theses. That kind of self-interested, dumbed-down didacticism is precisely the mung that the Left spreads on history, obscuring and disfiguring it just the way centuries of Catholic orthodoxy obscured and distorted the history of the Catharist movement in France.
This is an inevitable as steam from a tea kettle when heat is applied. If no two people can witness the same accident without having different reports, no two historians will EVER agree completely. Their specializations alone would preclude this from happening. So my feeling is that, for non-professional-historians, this is indeed a tempest in a tea pot and I don't care except to see what new things come from it.
Malarkey. Burns has to go into every one of his projects hamstrung by his own Marxist views. He starts his "The Civil War" as a Lincoln worshipping commie and advances that view above every other all through the overblown production.
A successful Ken Burns without PBS would be impossible. He's a talentless turd who needs government money to survive.
He missed the opportunity to bring forth some new content and information in a fair light. Despite a nice presentation of musical scores, famous actors performing monologues, and both beautiful footage of landscape, and horrific pictures of war, it's the same old pig.
Perhaps it is too big a subject to conquer in one work; when one tries, the facts are lost.
His baseball series was excellent (if you like the sport). His "Civil War" propaganda effort is just so much specious revisionist history, and "Jazz" was no better.
"We felt that slavery was bad, George McClellan timid, but that the rest of the war, North and South, male and female, black and white, civilian and military, was a vast and complicated family drama."
It wasn't a family drama, is was hero worship of Lincoln, Grant and Sherman (spit), who waged war on innocent civilians - old men, women and children, black and white, because they couldn't abide by the rules of war, and chose to slaughter defensless civilians rather to to win honorably on the field of battle. Burns needs to take his blinders (and kneepads) off.