The American Civil War

A film by Ken Burns. 1989 (remastered 2002.)

The titles on the actual films of course say just The Civil War. Still if they’ll forgive us our parochialism we’ll forgive them theirs.

In any case, the series is nothing short of exemplary. It is a magnificent blend of eye witness account, anecdote, written and printed sources, photographs, paintings, panoramas and music; all of which complement each other and add up to more than their sum. The haunting theme tune, Ashokan Farewell, – a relatively recent composition, though resolutely in keeping with the subject nevertheless, and which resounds throughout the series – is an inspired choice.

While not neglecting the battles – how could it? – it does not dissect them with a military historian’s scalpel. Its preferred use is of individual testaments from soldiers and civilians on both sides – including that of slaves – which grounds it superbly. It never loses sight of the human cost of the USA’s national tragedy, an understanding of which is probably essential to any understanding of that country. One of its consultants, Barbara Fields, makes the point in the last episode that the Civil War is still ongoing, not just in the US but anywhere where injustice and lack of freedom persist.

While watching it I was trying to think if anything in our national narrative approaches this conflict. In social effects, along with its attendant trail of corpses, graves and memorials, the grinding sense of endlessness, the hope for a higher purpose, the nearest would be World War 1. But even that, in its worst battles, did not achieve the casualty rates of the war between the States, which were horrendous and way, way beyond what any western army or its public at home could tolerate now.

The star of the films is undoubtedly Shelby Foote whose knowledge of the Civil War seems to be close to encyclopædic. In the eleven or so total hours he appears most frequently; always with telling anecdotes. In one, he describes waving Nathan Bedford Forrest’s sword above his head; about which his delight was obvious. He then relates giving that general’s granddaughter his opinion that Forrest had, along with Lincoln, been one of the two genuine geniuses of the war. There was a long pause before she replied to him, “We didn’t think much of Mr Lincoln in our family.”

His ability to inhabit the mindset of both sides is superb as are his analytical skills. Towards the end he says of Americans as a whole (I paraphrase a bit but this is the gist,) “We like to think of ourselves as a superior people. If we were a superior people we wouldn’t have fought that war. But since we did then it has to be the greatest war and our generals the greatest generals. It’s very American to think like that.”

Speaking strictly as a non-American I still say The American Civil War is probably the greatest war documentary you’ll ever see.

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