Ken Burns’s The Civil War Twenty-Five Years Later

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 11.48.40 AMAll is a-buzz on the Interwebs this week as PBS re-airs Ken Burns’s epic documentary The Civil War in celebration of its 25th anniversary. Many people are discussing what this program meant to them the first time around – how it inspired them individually and how Burns’s riveting narrative reached people in unprecedented ways. I do not think I need to go out on a limb here by saying that Burns sparked the interest of millions and helped make the past seem…well…interesting to those who might have slept through their high school history classes. Let me just go on record by saying that this is among the most important things ever to be on television.

For those of you re-watching this week or perhaps checking it out for the first time, here are a couple of thoughts to ponder…

Shelby Foote is at once the program’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. Foote, the master novelist, brings more charm to this show than one might believe possible. His soothing drawl and folksy wisdom only add to his unsurpassed storytelling expertise. You really want to like this man…and believe him. But his analysis is often questionable. For example, he notes:

1. The Confederacy never had a chance to win the war (yes, it did).

2. The Union fought the war with one hand tied behind its back (no, it didn’t).

3. Nathan Bedford Forrest was – with Lincoln – one of the war’s two original geniuses (no, he wasn’t).

Apart from these quibbles with Foote I found the final episode overwhelmingly reconciliationist in its sensibilities. While this analytical bent is right in step with the scholarship of the 1990s, it is pretty clear now (as it really was then if you thought about it long enough and actually looked at the historical record…) that veterans of that war were not so keen on letting bygones be bygones and reaching Across the Bloody Chasm in friendship (see what I did there?). I will be happy to elaborate on any nits that I picked in the comments below (note: I have been ripped a new one for critiquing Shelby Foote before, so have at it).

So do I think that you should take a pass on The Civil War? Of course not – and here’s why. The documentary still – 25 years later – inspires conversation and debate, which is what a great documentary is supposed to do. And now an entirely new generation can get acquainted with their past. Watch it with them…and get them talking. Furthermore, a TON of Civil War scholarship has hit the shelves since the show’s first airing. It would certainly be interesting to see how the history in The Civil War stands the test of time. And one more thing…congratulations to Ken Burns for 25 years of keeping Civil War history on people’s minds.

With compliments,

Keith

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