Tag Archives: Ken Burns

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

Portrait of a Badlands Dandy

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 8.06.56 PMI have just recently set aside a little time to have a look at Ken Burns’s latest effort: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Visually, it’s exactly what I expected – period film clips conjoined with vintage photographs presented in Burnsian fashion (pan right…pan left…cue Ashokon Farewell, et cetera). Though I find it hard to imagine that Burns will ever duplicate his epic 1990 nine-part documentary masterpiece, The Civil War in either innovation or public acclamation, The Roosevelts is nevertheless worthy of recognition. I particularly appreciated the film’s take on the remarkable transformation of a young Theodore Roosevelt from ninety-eight pound asthmatic to robust outdoorsy American icon – the blue-blooded sheltered wimp to Bull Moose narrative. The juxtaposition of New York patrician and rugged Dakota Badlandian is especially absorbing…right down to the custom tailored hinterland garb and Tiffany silver-plated Bowie knife. I suppose in one sense, you can take the boy out of the posh but not the posh out of the boy. But what’s most intriguing is that frontier fopism notwithstanding, TR had the goods to tough it out with the best of them…earning the respect of the Badlands rough and tumble. And Burns does a lovely job telling that story. Bully!

With compliments,

Keith

Shelby Foote and the North’s Other Arm

Screen shot 2014-02-21 at 9.38.11 AMOne of my favorite quotes from Ken Burns’s epic documentary The Civil War comes from none other that Shelby Foote himself. Yes indeed…America’s most well-known and much revered Civil War… ummmm….. interpreter.

Mr. Foote, like many who take a romanticized view of the gallant Confederates fighting hopelessly against long odds, cast the Confederate bid for independence as doomed from the start. “I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back,” said  Foote. If the Confederacy ever had come close to winning on the battlefield, “the North simply would have brought that other arm out from behind its back. I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that war.”

This is my favorite quote precisely because it opens the door to so much discussion. Many – both scholars and popular writers alike, seem to think that a great deal of the citizens of the Confederacy were not really all that committed to winning the war. Not committed to establishing an independent slave-holding republic.

But the idea that white southerners were nothing more than a collection of individuals whose allegiance lay with their states and who, by the mid point of the war, were wallowing in defeatism and despair and more than ready to jump ship, obscures the profound connection that most had to the Confederate national state. Independence was foremost on their minds – and a great deal of the citizens of the CSA were willing to endure the greatest hardships to make sure the Rebs won.

So – I am sure you will find Mr. Foote charming, as he sits comfortably is his wrinkled blue shirt before an impressively dusty collection of old books. But he missed his mark by a Confederate mile. Suggesting that the Confederacy never had a chance and everybody knew it is just not correct. Who would fight a war they knew they had no chance of winning? They even had a good example to follow – remember, a loose confederation of colonies once defeated the British Empire to secure their independence. I am pretty sure the Rebs made note of that one.

And trust me…the Union used both hands – they had read some history too.

Renée Fleming and the Letter From Sullivan Ballou

I learned of this remarkable piece a while back, and I thought it would be a good idea to post it here. You all remember the “Letter From Sullivan Ballou” made famous by Ken Burns’s epic documentary, The Civil War. Ballou wrote this moving letter to his wife, Sarah (which was never mailed) a week before he was killed at First Bull Run. The letter was found among Ballou’s effects when his body was retrieved for burial after the war. After Ballou’s death, Sarah moved to New Jersey with her son William. There she remained, never to remarry, until her death in 1917 at age 80. Sullivan and Sarah Ballou are buried side by side at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island.Screen shot 2014-02-15 at 8.54.03 AM

This evocative operatic piece performed by American soprano Renée Fleming is at once hauntingly beautiful and a touching tribute. I have provided the transcription below:

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .

With compliments,

Keith