The Civil War (1990)

Dir. Ken Burns

In the past few years it has become popular to lob grenades at Shelby Foote, whose three-volume history of the Civil War remains the most enjoyable and readable compendium on the war that I’ve ever come across. The flaws are there, certainly, and I’m preparing some projectiles myself. Foote’s primary interests are in military and political history, not in social history, and for a war where the causes and effects were felt deeply on the social level even more than they were felt in battle or in the presidential mansions, that’s a problem. I think his assertion that Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of the two geniuses made by the Civil War (the other being Abraham Lincoln) is probably the best proof we can give of why that’s an issue, for as effective a cavalry commander as Forrest was, I don’t know that I’d care to refer to that Ku Klux Klan’s first Grand Wizard as a “genius,” let alone comparable to Lincoln. But this is a documentary, not a work of scholarly history, not even if it was on PBS, a channel that only nerds with pocket protectors and Antiques Roadshow aficionados are likely to keep on. At some point, storytelling is a greater concern than factual accuracy, and as a storyteller, Foote’s grandpa on the porch vibes, coupled with a chuckling amusement at anecdotes which are not likely to scare chuckles out of anyone else, stands out; it’s why I can’t condemn Ken Burns for being fascinated by Foote, or interviewing him, or presumably using his work as a basis for the documentary. Still, the fact remains: this would be a very different documentary if they’d let Barbara Fields talk as long as they let Shelby Foote talk. Foote argues that the Civil War was caused by a failure to compromise, which he sees as an essential American virtue that the entire country happened to whiff on all at once. Fields argues that it’s about slavery. One of those arguments is not just a more compelling argument, but more factually accurate. Burns’ documentary relies on Foote and his stories and his dangerous streamlining of the war to something much closer to “states’ rights” and “self-defense” (i.e., that Confederate soldiers were fighting because they were being invaded, even though the documentary otherwise makes clear that Southern military morale was not particularly high, desertions were commonplace, and that most of those men were drafted) rather than pulling from Fields, whose understanding of the war is more rigorous and whose viewpoint is more incisive. Compare Foote’s reading of Lincoln as the other genius with Fields, who notes that Lincoln frequently gets a pass for some of the rhetoric he used (and the beliefs he had!) about sending African-Americans to the Africa they’d never seen, or being willing to maintain slavery to preserve the Union. It’s not as if other white people in the time period didn’t understand that black people were people, and that African-Americans were Americans. What was holding him up? It’s one of the most stirring arguments I’ve ever come across in how we ought to judge and make sense of the past, and it’s not a through line that Burns ever does much with; the question of why so many white people in antebellum times continued to slowplay slavery (“if contained it will die on its own”) when other white people knew it was wrong and worked for abolition is one that goes largely unanswered in the documentary.

Any documentary is going to require focus and streamlining, even one that’s aired over a few nights on television, and the problems of The Civil War are what you’re bound to get when you try to compress the defining years in American history into eleven hours, not unlike the problem you have when you try to compress an enormous file and it comes back pixelated. This is one of the most ambitious television programs ever made in the United States, one that was originally commissioned at less than half the final runtime, and the sense of scale that Burns does get at is genuinely impressive. To his credit, the cruelty of slavery and the debate over slavery which was part of every issue are centered in the early sequences of the documentary, and some of the photography and written records that he brings to his first hour are sickening. (If there is a rebuke against the Lincolns of the world, then this is it, although it is a primarily silent rebuke.) Ultimately, though, the story that Burns wants to tell is not so different from the story that Shelby Foote was working on in The Civil War: A Narrative. Burns makes the decision to talk about the Civil War primarily through the lens of military history, the movements and clashes of armies, the personalities and correspondence of generals, the diaries and complaints of common soldiers. Even the civilian diarists who Burns pulls from, George Templeton Strong and especially Mary Chesnut, are pulled from primarily as newspaper readers and politician-adjacent, and secondarily as witnesses to social upheaval. Through that lens, talking about slavery at the start of the documentary is not so different than talking about pan-Slavism and militarism before a documentary of World War I; these are clear causes, but on the whole the dramatic thrusts will be made at Verdun and not on the homefront. This is the kind of documentary where Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation are recognized as intertwined, but the knot is untied more slowly with Antietam. Again, as a story of military history which leaves out Pea Ridge and Perryville to spend more time with Confederate inflation or hospitals, this works. I think The Civil War has the issue that any other ranging, definitive cultural milestone has. It has been given such a status that people look at it and say, “But what about this thing that it doesn’t touch on?” when it never meant to foreground that thing at all. The story of American slavery is a more important one than the story of the Civil War that resulted from it, but if the documentary had been less successful I don’t know that we would be having this conversation. Deciding that something like the Sullivan Ballou letter is more important, on the whole, than similar airtime devoted to the Underground Railroad or slave rebellions or something else along those lines is a decision that makes sense if this documentary is about the battles and not about the society that could have produced them. If there is an issue with The Civil War as concerns slavery, I think it must be one that was decided upon long before the filmmakers started scouring primary documents.

Whether or not the documentary functions as a kind of Confederate apologia, even as mild Confederate apologia, is another question. It has to be answered in the affirmative, because virtually every movie or TV show made about the Civil War inevitably comes down as some kind of Confederate apologia. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino made a movie about a crack Union team of African-American soldiers who managed to infiltrate the headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia and blew Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, A.P. Hill, etc. to bits. I don’t know that it’s possible to imagine that getting made in this country! (Remember that when Tarantino made his “southern,” a single former slave takes out a single plantation house to rescue his beloved, and also a white guy was the hero of that story anyway. We’re not talking institutional change here.) If Shelby Foote had said “Most German soldiers didn’t know any Jews and weren’t fighting to execute the Final Solution, but were defending their country against British expansionism and Soviet communism,” Marcel Ophuls would have obliterated him. Yet he says something very similar in The Civil War when he makes the case that most Southern soldiers did not own slaves and were not fighting over slavery but because the Yankees had come down south. For another fifteen minutes, anyway, the Nazis are not the good guys in our historical movies and television programs, but over and over again Confederates have been the protagonists and key players in any number of Civil War pictures dating back to The Birth of a Nation. Stonewall Jackson’s Valley campaign, Lee’s work at Chancellorsville, and more are noted as high drama, brilliant soldiery, and more, and excepting that Grant quote (“that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought…”) there is so little discussion of what they were doing it forThe Civil War spends so much time on Lee as the Marble Model, a man who ostensibly hated slavery, that it does not question why the guy kept slaves and treated them like other plantation owners treated them. Just as this would be a very different documentary if it gave Barbara Fields equivalent (or more!) time on screen than Shelby Foote, this would be a very different documentary if it treated Grant’s reminiscences on the quality of the Southern cause more seriously.

The documentary ends with a series of high-minded, feel-good flourishes. The United States made us an “is,” pictures and footage of the fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg where we hear that some old men embraced one another instead of shot one another, that sort of stuff. Virtually nothing on the failure of Reconstruction, arguably the greatest failure that the United States could put its name to since the Declaration of Independence. Broad statements from talking heads about what an important event the Civil War was without speaking much to it as a cause rather than an effect. In short, The Civil War ends on a note of unity. Given what happened after the Civil War ended, that’s sort of like taking kneeling cops at their word and then being surprised to see them attack twenty minutes later with tear gas and clubs.

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