Ken Burns’ Civil War -worth the time


Ken Burns’ Civil War – worth the time

Honorable men, resolving their differences in the most destructive way imaginable… How can we understand, let alone forgive them? Yet, we are reminded of these “passions” in today’s news – racial killings still happen as a matter of course…

I’ve been glued to the TV for the re-broadcast of Ken Burns’ The Civil War. In light of much recent discussion about Confederate flags, and whether the war was really “about slavery” or various people’s opposition to it, I thought I would comment on it. Looking through my files, I find that I wrote a very good review of this series in 2011. So, I’ll reprint that, here.

Also, I can mention that Ken Burns and most of the historians involved seem to be Southern sympathizers. We knew that, right? But it’s very well “balanced,” and some of the worst war criminals, among them General Sherman and (Confederate) General Bedford Forrest, are not so portrayed.

Gen. Forrest is given “credit” (if that’s the word) by other historians both for summarily executing any black Union soldiers captured, and for being the founder of the Ku Klux Klan after the war (along Masonic lines). None of these “facts” appear in the film, or haven’t so far. But the real merit of the film is to show both sides as highly flawed, with very few people actually wanting a war like this, but none being able to stop it. – PHS 9-11-15


It seems almost incredible that the PBS documentary, The Civil War, was first released in 1989, the Montana Centennial. Among other things, it brought Mark O’Connor, the fiddle player who once performed with the Great Falls Symphony, to international fame. One can get very tired of this theme over a period of 12 hours or so.

The real value of the series is Shelby Foote, a Southern revisionist historian who wrote the multi-volume history upon which this documentary is based. And there are hundreds of rare and never-before-seen photographs – not just the “official” Matthew Brady and other Federal photographs we usually see. There are hundreds of Daguerrotype portraits of the people whose letters are read, to give us a real history of the rank and file soldiers and civilians whose stories are incorporated in the film. It is almost as though we had “movies” of the actual Civil War.

I don’t know Ken Burns, but I’ve heard him speak live here in Great Falls – for the Lewis and Clark film he made more than a decade later – after Baseball, Jazz, and some other huge successes. He has become an institution in himself, or maybe a “growth industry.” Still, the public interest in history and culture has probably never been lower. For every ten people who watched Baseball or Jazz, you can bet that one or less watched The Civil War with the same attention. And since it is now so “old,” few people under 30 probably remember it at all – hence, the re-issue and re-broadcast of this classic series.

I taught history to high school and junior high students for awhile. It is more than a daunting task. Having grown up in a family which was both well-read and historically conscious (my grandparents and father, in any case), I started reading biographies at an early age, for biography is the most important part of history. In those days, of course, there was little or no “radical” or “revisionist” history. It was all glorification of our own history, while disparaging most other nations and peoples of the world. And the reading of biographies, in those days, was nearly pure hagiography – “the lives of the Saints” – whom we were to learn from and emulate.

And so, I ended up with something like racist, “America Firster” attitudes. I still cringe at the thought of what I said about Vietnam as a college student – that “we had a right but not a duty to be there.” After all, we were “fighting communism,” and communism was bad, right? The only argument which either myself or my father could come up with to oppose the Vietnam War was that it was “too expensive” – both in lives and dollars, but of course we didn’t count the costs to the Vietnamese, themselves. Still, we did consider the costs to our people and country, and soon came to oppose the war. It seems that most Americans, today, won’t even make that calculation and forcefully oppose the same kinds of wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Libya and Yemen.

Which brings us back to our own Civil War. It was another “holy war” – a war against “slavery”, although virtually everyone, both North and South, would have opposed the war forcefully had it been presented as such. Abraham Lincoln was very much like more recent presidents in concealing his real motives behind a shroud of moral legitimacy. He claimed to be fighting to “preserve the Union” – that is, the United States and Manifest Destiny as a global super-power, not to “free the slaves.”

Now that we are entering upon the real sesqui-centennial (150th anniversary) of the commencement of the Civil War, the Smithsonian Magazine has undertaken to follow, in each monthly issue, the events of 150 years ago. In the current issue, there is a good account of Fort Sumter, the opening battle of the Civil War, in which, amazingly enough, no one was killed until the final salutes of mutual respect in the surrender of this facility by Federal forces, when a cannon exploded and killed two of the (Northern) gunners.

A few years ago, I read the original biography of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy and the most strident defender of the institution of slavery as a U.S. Constitutional mandate. My interest in him was piqued by the hypothesis that we are descended from a common ancestor, a Revolutionary War captain, also named Alexander Stephens, who served directly under George Washington. And having always been a libertarian, I could hardly imagine how anyone could defend slavery.

It turns out that “Little Aleck” was orphaned at a young age, and only got an education and his later leadership positions because of the intervention of a kindly minister, who sent him to seminary to become a minister. So, Stephens’ defense of slavery was largely Biblical (as well as Greek and Roman – slave-owning societies all). In all other respects, he seems to have been a very astute and principled – even kindly – man. And there were many others like him, including Jefferson and Washington, among the slave-owners.

The South has alway insisted that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about State’s Rights (or State Rights, as it was known in those days). The main point is that since each state voluntarily joined the Union by a majority of votes within that state (only a quarter of the adult white males being qualified voters, of course), each state had the right to secede, and “nullify” any Federal laws which violate the U.S. Constitution and the original principles upon which our country was founded – one of them being Slavery. Had slavery never been mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, things might have been different.

Racism and slavery

Who started the American Civil War? And which side was “right” (or “left,” for that matter)? It pretty much depends on what part of the country you grew up in. Northern schools tended to teach that the Civil War ended slavery, that it was part of America’s necessary destiny (or even part of Manifest Destiny), etc. But it was the election of Abraham Lincoln, who had the support of Abolitionists, which drove the South into secession. At any time, the war could have been stopped. Let the record show that it was Northerners like Seward who consistantly opposed such resolution, and claimed that only by shedding the blood of patriots could slavery be ended.

A very different view prevails in the South. Apologies for slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, honoring Confederate soldiers and leaders, etc., leave a very bad taste in most people’s mouths, including most black people now living in the South (or whose ancestors lived there as slaves). And yet, most of them don’t hesitate to support American imperialism, and its support for dictators and slave-drivers in every other part of the world. What gives?

Was slavery and racism restricted to the states “in rebellion?” Of course not. Most people in most parts of the world believed that blacks were inferior, if they weren’t blacks or other people of color who owned slaves, themselves. Noble as the crusade against slavery might have been, it was not restricted to the American Civil War, and that War was not a particularly good example of ending it, or of mitigating the damage which slavery has done.

Most historians believe that simply reimbursing every slaveowner for the value of their slaves would have cost 1/10 or less than the Civil War actually cost, without bloodshed, and we would have long ago had a just and integrated society which we still lack, 150 years after that war began. The British ended slavery throughout the Empire with a version of that strategy, 30 years before our own Civil War broke out. It continued in Brasil and a few other Western countries for some decades after our Civil War. Yet, institutionalized racism kept blacks in an underclass for another century, and more. Then came the Spanish American War, which marked the full-blown embrace of Imperialism by most of the American people (Jack London and Mark Twain excepted).