by Drew Martin
I just finished watching (the entire) The Civil War from 1990 by Ken Burns. This nine-episode, 11-hour documentary is a detailed yet personal approach to the American Civil War that raged between April of 1861 - May of 1865.
Calling it a civil war plays down some of the dynamics because this was not a power struggle by the "rebels" for "the country." The South had, in fact, politically seceded from the United States by forming its own government with its own president, Jefferson Davis. In their minds they had their own country for four years: the Confederate States of America, and the military action of the North was treated as an invasion of their country by Yankees whose directive was to bring them back into the Union.
When Yankee soldiers first encountered runaway slaves, they sent them back to their southern owners as they were instructed to do because they were fighting for unification, not the abolition of slavery. President Lincoln would have agreed to a solution even if it meant letting slavery continue. He later entertained the idea of colonizing the slaves on an island somewhere. It was not until hundreds of thousands of soldiers died that he turned the war into a fight for freedom.
The documentary is an amazing display of black and white photographs. It was the first war to be photographed. I once had a book of American Civil War photographs and remember many of the dead soldiers pictures, such as the middle one here from Gettysburg. But I do not recall seeing pictures of the devastation caused by Sherman's Union army. The pictures of the destroyed cities of Atlanta, Charleston, and Richmond (top) look like bombed-out Dresden or Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I had no idea that flightless 19th century armies could even logistically do such damage.
My mom's father, "Granddaddy" was a proud southerner who I still recall shaking his head in his Richmond apartment and saying with a proper southern accent, "It's a shame we lost the war." He was born less than 40 years after the war so he would have heard old timers firsthand accounts. I remember some of our families stories of the Yankees invading and what they did but I never felt connected to the events even though I went to Virginia at least once a year to visit my grandparents. I have always felt a connection to Virginia because of my family history, which dates back to 1619 Jamestown, but It was not until I started The Civil War series that I began to think much more about the war itself and how much physical and psychological damage it did. I always thought the South would remain as I remember it but on a recent trip to Virginia and North Carolina, it seems to be slipping away into a gentrified mishmash of transplanted professionals.
William Faulkner once said that history is not "was" but "is." In many ways the American Civil War is still unresolved. The Confederate States of America compared the defense of their land to the Revolutionary War, while the Yankees set up America as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later culture of invasion, which takes a horrible toll on humanity with often indirect reasons.
I learned so much from this documentary. I did not know the Confederates had so many victories despite always being out-manned and out-gunned.The last battle of the American Civil War, in Texas, was a Confederate victory. I was also surprised by the multiple accounts by the Yankees of how they admired the devotion of the southerners, while they themselves were not always sure of why they were invading. It was beyond an educational film for me and really made me explore my own southern connection.
Burns set up the documentary to feature characters from both sides. He points out a couple soldiers from the very beginning and checks in on them a several times throughout. But if there is a personality of this epic documentary, it is the writer and historian Shelby Dade Foote Jr. (1916-2005), whose calming, Mississippi accent relays anecdotes about the lives of the soldiers in a dreamy way. His material is so rich that his presence makes up for almost a tenth of the entire documentary. He explains details such as when you see pictures of dead soldiers with their shirts pulled out and pants pulled down, that you might assume they were picked over for their possessions but that they were, in fact, casualties of the Minié ball - a fairly recent invention and choice of ammunition that shattered bones and tore at flesh. The disheveled appearance of the casualties was from them tearing at their burning wounds in their final moments.
Towards the end of the series Foote summarizes the effect of the American Civil War with a twist of grammar. He explains that before the American Civil War, people said The United States are... and after, The United States is...
Finally, Burns' narrators recap the lives of the opposing Generals, Lee and Grant, and explains their final days. He also mentions Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who had been in constant pain for the rest of his life after being shot with by a Confederate Minié ball in the Battle of Petersburg. At the age of 83 he attended the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which he described as a transcendental experience. A year later, he finally died because of his "ancient wound" - the last casualty of the war.