For almost twenty years Ken Burns’ The Civil War has been one of the ” cultural vegetables ” that have never made it onto my plate. I missed the original when it aired on PBS and never found time to watch it when it came out on DVD. Now it sits in my Netflix “Watch Instantly” queue collecting virtual dust.
Recently I decided that since the sesquicentennial retrospection on the Civil War was drawing near that it was finally time to schedule a marathon viewing of the documentary series. But historian James M. Lundberg is giving me a reason to reconsider :
[I]t was Burns’ film, with its tidy vision of national consensus, that consummated the growing romance with the Civil War. The film was perfectly calibrated to please most every constituency in the post-Vietnam culture wars. While many noted an anti-war crosscurrent in its brutal images of mangled limbs and bloated corpses, the film’s dominant notes present an unapologetic patriotism and an appealing vision of war as a source of honor, high ideals, and unity of purposeprecisely what had been lost in Vietnam and its aftermath. Burns’ Civil War was arugula and red meat happily sitting together on the same plate.
For all its appeal, however, The Civil War is a deeply misleading and reductive film that often loses historical reality in the mists of Burns’ sentimental vision and the romance of Foote’s anecdotes. Watching the film, you might easily forget that one side was not fighting for, but against the very things that Burns claims the war so gloriously achieved. Confederates, you might need reminding after seeing it, were fighting not for the unification of the nation, but for its dissolution. Moreover, they were fighting for their independence from the United States in the name of slavery and the racial hierarchy that underlay it. Perhaps most disingenuously, the film’s cursory treatment of Reconstruction obscures the fact that the Civil War did not exactly end in April of 1865 with a few handshakes and a mutual appreciation for a war well fought. Instead, the war’s most important outcomeemancipationproduced a terrible and violent reckoning with the legacy of slavery that continued well into the 20th century.
These are important realities to grasp about the Civil War, but addressing them head on would muddy Burns’ neat story of heroism, fraternity, reunion, and freedom.