The Civil War: An Illustrated History

The Civil War: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I understand what military fame is: to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.

—William Tecumseh Sherman

This documentary was long overdue. Aside from the basic overview, my knowledge of the American Civil War was embarrassingly sketchy; and I had also never seen anything by Ken Burns. Virtually everyone I know who has seen this documentary speaks about it in reverential tones. It lives up to the reputation. The eleven hours are packed with maps, dates, quotes, and most of all—stories. This is a history that focuses on individuals.

A documentary about a war that happened a century and a half ago, beyond all living memory, could easily have become dry and distant. But Ken Burns and his team overcome this obstacle through the dual use of photographs and quotes. The Ken Burns Effect has already entered common parlance, and you can see it displayed to great effect with these old photographs: the slow pan and zoom recreating, somewhat, the feel of watching a film. Combined with quotes of the men and women involved—soldiers, statesmen, generals, diarists—brought to life using voice actors, the watcher enters a bewitchingly immersive experience.

The war becomes, not merely troop movements on the screen, but an enormous catastrophe that our protagonists must live through. This gives the series an emotional force rare in documentaries. The horrors of war are the same as ever: seeing comrades fall, leaving children and widows behind, disease, malnutrition, homesickness, ghastly wounds, and the ever-present drudgery punctuated by moments of extreme terror. Some of the most disturbing images are of Yankee prisoners-of-war, totally emaciated through lack of food. Combined with this are the horrors of slavery, so central to the conflict, and the upheaval of the lives of so many civilians.

Virtually everything is well-done. McCullough brings both seriousness and sadness to the narration. The voice actors are uniformly convincing and effective. The music, too, goes a long way in recreating the mood and atmosphere of the times. Most of the guests were, however, rather unremarkable, with the notable exception of Shelby Foote, who was an endless trove of amusing and touching anecdotes. I can see how the documentary catapulted him to fame.

The series is not above criticism, however. Burns focuses most of his attention on the battlefield. This has the double benefit of being exciting and of avoiding the war’s most controversial issues. But I think the series should have delved far deeper into the causes of the war. I would also have appreciated far more about civilian life during wartime, rather than hearing mainly from soldiers and generals. Even Abraham Lincoln, though he makes his due appearances, is given far less space than a private in the Union Army. Such a wider scope would have made the documentary longer, more controversial, and perhaps more superficially boring; but as it stands the war’s immense political and historical significance is difficult to fathom from the documentary alone.

We are left with a rosy picture of the elderly veterans embracing on Gettysburg, with the war as a bad dream or even a glorious affair. Indeed, our species has been struggling to reconcile the heroic and the barbaric aspects of war since Homer wrote The Iliad. And it seems we still have not been able to face the horrors without including some shades of the bravery, the camaraderie, the brilliant strategy, to brighten up the picture. But the truth is that every war is a moral collapse, and this one was compounded by the taint of slavery. It is an extremely depressing picture, which may get somewhat obscured by the folksiness of this documentary.



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