Ken Burns’s ‘Civil War’ After Dylann Roof

The PBS documentary turns 25 this year, just as the Charleston murders and the Confederate flag debate freshly exposed a nation’s racial wounds—wounds the film mostly ignores.

09.06.15 4:01 AM ET

In October 1862, the photographer Mathew Brady opened an exhibition in his New York studio called “The Dead of Antietam.” In it he presented nearly 100 images of the Civil War battlefield that saw what was, up to that time, the bloodiest confrontation ever fought on American soil. In one day, more than 20,000 men had been killed, wounded, or gone missing

Brady’s assistants, Alexander Gardner and James Gibson, arrived soon after the fighting was over and turned their lenses on the corpses of the Union and Confederate soldiers, capturing the grotesque reality of death in an age when people still imagined that war was a chivalrous affair. Here were the bodies piled on top of each other in “The Bloody Lane,” there were the bloated cadavers of Confederates, their pockets turned inside out by pillagers. One of the most memorable images was of a dead gray horse that looked as if it were resting, and only the caption informed the viewer that both the animal and the man riding it had been killed.

Eventually, most or all of these photographs were available for purchase as “stereo cards” which could be looked at through special lenses until the full depth and horror of the sepia images leaped out at the viewers. The cameras used by Brady’s team, you see, recorded the American Civil War in 3-D.

Filmmaker Ken Burns used a great many of those gruesome pictures from Antietam and the many other battles fought between 1861 and 1865 in his monumental 11-hour documentary film series, “The Civil War,” first broadcast 25 years ago. Now, to mark the silver anniversary of that momentous television event, PBS will rebroadcast it over the course of five consecutive nights, beginning on Labor Day, and in a never-before-seen high-definition version that should be almost as vivid as Brady’s stereo cards.

But if you saw the documentary a quarter-century ago, or indeed one year ago, you are likely to feel as I did, after binge-watching it once again over the last few days, that the experience is very different than it was in the past, and not because of the technology, but because of what happened in Charleston, South Carolina, in June of this year.

After a young loser named Dylann Roof walked into a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and allegedly murdered nine innocent people for no other reason than that they were black and he saw himself in the sick tradition of Confederate-flag-waving white supremacists, comfortable perceptions of the Civil War and its legacy began to change, and very quickly.

In the debate over the flag and the decision to take it down from the pole where it was locked in place on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, not only Southerners but all Americans had to think again about why the Civil War was fought and what it did, or did not achieve. And Ken Burns’s documentary, wonderful as it is in many ways, does not quite tell us that—or, worse, as historian Eric Foner pointed out some years ago in what seemed, at the time, a rather churlish essay, the series sentimentalizes the aftermath of the war to the point of obscuring the deep problems of race and racism that endure to this day. 

During the debate since the Charleston shooting, we’ve discovered that a great many Americans, and not only Southerners, question whether slavery was the central issue that caused the Civil War. And on re-watching the Burns documentary, it’s clear he leaves that question open, letting it be subsumed, as it has been far too often and for far too long, in the mythologized details of politics and the excitement of battle. 

And Burns, clearly, knows that there is a problem with the way we’ve understood the history, even if he doesn’t quite admit it infects his own work. 

“It’s no wonder that Americans have permitted themselves to be sold a bill of goods about what happened,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation last month: “‘Oh, it’s about state’s rights, it’s about nullification, it’s about differences between cultural and political and economic forces that shape the North and the South,’” he said, mocking the arguments. “It is much more complicated than that—but essentially, the reason why we murdered each other ... was over essentially the issue of slavery.”

Actually, it was not even that complicated. As I was reminded constantly when I was researching my book Our Man in Charleston, about the politics and intrigues in South Carolina from 1853 to 1863, the reasons that we murdered each other finally were quite simple: The Confederate states seceded from the Union to defend slavery, the North went to war to stop secession. Burns’s film never quite makes clear that basic point.

What makes the documentary compelling television is essentially at odds with history as many people have come, rather suddenly, to understand it and, indeed, to feel it since the massacre at Emanuel AME Church. Once again we are told and shown how brilliant the Confederate generals were—how brave and resourceful against much greater odds. But even before this summer it was becoming hard to accept the deification of Robert E. Lee, the mystical fascination with fanatical Stonewall Jackson, and the bizarre cheerleading for Nathan Bedford Forrest that runs throughout the Burns film. (A friend in Atlanta used to play a drinking game with buddies in college, downing shots every time historian Shelby Foote mentions Forrest, later a leading light of the Ku Klux Klan, and his exploits as a cavalry commander.) 

It’s not that Burns leaves out bits of history that could balance the tales of the generals and their soldiers. There are many lengthy asides about social conditions, hospitals, the role of women. We get to know well a handful of privates observing the madness around them. There are some powerful passages exposing the brutality of slavery, and showing the important role that black soldiers, most of them ex-slaves, eventually played in the Union victory. 

But, as often happens in film and television, the drama of the narrative overcomes the nuances of the narration as we move, to the haunting strains of “Ashokan Farewell,” from Bull Run to Shiloh, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Atlanta, Petersburg, and Appomattox, witnessing the incompetence, for the most part, of the top Union commanders, the brilliance of the Confederates. 

Early on, the horror of the corpses on the battlefields may affect us almost as it did those New Yorkers who visited Brady’s studio in 1862. “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war,” one reporter wrote. “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”

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But eventually the dead in “The Civil War,” even viewed close-up, fade into the background of the viewer’s consciousness. We focus, as any of us are wont to do, on who will win the battles and how, not why they are fighting, or why the war happened in the first place, or what it will leave behind.

There is a fascinating bit of narration taken from a black soldier writing to the owner of his slave daughter telling her that he will come and take her, and that the age of chivalry is at an end. But the conclusion of the series is, in fact, almost a paean to the old chivalric values of honor and bravery, as if detached from all other values, that did so much to lead the country to war. 

Even Union General Ulysses S. Grant is quoted after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House saying, “My own feelings were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which people ever fought.”

As Foner pointed out in his essay soon after the series was first released, Burns tries very hard at its end to focus on “the road to reunion” between the North and the South. But that reunion was between the whites on both sides, not the whites of the South and ex-slaves who fought for the North. And if both sides said they were fighting for “freedom,” one side was, unequivocally, fighting for the freedom to enslave.

Columbia University historian Barbara Fields tells the camera, presciently, “I think what we need to remember, most of all, is that the Civil War is not over until we, today, have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it.” She quotes William Faulkner saying that history is not “was,” it’s “is,” and concludes, “If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought and regrettably, it can still be lost.” 

But, as Foner noted, Fields’s comment “is treated as a ‘sound bite’ and, as is so often the case, its impact is undercut by the visual images that accompany it—in this case newsreels of the 1913 and 1938 Gettysburg reunions.” In the final chapters of the documentary, Foner wrote, “Faced with a choice between historical illumination or nostalgia, Burns consistently opts for nostalgia.”

As the historian William Dean Howells once said, “What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.”

What the events of this summer showed us is that, in reality, the happy ending has yet to come.