Thursday, April 9, 2015

A review of “The Civil War” (PBS series)

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still must it be said that 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' "

- Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865)

It was the bloodiest war in American history, with more American dead than World War II. It was a war that both sides thought would last ninety days, but which ended up dragging on for nearly four years. And it was a war that freed four million Americans from bondage, and brought some sweeping changes to American society.

Confederate dead at Antietam

What was the war about?

The war is controversial, which has been reflected in how it's been told ever since. One side claims that it's about "states' rights," which was partially true; but which is ultimately an incomplete explanation for what happened. Another side claims that it was about slavery, which gets closer to the truth; but which does not always acknowledge the complications from the hypocrisy of some Northern whites on this issue - at that time and now. I consider myself an advocate of the idea that slavery was the underlying cause of the war; but I acknowledge that there were Northerners who cared nothing about black rights, and who resisted the ideas of both equality and black liberation - there were villains to be found on both sides of this conflict.

George McClellan, a Northern general who ran against Abraham Lincoln in 1864

"The good guys won, the bad guys lost"

In any war, it is an over-simplification to say that everyone on the one side was good, and everyone on the other side was bad - the truth is almost always (if not universally) more complicated. Nonetheless, it is quite true to say that the good guys in this war were the Unionists, and the bad guys in this war were the Confederacy - the good guys won, and the bad guys lost. Putting forward this interpretation of these events is a remarkable documentary by PBS, which may be the finest history series ever made - whether of the documentary kind, or of any other kind. But you don't need to agree with filmmaker Ken Burns to enjoy the series - the storytelling is good enough that it will likely please people of almost any persuasion, and persuade them of the importance of a topic many of them would rather have left back in their grade school days. (The series is unusually powerful.)

Slave who was brutally whipped

The causes of the war

The series starts off with some remarkable anecdotes, as Ken Burns is a master at sucking people in; and then begins the epic with a brief treatment of the causes of the war. The issue of slavery is dealt with in-depth, as are important events like the prewar fugitive slave law, the fighting in prewar Kansas, and the John Brown raid. The presidential election of 1860 (where Abraham Lincoln was elected for the first time) is also discussed, with Mr. Lincoln's election as a "moderate candidate" - in that he promised not to end slavery where it already existed, but firmly pledged that he would prevent its expansion into the frontier. This political platform was enough of a threat to Southerners that they seceded from the Union largely over this, and one Southern state after another left the Union before the new president-elect was even inaugurated.

Fort Sumter

How the war began

By the time he was inaugurated, the Southern states had left the Union, but the war had not yet begun. President Lincoln wanted to use force to bring the South back into the Union; but did not want to make it look as though he'd started the war, as that would alienate people both inside and outside the country (and he needed external allies). Thus, he made an effort to resupply a surrounded Union fort in South Carolina, off the coast of Charleston harbor. That place is now known as Fort Sumter. The Confederates, believing the fort was on "their" soil, fired on the Union forces inside the fort to "drive them from their territory." Thus, this terrible war began. It began on terms that were agreeable to Lincoln, with the South having unquestionably fired the first shots; and so he could prosecute the war with some degree of public support.

Union dead at Gettysburg

The war itself (with over half a million dead)

But it is only the first episode that covers the causes of the war, and how it broke out - virtually all of the rest of the series is about the fighting of the war - that terrible Civil War, which claimed more lives than any other in American history. (Over half a million - some 600,000; to be more specific.) Virtually every major battle of this war is told through photographs and paintings, with actors reading period quotes, and even with period sound effects in the battle scenes. (For the non-battle scenes, there is also period music; which helps to bring you further into the time.) An apt comparison might be with "The Lord of the Rings," which is an epic story with an intensely human feel - it's a long story with great detail, but it always leaves you thirsting for more.

Surrender at Appomattox Courthouse

Bringing history to life

By the time you get to the end of an episode, you feel almost emotionally drained; as the period has been brought to life in such moving drama that you'll almost forget you're in the modern era. You've seen the bitter draft of defeat, the sweet sadness of victory, and the liberation of slaves. You've seen how the nation progressed from one that was indifferent to black rights, to one that was willing to die for and against them (depending on which side you were on). You've seen the transformation of a country, as it is racked by war between people who "read the same Bible and pray to the same God," and who share each other's language and culture - a sad thing to witness, and a bitter thing to recover from. You've seen it from both sides, with major characters shown on both sides of the war; and the people are so real to you that you'd swear you've met them in real life.

John Wilkes Booth

What happened when the war was over?

The last episode is one of the standouts, as they show what happened to the nation immediately after the war, as Lincoln the Great Emancipator was assassinated, and the great work of reconstruction left to people who were less equal to the task. They show what happened to the people after the war was over, with the major characters that they depicted from the wartime episodes. They show the war crimes trials for the Andersonville prison camp (a notorious camp), the passage of the antislavery and other amendments to the Constitution for civil rights, and the dramatic effect the war had on the country. As one of the commentators says, "it was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads" - an understatement whose full meaning is deeply felt after you've watched this series. By the time they end on a poetic note, you'll have been deeply moved by virtually every moment of this series; and you'll be thinking about the series long after you finish the closing scene.

Civil War hospital

The transformation of the country

The series stays with you to a degree other series do not. It is so profoundly moving that it's impossible to communicate to someone who hasn't experienced it by watching the series firsthand. It is an epic in the original Greek sense of that word, and it is a bittersweet tragedy of how the country cleansed itself from its original sin, and paid a terrible price for it. There is a reason that college classes in American history nearly always divide their two-semester course into "before 1865" and "after 1865" - because the year the Civil War ended is the great dividing point for American history. We speak of events before the Civil War, and events after it; because the Civil War changed the country so profoundly. The country was never the same again after the Civil War, because the transformation was so fundamental.

African-American troops fighting for the Union

Glued to the screen

Whatever your feelings about the Civil War were in grade school, you'll find it a fascinating subject by the time you finish this series. You'll be glued to the TV in a way you never thought you would do for a history program, and you'll want to revisit this series time and time again as the years go by. You may even wonder why you waited so long to begin it.

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

- Abraham Lincoln's "Second Inaugural Address" (March 4, 1865)

DVD at Amazon

This series is usually available on Netflix

If you liked this post, you might also like:

The Abolitionists movie (PBS program)

Abraham Lincoln movie (PBS program)

Ulysses S. Grant movie (PBS program)

Timeline of United States military history:

French and Indian War 1754-1763
American Revolutionary War 1775-1783
War of 1812 (technically 1812-1815)
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848
American Civil War 1861-1865
Reconstruction 1865-1877
Spanish-American War 1898
World War One 1917-1918
World War Two 1941-1945
Korean War 1950-1953
Other wars to be covered later


  1. Great review, Jeff! I stumbled upon your blog while researching the history of the Confederate flag -- with all this debate over the flag being a symbol of Southern pride or an emblem of slavery, I thought I should educate myself :)

    After an hour, and several blog posts later, I've come to the conclusion that I really like this blog! Keep it up!

    1. Why, thank you – that makes me really happy! Glad you're liking the posts :)

      How are you doing these days?


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