Ken Burns’s Civil War

I’ve expressed my opinion about my education before; I won’t rant on it now, beyond saying simply: I learned more about the Civil War (American venue) from Ken Burns than I ever did in school.  They started airing the documentary to end all documentaries last night on PBS, and it’s on now, and I love it.

From Ken Burns, the boyish genius; from the brilliant writing of Geoffrey C. Ward; from the readings by exquisite voice casting; from Elijah Hunt Rhodes and Sam Watkins.  From Barbara Fields and Edwin Bearss. And Shelby Foote.

And Shelby Foote.

The sweet-accented, Southern Comfort-voiced, grey-bearded raconteur and gentleman, with the mischievous glint in his eye and the almost shy humor, is one of the loves of my life.  On the PBS website there’s a note that he received marriage proposals through the mail after this hit the air.  I swear I never.  It might have crossed my mind, but I never did.  I’ve been wanting his history of the War for years; I may just have to cough up and buy it soon.   He had a lovely way of telling a tale, grim or light-hearted.

As much as the series made me adore Shelby Foote, it also made me hate three men highlighted therein.  I don’t use the word lightly, but I do use it here.

“If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time…”

That pompous, incompetent, STUPID … Gail, I apologize if you read this and he’s an ancestor, but I harbor an unholy hatred for George *&#!  McClellan.  Hate.  The war could, possibly, have ended years – years and hundreds of thousands of lives – earlier, if he had … DONE something.  He trained the army, so it owed him that – but.  I tend to lose all curbs on my vocabulary once I get going on Little &^#! Mac and his criminal stupidity.

Breathe.  In, out.  OK.  “Nobody but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.”  – General Joe Johnston.  “MacClellan had in his hands the instrument with which to destroy Lee. Still he did nothing for eighteen crucial hours.” “Had McClellan hurled his forces at the Confederate Army, the war might have ended…” Ooh, look: smoke still puffs out of my ears when I hear that.  Cool.

“McClellan could claim a victory – but he could have won the war.” How many tens of thousands of deaths are on his head?

The second one I loathe, abominate, and would stab through the heart given half a chance (really, I’m a non-violent person – bleeding heart liberal, remember?  I make exceptions): Nathan Bedford Forrest.  He could have earned some grudging respect for his audacity, but – he founded the Klan. Enough said.

And John Wilkes Booth.  Needless to say, he’s the third.

Happily, out of this documentary came more admiration and affection than hatred.  I’ve never quite been able to love Mary Chesnut, or William Tecumseh Sherman, or Elishah Hunt Rhodes, or Robert E. Lee, but they all to one degree or another gained my respect, and they’re intrinsic to my own history.  Lee is in a class utterly by himself.

The voice casting is, as I said, a joy.  I’m going to stick the credits at the end of this, because every single one is perfect.  The use of photographs, oft imitated and never equaled, is stunning – sometimes almost literally.  After staring into the pain-lined deep eyes of Grant and Lincoln, or the still-innocent eyes of a young private before the start of the war, or the resentful eyes of an amputee after, or the clear, old eyes of a slave – after being made to look long and deep into the human faces of history, it’s impossible to consider it anything but relevant, vital, deeply personal.

The music is … perfect, from the slave chants (the deep woman’s voice singing “We are…” haunts me) to, of course, Jay Ungar’s Ashoken Farewell, one of the most sweetly plaintive things I have ever heard.

In the category “Things from The Civil War that always make me cry”, for 2000, Alex:

It’s probably safe to assume that the men I came out of this hating are those Ken Burns & Co. disliked, and those I love are those they love.  Ulysses S Grant, the suffering horse-loving duty-bound steady man, maligned and beleaguered.  Frederick Douglass, the magnificent man who stole himself, with the astonishing face I still want to draw.  Walt Whitman, living at too high a pitch.

And, most of all and always, Lincoln.  Always.  There aren’t many heroes who stand up to too-close scrutiny.  He is one who does.

To these, my thanks:
David McCullough as Narrator
Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln
Julie Harris as Mary Chesnut
Jason Robards as Ulysses S. Grant
Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass and others
Paul Roebling as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman and others
George Black as Robert E. Lee
Arthur Miller as William Tecumseh Sherman and others
Chris Murney as Elisha Hunt Rhodes
Charley McDowell as Sam Watkins
Horton Foote as Jefferson Davis
George Plimpton as George Templeton Strong
Philip Bosco as Horace Greeley and others
Terry Courier as George B. McClellan
Jody Powell as Stonewall Jackson and others
Studs Terkel as Benjamin Butler
Hoyt Axton
Colleen Dewhurst
Shelby Foote
Ronnie Gilbert
Jeremy Irons
Derek Jacobi
Kurt Vonnegut
Larry Fishburne
Pamela Reed
M. Emmet Walsh

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6 Responses to Ken Burns’s Civil War

  1. Helen says:

    loved it :) I am fortunate in that my brother, who lives in Mississippi right up north near the corner of Tennessee sent me Shelby Foote’s epic books when the Ken Burns series first aired. I reread them every few year (& I bet I learned even less about the war in school than you did :):):) )

  2. stewartry says:

    I have one of his novels, but I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read it (or Elisha Hunt Rhodes’s diary, which I’ve also had for years). Hm, I just finished a book …

  3. Tom Fisher says:

    Dear blog author,

    I broke my ankle last Monday, and I think I will have a few weeks to catch up on reading. My lovely wife tells me I must stay put. So yesterday by way of practice I watched Ken Burns’ ‘Civil War’. After nine hours of it, I was so sad when it finished that I went ranging over the internet to find someone who felt the same way I did. I found this old post of yours, and it captures so much of what I felt. I’m not an American, but I did spend some time working in Charleston many years ago. Thank you for a lovely post


  4. stewartry says:

    Dear TF –

    Thank you for taking a moment to leave a lovely note. You put a huge smile on my face. I’m sorry to hear about your ankle – and glad you enjoyed The Civil War. (If you’re REALLY interested in the Civil War and have access to, Shelby Foote’s trilogy is available. He, sadly, does not read his books, but you can hear his “voice” under the narrator’s.)

    Mend quickly!

  5. Tom Fisher says:

    Dear Stewartry,

    Many thanks for the recommendation. My local library (I’ve just checked!) has Mr. Foote’s trilogy. I will issue them. I can’t listen to audiobooks, I fall asleep like clockwork if I try. I thought Shelby Foote was a profoundly fine story teller. I’m not sure if it’s a particularly Southern quality, but I was very struck by his storytelling.

  6. stewartry says:

    I still bear a torch for Mr. Foote. I hope you enjoy the Civil War Narrative; it’s very like what you see in the documentary. “[Johnston’s] anxiety was increased by the fact that he had lost one of his divisions as completely as if it had marched unobserved into quicksand.” He had a wonderful ear for a story. I still need to read more of his novels.

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