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 I adore Shelby Foote, I hate three men highlighted here. 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
M. Emmet Walsh