Revisiting a classic: “The Civil War” by Ken Burns

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relevance of the American Civil War (1861-65) to our current political and social milieu here in the U.S. I have been fascinated by the Civil War since my boyhood days and long understood its ongoing significance in defining our civic life. Events of the past five years, in particular, have underscored the war’s continuing hold on this country.

Starting last week, I opted to re-watch Ken Burns’s 1990 award-winning documentary mini-series “The Civil War.” The debut of “The Civil War” was quite the television event in the fall of 1990, captivating millions of viewers who tuned into their Public Broadcasting Service stations over five consecutive nights. I was among them, and I have watched the full series on multiple occasions over the past 30 years.

In terms of production values, Burns set a new standard for historical documentaries. He recruited renowned historian David McCullough to narrate the series. He used well-known actors and other public figures to be the voices of historical figures. He utilized innovative camera work to bring contemporary still photos to life. He interspersed interview segments with leading historians and public intellectuals to provide authoritative commentary on the war. And he wove in popular music of the day to evoke the era, while brilliantly opting for an exquisitely haunting, modern folk instrumental, “The Ashokan Farewell,” to serve as the series theme music. (Listen to it here.)

Although “The Civil War” won dozens of awards and the hearts of reviewers, it also attracted its share of critics. Some claimed it was too sympathetic to the Northern, anti-slavery point of view. But others asserted that it was too soft on the slave-owning Southern side and critical questions of race and racism, feeding into the mythology of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

Especially in light of events in the U.S. during the past 15 months, I was curious to gauge my own reaction to this re-watch. How does “The Civil War” hold up against the backdrop of America of the early 2020s? How do criticisms of the documentary play out against our current situation?

Yup, I understand the criticisms that the series is too easy on the pro-slavery South. Historian Shelby Foote, a masterful storyteller who receives a lot of airtime, uses his aw shucks┬ápersona to romanticize the Rebel side. He also claims that the main cause of the Civil War was a failure of America’s remarkable ability to compromise, without explaining whether “compromise” includes permitting slavery to exist.

That said, the opening episode of the series devotes considerable time to framing the war in the context of the extraordinary evils of slavery. Also, the series explains how ending slavery increasingly became a central purpose of the Northern cause, in addition to reuniting the nation. Foote’s main counterpart, historian Barbara Fields, helps to take apart the Southern mythology, and her final remarks at the conclusion of the series eerily anticipate our present circumstances.

All in all, I found that “The Civil War” remains a compelling, even epic portrayal of this signature event in American history and a great example of narrative, historical storytelling via film. More than during any previous viewing, it underscored for me the painful reality that, as a nation, we have not resolved the fundamental differences that led to these four years of awful carnage.