PBS’s “The Civil War”: The Mythmanagement of History

ken burns

This piece was originally printed by Southern Partisan magazine in 1990.

In the September issue of the American Historical Association’s newsletter, a rave review predicted that the PBS production “The Civil War” might become “the Gone With the Wind of documen­taries.” After watching almost all of it, I would suggest Uncle Tom’s Cabin as its fictional alter ego. But let us not (like “The Civil War”) be unfair. It is probably the best of the various kinds of “Civil War” tele­vision extravaganzas to appear so far. As anyone who watched the others will know, this is faint praise. When Boswell asked that arch-conservative Dr. Samuel Johnson who was worse, Rousseau or Voltaire, Johnson replied, “Sir, it is difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them.”

On the plus side, the pictures in Ken Burns’ documentary were excellent, as they have always been, whether seen on television or in the old Miller Photographic History or in the more recent Image of War by William C. Davis. The letters from and to soldiers were inter­esting and frequently moving. Shelby Foote’s comments often struck a note of sane moderation. The background music was well-done if repetitious. There were occasional though ineffectual attempts at im­partiality in the narration.

Now for the minus side. In the first place, a program like this is inherently incapable of explaining complex historical events. It can only illustrate the cruelty and suffering of war, the romantic naivete, the poignancy, pathos, courage, cowardice. But even with the best of intentions untrammeled by prejudice or ideological imperatives, to attempt to explain so much by such means is inevitably to distort. When bias, ideology, and sheer ignorance are loaded onto the in­herent limitations, then we have something like “The Civil War”, a caricature often reminiscent of Republican postwar “Bloody Shirt” political propaganda.

To turn to some of the larger deformities, take slavery, both as the cause of the war and as an institution. The monocausation theo­ry—slavery as the cause—was put forward many years ago by James Ford Rhodes. That view was the received wisdom among the post­war generation, but was powerfully challenged by scholars between the two World Wars.

In the era of the civil rights movement, the importance of slavery was again strongly emphasized by what some have called the neo-abolitionist historians. But even they never completely turned the clock back to Rhodes, as Mr. Ken Burns has tried to with his popular documentary. To pluck one factor out of a complex historical matrix and offer it, clearly but tacitly, as the cause of war is the result, one can charitably assume, of sheer ignorance.

As for slavery itself, it is likewise torn from context and held up as a uniquely Southern sin. No mention of those Africans in Africa who for generations sold their brothers into slavery; or of the New Englanders who profited for so many years by buying them in Africa and selling them in America; or of the pervasive anti-black prejudice in the Northern states so ably documented thirty years ago by Leon Litwack.

Purported mortality statistics for slaves are presented without comparison to mortality rates among free blacks or whites. There is no hint of the fact that the growth rate of the country’s black popula­tion was less for seventy years after emancipation than it was before, no awareness of the latest revisionist studies (by Northern scholars) that contradict the raw-head-and-bloody-bones vision presented by producer Ken Burns and his coadjutors.

The handling of Lincoln and the questions of race and slavery are equally unbalanced. The level of discourse here was suggested by Shelby Foote’s interviewer, who persisted in believing that Lincoln was an old-line abolitionist. Foote, who one hopes was embarrassed by a good deal of what went on during the eleven hours of the pro­gram, gently demurred, but his questioner bulled ahead anyway. In one of those rare and aberrant bows to ostensible impartiality, it is pointed out that Lincoln initially opposed only the extension of slav­ery, and that he said in his first inaugural he had no intention of in­terfering with slavery where it existed (the adjoining clause in which the Great Emancipator says that neither does he have any inclina­tion to interfere with it is delicately omitted) and that he issued or­ders for the return of runaway slaves. (Incidentally, Lincoln flatly refused to issue such an order.)

Then after the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation we are treated to an out-of-context quotation from Lincoln’s December 1, 1862, message to Congress, including the famous sentence, “we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” That com­ment was made at the end of the second half of his message, which is a plea by Lincoln for congressional approval of a constitutional amendment that would postpone emancipation until the year 1900, compensate slaveowners and provide funds to colonize the ex-slaves somewhere outside the United States.

“I cannot make it better known that I strongly favor colonization.” And to those Northerners who feared the freed black would “swarm forth and cover the land,” he said they wouldn’t, and if they tried, “cannot the north decide for itself whether to receive them?” View­ers of “The Civil War” documentary were never told that this is the context of “nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.” It is an excellent example of the editorial policy of the series.

Nor is the audience told that, at the Hampton Roads Conference in February 1865, when the Confederacy was collapsing, Lincoln sat silently by while his Secretary of State invited the Southern negotia­tors to bring their states back into the Union and vote down the pending Thirteenth Amendment; or that Lincoln, when visiting fallen Richmond, himself made the same offer to Calhoun’s old lieutenant, Duff Green.

As for Lincoln and race, the authors of the program are evidently wholly ignorant of the categorical white-supremacist statements Lin­coln made repeatedly and publicly during the 1850s, and do not know that in the late summer of 1862 he told a black delegation that but for the presence of their race, white men would not be killing each other, and it would be best for both blacks and whites if blacks left the country.

As another example of distortion by omission, take the attack on Fort Sumter. In the program, the Confederates suddenly fire on the Union fort, no reason being given. Nothing is said about the repeated assurances given Confederate officials by Lincoln’s Secretary of State that the fort would soon be evacuated, assurances offered even while plans to hold the fort were being devised. There is no mention of the warnings the Confederate government began to receive about an ex­pedition being secretly prepared, or of the fact that when the order to capture the fort was issued by the Davis administration, they knew that a flotilla of undetermined strength was coming down the coast, perhaps (as some informants had warned) to capture Charleston. No, nothing of that—the rebels just attacked, it is im­plied, without cause or provocation.

Other subjects are treated with a degree of unfairness that is bound to raise suspicions as to intent. Space does not permit more than a sampling. Take Fort Pillow. All we come away with is the as­sertion that the Confederates killed black soldiers after they surren­dered. Doubtless some were killed, just as black soldiers sometimes killed Confederates after they had surrendered. What is not told is that, according to the laws of war, if a fortified place refused to sur­render after being warned that otherwise an assault would take place, the attackers were entitled to kill all the defenders. Bedford Forrest’s men did not do this, even though there was never any formal surrender of the Fort and in spite of the fact that some black sol­diers surrendered and then picked up weapons and shot their cap­tors. Of the 557 men in the garrison (295 white, 262 black) 336 survived. Forrest took 226 prisoners, 168 whites and 58 blacks. That was the “massacre.”

As for the Battle of the Crater, we are told that Confederates again shot black soldiers as they attempted to surrender. Doubtless some did. But we are not told that when the black troops were sent into the battle they were also shot by Union white soldiers, even as happened in the Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War. And poor old Burnside was entirely responsible for the disaster at the Crater. Did no one tell the script writers that a black division had carefully drilled to lead the assault but was withheld by Grant and Meade at the last moment, and that this was the probable cause of the failure?

As bad as these examples are, nothing except perhaps the treat­ment of slavery approaches the handling of the subject of prisoners of war. We are transported back to the days of the “Bloody Shirt.” The horrors of Andersonville are depicted, and horrors there were, and the living skeletons (emaciated by dysentery, which killed more men than bullets) that were a staple item in Republican atrocity pro­paganda are again put on display. The viewers are not informed of conditions in Northern camps, where a deliberate policy of depriva­tion was instituted or of the mortality rate in those camps, which, despite the vastly superior resources available to the Lincoln admin­istration, was nearly as high as in the Confederacy. After all, what more can one expect of a producer (Ken Burns) who characterizes Lee as a “traitor”?

A similar onesidedness can be found in the presentation of Sher­man’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas. Destruction of property and robbery, including robbery of the slaves, are conceded: how could they not be? But there is nothing about the disgusting desecration of churches, digging up the dead to rob the bodies, noth­ing of the murder and torture of civilians, of gang rapes, or of the mass rape of black women. No, mainly just the destruction of prop­erty to show the Southerners the war was lost and thus save lives — that’s all “Old Cump” and his boys were up to.

As for poor George B. McClellan, who certainly had his faults, he is made to look bad so that Lincoln can be made to look good. Just think what that poor man had to put up with! The savaging of Mc­Clellan has been de rigueur among the faithful, especially since Nico-lay and Hay deliberately set out to destroy McClellan’s reputation in their massive biography of Lincoln. One point will have to suffice: in the winter of 1861-1862, McClellan (I think this is nearly a direct quotation from the documentary) “took to his tent with a fever rather than move his army.” It was a fever, all right, typhoid fever, said his doctors, and he was in his bed for three weeks.

When all the teachers who have been burning up their VCRs tap­ing “The Civil War” show it to their classes, one can only hope that they will linger over a vignette toward the end, one of the Gettysburg reunion of 1913. It showed those old Confederates retracing their steps up the slopes of Cemetery Ridge, held again by a handful of their old adversaries. But before the old Rebs could totter to the crest, they were met by the old Yanks who rushed down to embrace them. No doubt, to the makers of the film this was just a pleasing touch of sentimentality; but to those who know something of the war, it has far more significance.

During the conflict, soldiers from generals to privates blamed the war on the politicians, and many was the time when Rebs and Yanks, meeting along the picket line, would say: “if they would just leave it to us, we could settle it all quickly and peaceably.” Then as now the common soldiers were sent by others to suffer and to die, and the survivors soon began to wonder how the quarrel got started and whether it could possibly be worth the agony they saw all around them. But by that time it was too late to stop. The result is tragedy. And the tragedy is compounded by people like Ken Burns and his collaborators. Too bad they could not have been as just to the Confederate soldiers and their Cause as the old Union veterans at Gettysburg in 1913.

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