by Steve Lancaster 10/28/18
All civil wars are rebellions, but not all rebellions are civil wars. The difference being a rebellion doesn’t seek to replace the government, but to separate from it and form a separate government. The American revolution was this type of rebellion as was the rebellion of the Southern Confederacy. Most rebellions and civil wars fail.
It has been almost 20 years since Ken Burns Civil War aired on PBS. Both the nature of documentaries and PBS have changed. It’s been that long since I watched the entire series from start to finish. The series, narrated by David McCullough, features the voices of just about everyone in Hollywood during the production period, from Sam Waterston (Abraham Lincoln), to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. It is a masterpiece of the documentary art and regrettably, it could not be made today.
When the film was made in the late 80s there was still modicum of respect for graciousness and truth. When the script called for it Burns used the word nigger to create the cultural feelings directed to Blacks in the South and in the North. Burns doesn’t pull any punches stating that Southern Democrats were the slave holders and Republicans were the abolitionists. Try to find a democrat who will admit that today?
The series is largely factual to the extent we can recognize fact. There a few lapses into “common knowledge” that do not fit the reality. Most notably, that R. E. Lee was offered command of all federal armies in 1861. He wasn’t, he was offered Brigadier rank and command of a division. However, whatever the offer Lee would have turned it down. The series makes it clear that Lee personally owned no slaves. All the slaves at Arlington were owned by his wife and her family. The series clarifies that there were many in the South who did not agree with disunion or slavery; yet when called to fight for either side they chose the side where their home was.
Throughout the series, the generalship of Lee, Longstreet, Stewart, and Jackson is praised as American virtues. In this era of name changes and statue destruction; these men are no longer politically correct. The series uses historians and writers to explain and color the chronology of the war. Perhaps the most well known is Shelby Foote. His million-word three volume history of the war is featured as the go to source for war history. There is a three-hour CSPAN interview in 2001 with Foote in his Memphis home. Foote’s history has come under attack recently by the usual suspects who claim he has too much sympathy for the Southern cause. However, if you listen to Foote or read his books he is just as complementary of Grant, Sherman and Lincoln.
Burns presents in 1990 a fresh form of documentary, since copied by everyone who desires to make a documentary. The entire series is based on the letters, journals, and writings of the people who lived through the war. Photographs, (Many from Mathew Brady), paintings and newspapers are featured along with period music from both sides.
It is the theme music, Ashokan Farewell, that the tone of the entire series is set. The music is emotional and sentimental. Along with the music from the war years, Bonnie Blue Flag, Lorena, Dixie, and of course, Battle Hymn of the Republic. The Battle Hymn is a fine song. It is a shame that Julia Ward Howe was not a Southerner as it might have replaced Dixie as an Anthem. It fits with Southern sensibilities and martial attitudes about religion better than Northern ideals.
If you are more interested in the battles this is not the series for you. Burns does not dwell on the strategy and tactics of the major battles other than to present a general overview of the goals, outcomes and the horrific death count on both sides. Instead, Burns deals with the real people, on both sides, and follows them through the war through quotes from their letters and journals. You cannot listen to the Sullivan Ballou letter to his wife and refrain from an emotional moment.
Burns makes the point that we, as a people, have come a long way since the traumatic days before disunion. Episode nine, the last one, deals with the immediate aftermath of the war. Burns stresses the comradeship of the soldiers, Yankee and Rebel, and how the United States changed to be a more united country. Shelby Foote puts it well, “Before the war the country was referred to as the United States are, after the war it was the United States is, that’s a big change.”
In this age when dangerous political passions, Antifa, mad bombers and shootouts, are no less than the years before the war and people on both sides of the political spectrum are given to speculation about a second rebellion. They talk without thinking of the likely death count. The official count of the dead on both sides is 620,000. That does not take into consideration the deaths of civilians due to malnutrition and disease, a number that can only be estimated, but is probable to be in the hundreds of thousands.
If you have seen war, its not a condition that you wish to repeat. There is no way that you desire your family to endure the kinds of privations common to civilians near a battlefield. The Civil War will remind you that this is the worst kind of war. More people die in wars between partisans inside nations than die in nation-state war. It is a catastrophe to be avoided, if possible. • (152 views)