Ken Burns’ The Civil War


I love documentaries and there are a few good ones available on Netflix. I had watched all of the ones that interested me over the past year, and I thought I was down to the dregs: the ones about Nazi treasure and the ones about aliens building the pyramids (sometimes at the same time). But then I realized I hadn’t touched any of the Ken Burns documentaries – ones about topics like prohibition or baseball, which were mildly interesting to me based on my general interest in American history. As sometimes seems to happen, Netflix was hiding a whole bunch of Ken Burns documentaries that only revealed themselves when I searched “ken burns.” That’s when I saw that there was a 9-episode series on the American Civil War.

I had heard of Ken Burns’ work and knew that it had a reputation of being beautifully done and informative, but I wasn’t expecting The Civil War to be as compelling and engrossing as it was. At nearly 12 hours long, it seemed daunting, but I knew that it would be the perfect thing for me to satiate a Netflix craving while still feeling productive when it comes to studying for my American literature PhD comprehensive exams  — which will probably be a bit more complicated than Apu’s citizenship test:

After all, a solid historical background of the most turbulent time in the nation’s history is vital to understanding the art that came before, during, and after it, right? See? I can make procrastination sound productive, at least enough to give The Civil War a go.

Well, it was productive. And it was also entertaining.

The Civil War’s statistics are staggering, and I found myself gasping aloud over and over as I learned about the astronomical losses in battles like Antietam, which left more Union men dead than the Allies’ losses on D-Day, or Cold Harbor, where 7,000 men died in just 20 minutes. Though I knew generally how bloody the Civil War had been, I hadn’t heard about the horrific POW camps where 56,000 men died of disease and starvation. The documentary does an excellent job at putting the losses into perspective. One example it offers is that the 625,000 people who died in the Civil War — more than any American conflict’s casualties combined — represented 2% of the population, which translates to 6 million casualties today. This basically means everyone living in Philadelphia (or Toronto). Entire regiments of men died, meaning that, in some towns, every man over the age of 16 and under the age of about 45 was dead.

Beyond representing the staggering military losses, the documentary paints captivating portraits of the enigmatic and eccentric Union and Confederate generals. Personal tidbits about the generals’ lives gleaned from their correspondence and the legendary status they achieved were particularly interesting.  But the documentary doesn’t just focus on the aspects of the war concerning battles and military strategy. It also devotes a considerable amount of time to topics such as slavery, the political and personal life (and assassination) of President Lincoln, the role of women in the war, and the industrialization of the north, offering a nearly-comprehensive look at this intensely tumultuous time. There are some downright spooky coincidences that occurred, and sometimes they’re so fantastical you forget you’re watching a non-fiction documentary at all.

By the end of the first episode, when one of the many talented voice actors was reading the famously eloquent Sullivan A. Ballou letter  – the last letter a Union officer sent to his wife before he died in battle the following week – I had tears in my eyes. Morgan Freeman, Sam Waterston, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Kurt Vonnegut, and Arthur Miller voice various historical characters, like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Garrison Keillor voices the poet Walt Whitman, whose commentary on the war evokes despair and disbelief at the incredible bloodshed. The combination of correspondence, journalism, literature, and commentary from military leaders, soldiers, politicians, writers, and everyday civilians gives the story a remarkable depth.

It’s hard to believe that the entire documentary uses still photography almost exclusively. The wealth of photos from the era is a blessing, but the way Burns’ cinematography pans the photos and focusses on certain details (what was coined “The Ken Burns Effect”) makes them as moving as film. The photos are often gruesome, showing men undergoing amputations without anaesthetic, or corpses littering battlefields. But there are many photos that simply depict groups of very young men sitting around their camps playing cards and smoking cigars, smiling for the picture. It’s fascinating how many of these photographs were taken and survive, and the documentary even explains the history of these photos and how significant they were at the time for being the first war photography everyday Americans ever saw. I was transfixed by the footage of the last living Civil War veterans from both sides playfully reenacting battles in the early 20th century.

The historians who lend their knowledge and personalities to the documentary provide background to many of the specific events. But the fact that Burns allowed their subjective research interests and expertise to permeate their contributions lends a sense of character absent from some historical documentaries. I can’t imagine how wonderful it must have been to attend Professor Shelby Foote’s lectures regularly and listen to his endearingly languid southern accent retell historical happenings as if they were anecdotes about old friends.

The score is a perfect meld of historic time-period pieces like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie,” and even though these are used repeatedly, they become refrains that fade into the background or swell to the forefront when necessary. The documentary even spends time explaining the significance and conception of the wartime songs that you may recognize better as camp songs, which was an unsetting realization for me.

At 12 hours long, this documentary is a time investment, but it’s an addictive one. This isn’t surprising – when it was first broadcast on five consecutive nights on PBS, approximately 40 million viewers tuned in. And let’s be honest, you just watched 10 hours of court footage on Making A Murderer, so you can let Ken Burns teach you something, too.


Caroline Diezyn is a podcast co-host and blogger at NetFlakes, and a PhD student, writer, and artist in London, Ontario. You can find them on Letterboxd and Twitter.


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