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Why We Need A Good Dose Of Ken Burns’ ‘Civil War’ Documentary Right Now


In the ongoing debate about Confederate monuments, Slate has republished a 2011 article by professor James M. Lundberg attacking Ken Burns’ monumental “Civil War” documentary. Although he concludes with an appreciation of Burns’ achievement, he disapprovingly notes the series’ sentimental tone and points to problems such as its “tidy vision of national consensus,” being “deeply misleading and reductive,” and its “careful 15 minute portrait of slavery’s role in the coming of the war” being nearly negated by Shelby Foote’s 15-second anecdote about a “ragged Confederate who obviously didn’t own any slaves” telling his inquiring Union captors that he’s fighting “because you’re down here.”

Lundberg’s complaints, like many currently raised against Confederate statues, strike me as misleading and reductive. We might start by considering the documentary’s sentimental tone. Now, sentimental appeal as a tool of rhetoric is not the same as cogent argument, and one should immediately admit the obvious: the documentary is manipulative.

As everyone who has heard it knows, the “Ashokan Farewell” is a sad piece of music, and Burns exploits it to underscore moments of pathos. Upon repeated viewings one sees Burns tipping his hand, not only by using the “Farewell” to mark elegiac content, but also by artfully placing particularly affecting words or images on screen as the “Farewell” hits the most wrenching parts of its melody.

This is true also of “Lorena” and other songs. In addition to narrator David McCullough’s “stately baritone,” the voices chosen to animate the source documents’ words have also been artfully selected for gravitas. The famous pan-and-scan method of making well-known photographs look new by exploring them in detail also serves the narrative. The cat is out of the bag, then: documentaries are not the cold, unvarnished truth, but seek to persuade.

But Romanticism Was a Hallmark of the Subject Matter

Lundberg seems to mislead us in failing to see that the documentary’s sentimentality also emerges forcefully from the source documents and the narrative descriptions of events ultimately taken from contemporary accounts. The participants in the Civil War lived immersed in a century marked, as I have written elsewhere, by Romanticism. Romanticism is not a code with rules for behavior and not without its contradictions. It was a sensibility imbibed with one’s culture, and that sensibility affected cultural codes.

To take an easy example, when observers noted approvingly that Robert E. Lee was courtly, or when we read that white Southerners were jealous of their honor, prone to fight over aspersions to it, and overly protective of their women-folk, these things emerge precisely from a rose-tinted Romantic appropriation of medieval chivalry.

Strong emotions, whether magnanimous, hateful, or maudlin, were also a mark of Romanticism. When Burns has his actors read a passage of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1884 Memorial Day speech magnanimously admitting the nobility (but not rightness) of the Confederate cause, this is pure Romanticism. When Burns portrays Daisy Turner reading the anonymous Civil War poem “Dear Madam,” it is an emotional moment because we are looking at the daughter of a slave, a tiny living spark connecting us to that time, and because the poem itself provokes elegiac feelings.

When the narrative portrays Union troops snapping to respectful attention as the Southerners surrendered at Appomattox, we are hearing of an emotional episode that the participants thought important and approvingly recorded for posterity. When Burns has the words of a defeated Confederate read aloud, “We hate you, sir,” this is Romantically outsized emotion. When Burns shows archival footage of aging, reconciled Civil War veterans at the 1913 and 1937 encampments at Gettysburg, this, too, is Romantic in that it portrays nostalgic feelings of respect among former enemies.

Examples could be multiplied, but simply put, because Burns tries to bring us into direct contact with the original source material, he could not avoid the Romantic stamp the Civil War cohort gave their diaries, letters, speeches, memoirs, and photographs. Romanticism is dead in our culture, or nearly so, and we cannot now understand it by willing ourselves to do so. It requires the same study and sympathy one must show in acquiring a foreign language. The effort to understand those people, which we should make, hardly signals our unmixed approval of them.

We Need Burns’ Humanizing Vision of History

It seems to me special pleading when Lundberg suggests Foote’s 15 seconds on the raggedy Confederate fighting “because you’re down here” in any way undermines what he admits is a “careful” and lengthy portrait of slavery. I was taught that American slavery was characterized by huge holdings among the “one-percenters,” while the “ninety-nine percenters” were mostly too poor to own any. While I think the more raggedy inhabitants of the South were probably glad to have a class of automatic, legally defined social inferiors, one notes that not all Southerners voted to secede, and no few actually fought for the Union, with the counties of West Virginia seceding from Virginia from an unwillingness to join the Confederacy.

Perhaps Foote is too cavalier because he seems wearied of combatting the reductive argument that the South fought only to preserve slavery, but he economically makes an effective and truthful point that needs to be made. Burns’ choice to complicate the picture does not mean that he is letting the Confederates off the hook for directly or indirectly defending slavery.

Lundberg notes in passing that Burns’ “Civil War” reflects the attitudes of its time (1990), arguing tacitly, I suppose, that while it might have fit that time and its needs, it did not fit a mere 20 years later, in 2011. I think we need Burns’ humanizing vision more than ever in 2017: its sentimental depiction of reconciliation even among men who had tried to blow one another to bits (and often succeeded) would blunt the all-or-nothing rhetoric of those today who wish to impose a neat, drastic solution to the real problem Confederate statues pose.

If it is possible that historical interpretation of a piece of culture can change, it is surely wrong of us to act as though we are at “the end of history” and can or should eliminate an entire category of material evidence for past life that we will never be able to recover. If we eliminate these Confederate statues, we deprive our descendants of the ability to consider them in their own right, and we would be doing it not through sentimentality but under the arrogant and preemptive assumption that our interpretation of these statues is final and must be binding upon future generations.