Ken Burns Made Me A Civil War Historian

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the first airing of Ken Burns’s The Civil War. My original plan was to mark the occasion with a review (or series of reviews) because I have lots of opinions on it (for instance, I both agree and disagree with Kevin Levin’s recent article). Unfortunately, I don’t have time to watch it again and it’s been too long since my last viewing for me to write a proper entry. I’ll get to that someday, but today I want to say a little about my personal relationship with the film. For me, The Civil War isn’t just any documentary–it directly inspired me to pursue American history as a career.

I was only 12 when The Civil War first aired. My parents and brother watched it, but I only dropped in when the mood struck me. I just didn’t have the attention span. Oddly enough, it was Geoffrey C. Ward’s companion coffee table book that initially got me interested. About 4 years later, when I was getting a little more history in high school, I started poring over its beautiful maps and wonderful Civil War photographs. By the time I entered college, the book had migrated from the living room to my fledgling history bookshelf. I became increasingly fascinated with the popular epic narrative of the war (what I now call the “football analyst school”)–getting swept away by its exciting battlefield stories and larger-than-life personalities. In some ways, it wasn’t a real event but just another cool story. The Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of Hoth occupied the same head space.

Sitting down and actually watching the documentary changed all that. Buffalo’s PBS station, which antennas in southern Ontario could pull in, regularly re-broadcast The Civil War and I finally set aside some time around my freshman year of college to take it all in. Like Glenn Brasher’s first viewing of Glory (as described in his excellent guest post), the experience profoundly affected me. The series taught me the Civil War was not a static event–one that could be memorized and thereby completely understood. The war was part of a broader history that changed depending on the historian writing or talking about it. I adored Shelby Foote like everyone else, but I also noted how the film pitted his perspective (perhaps unfairly) against Barbara Fields’s. The way their viewpoints both opposed and complimented each other showed me history was contentious and fluid. This was a new concept, and suddenly made history seem vibrant and exciting, just as I was getting ready to immerse myself in academia. This was a great gift, but it was just the tip of the iceberg. The documentary’s other major contribution only became apparent years later.

Although The Civil War introduced me to a more complex view of history, the subject still appealed to me primarily as a source of epic stories. I continued to embrace the “football analyst” version of the Civil War, but Burns had planted seeds that would eventually bring me to reject that narrative. It sounds ridiculous but, like Brasher, I had only ever viewed the war as a military struggle–primarily involving white people and largely devoid of political, social, or racial context. I certainly understood that slavery was important, but it was an abstract concept–something you got through quickly to explain how the war started before you got to the good stuff. Burns didn’t let me do that. He forced me to focus on the realities of slavery and the African American experience, along with other aspects of the war that didn’t fit into my epic tale. In retrospect, it’s probably why I watched the series again only two years later–I was slowly wrapping my head around the Civil War as a crisis in American racial and social identity, rather than just that cool period when the United States fought a war with itself. I hadn’t seen Glory, nor had I really thought about secession as more than a constitutional problem, so suddenly this historical epic I loved became a complex historical event with broader horizons and bigger implications. Plus, historians could make careers arguing about it. I wanted to be one of those historians. I wanted to have a place in that debate.

So, The Civil War was the seminal event in my early professional and intellectual life. I didn’t really settle on 19th-Century American history as my primary field until my senior year, but Burns put me on that path. In a weird way, viewing The Civil War was my personal Civil War. What By that, I mean the series gave me the first real narrative of the conflict, and thus became the baseline for all my future knowledge of the war. All other narratives I encountered would be measured against it. Everything I read and write about the war either reinforces or challenges some aspect of that original experience. It’s no coincidence that my first book was on Civil War music. Burns’s soundtrack was one of the things I liked most about the documentary and I often borrowed my parents’ copy before eventually buying my own. The Civil War will always be with me, even if I never watch it again. Maybe that’s a testament to my history geekdom but it also demonstrates the power of a well-constructed piece of popular culture. Given its massive viewership, I suspect there’s a whole host of people out there who similarly, if unconsciously, made Burns’s narrative their own. Most never delved any further, but we all have it implanted in our brains. Some might say this influence is regrettable because the documentary is too flawed, but I strongly disagree. I’m living proof that, whatever The Civil War got wrong, it provided an effective and wide enough gateway that I’m still walking down the path it laid out for me, with no end in sight.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: History of women & suits; visiting Emmett Till sites; Trump’s predecessor; Ken Burns’ Civil War & its impact | History Headlines
  2. Robert Ortega · September 7, 2015

    This was an interesting post. I would credit Ken Burns’ documentary series, the movie “Gettysburg”, and finding out about an ancestor who fought in the conflict as the main reasons for first becoming interested in the Civil War. The first time I watched Ken Burns’ series was when a rebroadcast aired on PBS in the Summer of 1994. I also remember getting copies of the companion book and soundtrack as well and recording a later rebroadcast in 2002. Even though certain parts of the series are flawed (too much Shelby Foote, not enough attention given to the Western theater compared to the Eastern, etc.), I would still consider it a great introduction to the war and a good starting place to read more about it.

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