On the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War, US public television has re-run the eponymously titled groundbreaking documentary series by Ken Burns. This article is an attempt to summarize the thoughts and reactions going through my mind on finally watching this series from beginning to end. Ken Burns’s Civil War series has, of course, become famous for its somber yet lyrical depiction of the characters and circumstances surrounding the War, but until its recent rerun on PBS, I had not sat down to watch the entire thing, relegating it to the list of must-see shows that I intend to get to some day.


Civil War documentary by Ken Burns

Indeed, I had not planned to watch it this time either, but happened to chance upon it while channel surfing-last week, and a few minutes into the show, was mesmerized and unable to stop watching. I am not particularly knowledgeable about the Civil War; in fact, until a few years ago, I knew little about it other than the broadest outlines. However, in the interim, having had a chance to visit several Civil War battlefields and monuments, as well as parts of the US South that played a key role in this conflict, my interest had been piqued, and the documentary absolutely sucked me in with its evocative descriptions of the sites, battles and people who lived through those turbulent times.


Ken Burns has created a gem of a documentary that succeeds in being scholarly and emotional at the same time, but he never lets sentiment get in the way of objectivity. One thing that particularly struck me was how, without resorting to re-enactments, and with minimal live footage, he managed to effectively convey the horrors of combat, the gravity of the issues over which the battles were fought, and the emotional depths and quirks of the people he whose lives he focused on.


Burns’s cameras rove lovingly over photographs of battlefields (including poignant images of the dead and injured in the aftermath of battle), soldiers and key politicians of the time. He uses somber period music and measured narration to great effect, helping to draw the viewer into the era and the minds of the protagonists, from President Lincoln and the generals down to foot-soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies. One haunting piece of music that pervades the show, called “Ashokan Farewell”, is actually a modern composition, but serves as a plaintive backdrop that feels appropriate to the era and evokes a great sense of loss.


Adding more atmosphere and depth to the documentary are the wonderful vignettes from Civil War historian Shelby Foote. In a warm, mellifluous Southern accent, Foote provides his insights into many of the key situations and characters in the war. Listening to Foote speak, one can almost imagine him as someone from that period reaching out across history to give us a first-hand account of what went on during that time. Watching Foote’s expressive face as he speaks, it is clear that he feels a strong emotional connection to the Civil War. He does not speak as a detached observer analyzing events that occurred long ago, but rather as someone who might have marched on the field with some of the soldiers, or broken bread with the generals.   


Ultimately, what remained with me were the photographs of the soldiers who bore the brunt of the destruction that the war unleashed. And of the slaves who suffered so much before and during the war, and the legacy of whose pain and sorrow has yet to be completely washed away.


Looking across the decades into those eyes - hopeful, naïve, fearful, sad, haunted eyes; eyes looking blankly upwards from recumbent bodies on the battlefield to heavens they saw no more - in fading photographs brings into sharp focus the humanity, sometimes noble, sometimes deeply flawed, and yet often so frail, against whose backdrop these momentous events played out. If we could all spend some time gazing into those eyes, thinking about what they saw, maybe we would learn, as a people, not to repeat their follies. Maybe that is too much to hope for. For myself, the next time I visit a Civil War site, I will linger just a bit to touch the ground and the walls where so many fought and fell, and listen silently to the wind carrying the soft echoes of history.