Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Civil War According to Ken Burns

by Rocky G. Macy

(Note: There was a time in my colorful past, definitely pre-Internet, when I wrote a regular genealogy column that appeared in over a dozen small newspapers - - and also did quite a bit of freelancing. One of my primary writing outlets was Heritage Quest Magazine, a national publication that focused on history and genealogy. The following piece was suggested by the HQ publisher, Leland Metzler, as something that I ought to tackle. I remember spending several days in the basement of our home in Neosho, MO, poring over tapes of the PBS series and taking notes. When I finally shipped the piece off to Metzler, he published it as the magazine's lead article in the May-June 1991 issue. Enjoy.)

The American Civil War: Ribbons of pride, and glory, and anguish woven into letters from home and songs around the campfire. It was blackened skies above burning farms laced with the ever present pall of disease. And it was the noise of crickets, and cannons, and the Rebel yell competing vainly against the unrelenting silence of death. The Civil War was, in fact, so complex in its grandeur and awfulness as to almost defy and adequate retelling.

Almost...but not quite.

Popular historian Ken Burns stunned America last fall with his unique and panoramic vision of our single greatest national catastrophe. The eleven-hour documentary that Burns so skillfully crafted soon became a near legend as the the most widely watched program in the history of the Public Broadcasting System.

Blue against gray, black against white, brother against brother. The story has been told time and again, ad infinitum, but never this well. Burns' work is a collection of facts, images, and recollections blended with such care that the finished product might be more properly thought of as art than history. As with art, the film taps the emotions of the viewers and draws them into the experience. That is no small feat because Burns did not use any live-action footage in his work.

There are facts a plenty in The Civil War. Those little signposts or markers are necessary to guide us through an ordeal that was fought in over ten thousand locations and last four years. All of the major battles, from Ft. Sumter to Appomattox, are explored, experienced, and tallied. Victories, defeats, and casualties, all reduced to numbers. The seven thousand deaths in a twenty-minute period at Cold harbor become but a footnote of minor significance when compared to the six hundred thousand fatalities of the entire war. Each death was a husband, son father, or brother gone forever, a fragment of history, a number, a fact.

(The last entry in the diary of a young Massachusetts volunteer found dead at Cold Harbor read simply: "June 3rd, Cold Harbor, Virginia. I was killed.")

Of course, any good textbook on the Civil War will enumerate facts. By using film as his medium, Burns has a flexibility that is unavailable to historians who limit themselves to the typewriter. The key to this project's success is its vivid imagery.

The written word does convey images, and any able author can supplement a text with photos. But the way that Ken Burns creates compelling images by weaving together photos, sounds, voices, and unusual camera effects borders on being mystical.

Photography began to come of age during the Civil War. Though an experimental oddity only a few years before, the state of the art had expanded by the 1860's to a point where artisans with cameras were able to take over a million photographs of the war. Everything from festooned generals to decaying corpses was fair game for the battlefield photographers. Unfortunately, the interest in those was images soon waned, and most of the glass plate negatives were broken, lost, or sold to gardeners to serve as greenhouse panes.

Of the photographs which did survive, however, many found their way into the Burns' documentary. And, as a part of that film, they do more than just stare coldly back at the television viewers. Burns shows many of the images through a moving lens, scanning from side to side or moving in on a particular subject in the photograph. This technique, coupled with an extraordinary soundtrack of such diverse elements as battle noises, fiddle music, and babbling brooks, brings still photographs to life. The net effect is more than just the curiosity which might result from leafing through a scrapbook or family album - it is, indeed, an emotionally draining experience.

Voices, too, pervade this documentary. Many of the photographs are given speech by modern celebrities. Morgan Freeman reciting the words of Frederick Douglass becomes Douglas. That marvelous voice stirs many of the same feelings in the viewers as those which must have beset Abraham Lincoln when he listened to the great abolitionist. Julie Harris, Jason Robards, Sam Waterston, Charles McDowell, Jody Powell, Paul Robling, Garrison Keillor, Arthur Miller, and a host of others vocalize eloquent dialogues from an age gone by.

And what words they speak! Heroic, pithy, insightful, treasonous - all a part of the Civil War tapestry. Some are familiar such as Admiral David Farragut's blistering declaration at Mobile Bay, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" Others tug at the cynical side of human nature as with William Tecumseh Sherman's definition of military fame as being "killed on the battlefield and the next day having your name spelled wrong in the newspaper." (Sherman regarded newspaper reporters as little more than spies, and was once quoted as saying that if he killed them all, there would be news from hell before breakfast!)

The words of lesser known individuals also ripple across the length and breadth of this film. Spotswood Rice, a slave who escaped and later enlisted in the Union army at Glasgow, Missouri, wrote this stern warning back to Miss Kitty Diggs, his former owner: "You may keep my Mary, but the longer you do, the longer you'll burn in hell and the quicker you'll get there!"

It is, however, the work of several diarists that make this masterwork so unique and personal. Mary Chestnut, whose Diary from Dixie has long been a staple of Civil War researchers, shared incidents from the fall of Ft. Sumter to the siege of Richmond and beyond. She expressed pride, dread, and then bitterness as her homeland slowly unraveled in spirit and in fact.

Another source familiar to historian is Sam Watkins' Co. Aytch: A Side Show for the Big Show. Watkins, a Confederate private in Company H of the 1st Tennessee Regiment, saw service at some of the bloodiest engagements of the war including Shiloh (where he observed General Albert Sydney Johnson dying), Murfreesboro, Shelbyville, Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and Atlanta. Expressing a concern that only the "big bugs" write history, he determined to keep a journal of his experiences in order to show war from the foot soldier's perspective. His observations, often witty - always penetrating - give the Burns film balance and character.

A source not yet as common to historians is the diary of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, a Union volunteer who rose from private to colonel during the war and later went on to attain the rank of brigadier general. Ken Burns discovered the diary of Rhodes almost by accident in his hometown of Walpole, New Hampshire. Rhodes' grandson had published the work through a local historical society, and Burns purchased a copy with a sense of duty to his community. It wasn't long, however, until her discovered the story of Elisha Hunt Rhodes would play an integral part in The Civil War.

Elisha Hunt Rhodes saw Lincoln standing on the White House lawn as his unit marched through Washington, D.C. en route to Bull Run. He also fought at Antietam, Gettysburg, and Petersburg. He saw Lincoln on one other occasion and was destined to come into contact with U.S. Grant and Stonewall Jackson. Rhodes' words show that "common man" element of the Union activities in much the same manner as Watkins' notations did for the South.

But if there was a poet laureate among the diarists, it must have been Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, an officer with the 20th Maine. Consider these words which he penned about a cold night among the dead of the battlefield of Fredericksburg:

"But out of that silence rose new sounds, more appalling still. A strange ventriloquism of which you could not locate the source. A smothered moan as if a thousand discords were flowing together into a keynote - weird, unearthly, terrible to hear, and bare - yet startling with its nearness. The writhing concord broken by cries for help - some begging for a drop of water, some calling on God for pity, and some on a friendly hand to finish what the enemy had so horribly begun. Some with delirious, dreamy voices murmuring loved names as if the dearest were bending over them. And underneath, all the time, the deep bass note from closed lips, too hopeless or too heroic to articulate their agony. At last, cold and depressed, I move two dead men a little and lay down between them, making a pillow of the breast of a third, drew the flap of his overcoat over my face and tried to sleep."

(Robert E. Lee undoubtedly had these same types of images in mind when he said, "It is well that war is so terrible. We should otherwise grow too fond of it.")

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a Union colonel at Fredericksburg. At the war's end it was Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who officially received the battle flags and weapons fo the defeated Army of Northern Virginia. Chamberlain sustained several wounds during the war and went on to receive the Medal of Honor. After the war he was a four term governor of Maine and later President of Bowdin College. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a participant in the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. He died the following year, reportedly from complications of a wound received half a century earlier.

While depending upon the journal accounts of lesser-knowns for much of the grit and substance of the war, Ken Burns does not neglect those whom Sam Watkins humorously referred to the the "big bugs." War is, after all, directed by the strategies and vagaries of politicians and military leaders.

General George McClellan, for example, is depicted by the Burns' work as being a showboat, eager for glory but reluctant to earn it. Lincoln's greatest frustration during the early years of the war, it would seem was his inability to get McClellan to act.

Young George Custer, on the other hand, is seen as a different type of showboat. He acts to excess, often with little concern for the well-being of those around him - certainly a foreshadowing of Little Big Horn.

And the Confederates had their glory seekers as well. Nathan Bedford Forrest rose from private to lieutenant general during the Civil War. Said by many to be the most dangerous cavalry commander in the war, Forrest had thirty-one horses shot out from under him and killed thirty Yankees in hand-to-hand combat. Not content to slip into seclusion, Nathan Bedford Forrest became the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war ended.

Ulysses S. Grant is portrayed as a cigar-smoking, hard drinking, brilliant strategist who grew melancholy (and drunk) whenever a lull in the fighting allowed him time to yearn for his family. Grant was regarded as impervious by Mary Chesnut who noted that he had "the disagreeable habit of not retreating before irresistible forces." But it was a more gentle Grant who rode up to Appomattox Courthouse clad in a soiled uniform to accept an unconditional surrender from the resplendent General Lee. Instead of framing the moment with invective, Grant chose to treat his defeated opponent with compassion while he made plans to transfer Union rations to the starving Confederate troops.

There is also a bond of brotherhood between Grant and General Sherman which surfaces throughout the documentary. At one point, Sherman related, "Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk. And now we stand by each other, always."

Robert E. Lee, a West Point graduate and Virginia aristocrat, was the son of "Lighthorse" Harry Lee and the husband of Mary Custis, a grand-daughter of Martha Washington. Lee was perhaps the only man in history to be offered command of the military of both sides in a war. (He declined Lincoln's entreaty to head the Union forces because of an obligation which he felt toward Virginia.)

As the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee displayed an uncanny knack for always being able to predict the moves of his opponents - that is, until the arrival of General Grant. And the Union boys were perhaps mixing admiration with fear and contempt when they made references to the fighting abilities of "Bob Lee." As one measure of disdain toward Lee, the traitor, Union forces began using the grounds of his plantation in Arlington as a cemetery for Union troops so that his family would never be able to inhabit the house again. Today, of course, that site is the Arlington National Cemetery.

It was Robert E. Lee's studied approach to warfare that gave the South its best hope for victory. Unfortunately for Lee and the Confederacy, southern forces were not "irresistible" as described by Mary Chesnut. In the end they threw everything they had at the Union, and it simply wasn't enough.

And the defeat was bitter. Edmund Ruffin, an old secessionist who had taken part in the attack on Ft. Sumter, chose to wrap himself in the Confederate flag and end his life with a gunshot rather than "live with the Yankee race."

If the Civil War were reduced to one individual, that man would be Lincoln. Seen by many as a bumpkin and inept politician, his stature rose as the tide of war began to turn in the Union's favor after Gettysburg. It was Lincoln who calmly and permanently changed the nature of the war and the future of the country through the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. What had once been a war for Union was suddenly a struggle against slavery. Those human beings who were the personal property of others were en route to becoming citizens.

Perhaps more than anything else, this film by Ken Burns depicts the Civil War as a bloody test of philosophies. Was the United Stated a nation of many states, each subservient to the federal government? Or was it just many states, each a sovereign entity, bound by choice to a loose confederation? The issue had always been a cause for strenuous debate, and it took a civil war to provide the answer. Correct grammatical usage before the war had been "the United States are." After the war that changed to "the United States is." And so it remains - one nation...indivisible...for all.

The Civil War draws viewers into the national catharsis which spawned modern America. The concept of the film was epochal, the task almost insurmountable, and the result marvelous. The Civil War by Ken Burns is destined to become history in its own right!

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