Assessing Ken Burns

In response to yesterday’s post on Ken Burns and the Crater a reader chimed in with a very negative assessment of The Civil War.  I’ve made regular references to Burns’s documentary throughout the life of this blog, including references to its usefulness in the classroom (and here) and as a point of contrast between popular perceptions and the more critical stance of academic historians.

I have to say that I find Burns to be quite valuable on a number of levels.  Yes, I agree that there are plenty of problems with his interpretation, but there is much to admire and value.  [For a thorough critique of the documentary see Brent Toplin’s edited collection of essays titled, Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond.] I agree with much of what is contained in those critiques, but keep in mind that historians will always find something to analyze as falling short of the mark. In addition to factual problems, Burns spends most of his time in the Eastern Theatre, Shelby Foote tells too many goofy stories and makes some other outrageous comments, and the last section on Appomattox and reunion is way off the mark.  Still, by including historian Barbara Fields viewers are exposed to the"bottom-up" perspective of emancipation rather than the overly simplistic "great emancipator" story.  Burns does capture the horror of the battlefield and ways in which the battlefield, politics, and the home front intersect.  I could go on.

What I admire about Burns is that he never ignored the criticisms of historians; in fact, he deals with them head-on in the Toplin collection and he does so by carefully laying out the goals of a filmmaker in contrast with a more traditional historical study.  Burns was engaged and even passionate about the material that he was attempting to get across to a broad audience back in 1989.  Let’s face it, Burns’s documentary is probably the most influential interpretation in the last 25 years.  I know we would like to give the nod to McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, but I suspect that the majority of people who own the book have actually never read it or they haven’t read most of it.  I don’t mind admitting that I never read through the whole thing straight through until a graduate seminar a few years back.  It’s a dynamite book, but compared to Burns it’s boring as hell. 

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4 comments… add one
  • SGT Will Hickox Dec 1, 2006 @ 22:56

    Kevin, I agree with your opinion on Burns’ disastrous choice of Shelby Foote (a novelist who one day decided to write a history of the Civil War) for a talking head. Thankfully Barbara Fields was a good antidote to Shelby’s anecdotes.

    Tom, it seems to me that dismissing the series as an “experience in Northern self-glory” only shows where your own biases lie. Didn’t the pro-Confederates have 125 years in which to tell the story nearly exclusively from their viewpoint? Speaking of self-glory, what would you call the writings of John Esten Cooke, Douglas Southall Freeman, Margaret Mitchell, etc? Besides, it seemed to me that, for all its myriad faults, the TV series did give enough attention to the Secessionist side. Clearly the producers were fascinated with Forrest, Jackson and other such figures.

  • Tom Dec 1, 2006 @ 20:20

    Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” –

    An experience in Northern self-glory.

    I miss it every chance I get.

  • Cash Dec 1, 2006 @ 15:00


    I agree with you on the Ken Burns series. For awhile it seemed like everytime I watched it I found a new error. But I kept watching, and I even shelled out the money to buy the DVD set and kept watching them.

    The Burns series introduced the Civil War to a large number of people who didn’t know anything about it. Because of that and because it was compelling TV it deserves praise.

    Every now and then I’ll put the DVDs in and watch the series again.


  • Kristen Dec 1, 2006 @ 9:32

    Kevin–I am devoting a little extra time this next week to showing Burns’ Civil War, and I was wondering which two episodes you found the most useful to students. I have two class periods (in each one I thought I would allow an hour for the movie, and 15 minutes for some discussion). I was thinking that the section on 1863 would be good, because I wanted to show the pictures I took at the Gettysburg battlefield so they can see the memorials and plaques and so we can discuss how the Civil War is remembered. What do you think?

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