A number of people have pointed out at various places that Death and the Civil War spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on northern soldiers and their communities. A few people have argued that this was done intentionally and to the detriment of the Confederacy and to those who are dedicated to keep its memory alive. It goes without saying that this was not their goal.
While I think it’s a fair observation I have to wonder whether it extends beyond the relatively small community of Civil War enthusiasts. In other words, I wonder whether the average viewer picked up on this. Here is a bit from Executive Producer Mark Samels on what this film is about:
Death and the Civil War is really about things that we take for granted and how they came to be. We take for granted that there are national cemeteries for our soldiers who have fallen in war; we take for granted that we’re going to honor those soldiers, and that we’re going to bring them back no matter how much effort has to go into bringing them back.
It’s a story about how individuals, from the bottom up, really addressed this cataclysmic event; how they struggled even just to name the soldiers who were being killed in the battlefields; how they struggled to get them back to their families, get them properly identified, get them buried. And underlying all of this is a conception of what death actually meant in the nineteenth century to Americans. And it’s different than today.
Ultimately, the film attempts to transcend Union and Confederate altogether to speak to an audience that self-identifies as citizens of the United States. The demographic that likely viewed this film has experienced WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first and second Gulf Wars, and the war in Afghanistan. The sacrifice of so many brave men and women in the course of these wars and how we remember them fits into a broader history that extends back to a United States at war with itself in the 1860s. It’s Lincoln’s words that continue to give meaning to the sacrifice of the Civil War dead and every war since and it is in national cemeteries, established by the United States government, where we are expected to reflect on that sacrifice. From this perspective the whole question of balance between Union and Confederate or North and South misses the point entirely.
The gathering and memorialization of Confederate dead is acknowledged toward the end of the film as part of the historical narrative, but we are not being asked to reflect on their meaning as citizens of a Confederate States of America. Ultimately, this film is about the men who died in an attempt to preserve our United States as well as the obligations that this government and each of us incurred as a result.