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. 

Bush Orders “American Civil War” Renamed “American Sectarian Violence Conflict of 1861-1865″

A little humor from buzzflash.com:

President Bush issued an executive order today renaming the American Civil War as the "American Sectarian Violence Conflict of 1861-1865." In the name of accuracy, all references to the previous title on federal property were ordered changed by the end of December, although current history textbooks in public schools are allowed to remain in use through the end of the academic year.

"I just don’t see what was so civil about the conflict," Bush noted in a press conference. "All you really had was a lot of sectarian violence between the two sides. The truth is that it wasn’t even that bad. People just got an exaggerated viewpoint because all of the terrible things the liberal media showed on TV at the time."

Bush stressed that the important thing to remember is that "the Yankees" won because President Lincoln refused to leave until the job was done and "all the Democrats kept their darn mouths shut."

"Freeing the Mexicans was pretty good, too," he added.

With Bush refusing to acknowledge civil war in Iraq despite such a declaration by a growing number of experts, news publications, and even his former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, the White House is struggling to insure the public has the correct definition of the term.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says war is "a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations," but civil war is "a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country." According to a White House source speaking on the condition of anonymity, the Administration’s official position is that civil wars are thus semantically impossible by technicality since "war" is only between different states.

"I don’t quite understand how it works myself," the source said, "but Karl was really insistent that we don’t ever say the words ‘civil war’ under any circumstance. . . oops."

President Bush remarked during the press conference that the renaming of the "American Sectarian Violence Conflict of 1861-1865" represented a turning point for his strategy in Iraq. "The enemy wants us to change our terminology," Bush said. "The only way we lose in Iraq is if we call it a civil war. . . oops."

Ken Burns’s Crater

Ken Burns’s short segment on the Crater reflects both continuity and change in accounts of the Crater.  Here is the transcript from the movie.

Title: The Crater

Union Soldier – In front of Petersburg: The mine which General Burnside is making causes a good deal of talk and is generally much laughed at.  It is an affair of his own entirely, and has nothing to do with the regular siege…

Narrator – For a month a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners worked to dig a 500 foot tunnel beneath the Confederate lines and pack it with four tons of gun powder. Burnside’s idea was to blow a hole in the Petersburg defenses, then rush through to take the town. Above ground, not far from the tunnel, the unsuspecting Confederate commander was General William Mahone, a veteran of almost every major battle fought by the Army of Northern Virginia.

At dawn on July 30, Union sappers lit the fuse.  A great crater was torn in the earth, thirty feet deep, seventy feet wide, 250 feet long. The stunned Confederates fell back. Then the plan began to fall apart. A precious hour went by before the Union assault force got started, and when it did three divisions stormed down the great hole, rather than around it.

Their commander, General James H. Ledlie, did not even watch the battle, huddling instead in a bomb-proof shelter with a bottle of rum. Once inside the crater, the Union soldiers found there was no way up the sheer 30-foot wall of the pit – and no one had thought to provide ladders. General Mahone ordered his men back to the rim to pour fire down upon them.

Scores of black troops were killed when tried to surrender at the Crater, bayoneted or clubbed by Confederates shouting, “Take the white man! Kill the Nigger!”

Ulysses S. Grant – "It was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have." General Ledlie was dismissed from the service; Burnside was granted extended leave and never recalled to duty.

Washington Roebling (July 30, 1864): "The work and expectation of almost two months have been blasted… The first temporary success had elated everyone so much that we already imagined ourselves in Petersburg, but fifteen minutes changed it all and plunged everyone into a feeling of despair almost of ever accomplishing anything. Few officers can be found this evening who have not drowned their sorrows in the flowing bowl."

William Mahone was not in direct command of the units around the salient that was attacked.  Shortly following the explosion Lee ordered Mahone to bring his division, which was situated about two miles north of the salient, into the battle.  The emphasis on Mahone perhaps attests to the focus on his Virginia brigade during the postwar years in memoirs and public commemorations.  Another point to make is that there was only a 15-minute gap between the initial explosion and the order to attack.  The reference to 1-hour by Burns is completely off target.  The bulk of the Union force did in fact move into the crater and many of the units did become disorganized as a result; however, a number of units were able to advance beyond the physical contours of the crater.  The picture of the enitre Union attack bogged down in the crater is vividly reflected in the opening scenes of Cold Mountain.  On the positive side, Burns does acknowledge Confederate rage at having to fight United States Colored Troops and the use of Roebling does accurately reflect the drop in morale among the men of the Army of the Potomac as they assessed the battle specifically and the overall progress of the campaign.  Confederates, on the other hand, experienced a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to prevent Grant from taking Petersburg and perhaps win the war.

New Encyclopedia of African-American History Now Available

Over the past few years Oxford University Press has been collecting entries for a 3-volume encyclopedia of African-American history.  Volume 2 is titled The World of Frederick Douglass, 1817-1895 and can be purchased separately for a whopping $120.  Wait for the sale.  The entries cover a broad range of topics, but even topics that focus on national issues make it a point to refernce Douglass.  I took on the entry for the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  It would have liked to have taken on a few more, but time simply didn’t permit it.  The series is edited by Paul Finkelman and promises to be the most complete collection of entries and primary sources available.  Here is a description from the OUP website:

Douglassoxford The Encyclopedia covers an extraordinary range of subjects. Major topics such as "Abolitionism," "Black Nationalism," the "Civil War," the "Dred Scott case," "Reconstruction," "Slave Rebellions and Insurrections," the "Underground Railroad," and "Voting Rights" are given the in-depth treatment one would expect. But the encyclopedia also contains hundreds of fascinating entries on less obvious subjects, such as the "African Grove Theatre," "Black Seafarers," "Buffalo Soldiers," the "Catholic Church and African Americans," "Cemeteries and Burials," "Gender," "Midwifery," "New York African Free Schools," "Oratory and Verbal Arts," "Religion and Slavery," the "Secret Six," and much more. In addition, the Encyclopedia offers brief biographies of important African Americans-as well as white Americans who have played a significant role in African American history-from Crispus Attucks, John Brown, and Henry Ward Beecher to Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Sarah Grimke, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, Phillis Wheatley, and many others.

All of the Encyclopedia’s alphabetically arranged entries are accessibly written and free of jargon and technical terms. To facilitate ease of use, many composite entries gather similar topics under one headword. The entry for Slave Narratives, for example, includes three subentries: The Slave Narrative in America from the Colonial Period to the Civil War, Interpreting Slave Narratives, and African and British Slave Narratives. A headnote detailing the various subentries introduces each composite entry. Selective bibliographies and cross-references appear at the end of each article to direct readers to related articles within the Encyclopedia and to primary sources and scholarly works beyond it. A topical outline, chronology of major events, nearly 300 black and white illustrations, and comprehensive index further enhance the work’s usefulness.

I am going to try to convince my librarian to purchase the set.  It’s been a real pleasure taking part in such a worthy and scholarly project.

H.K. Edgerton and Nathan B. Forrest: Brothers In Arms

Things are heating down at Middle Tennessee State University where students have petitioned to change the name of one of the buildings which honors Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest.  There are in fact two student petitions, one in favor of a change and one against.  As I’ve commented before in reference to debates about the Confederate flag this is not simply about how to remember the past, but about broader cultural and social changes currently underway in the South. 

Edgerton_1 H.K. Edgerton, a black man who is known for wearing a Confederate uniform in honor of his "black Confederate" ancestors recently traveled to Murfreesboro in support of maintaining the current building name.  "How very proud I am of them. They are standing against Southern cultural genocide,"  Edgerton said. He went on to say that "The Ku Klux Klan under Nathan Bedford Forrest was certainly not a terrorist organization," and "Forty-two black men rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest."  I’ve commented on Edgerton’s place in the Neo-Confederate movement before.

The question of whether the building’s name should be changed ultimately does not interest me.  This is a matter for the college community to decide.  My interests are in the broader story that is currently being written, or perhaps re-written, as the South continues to evolve to more broadly reflect an interracial and multi-ethnic citizenry.  This of course is very difficult for many who are committed to a traditional "Lost Cause" interpretation that reduces Southern history down to short career of the Confederacy.