Why I Won’t Be Watching Ken Burns This Week

I didn’t read a book about the American Civil War until I was in my mid-20s and it wasn’t Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote or a used copy of the American Heritage picture book. It was Stephen Sears’s Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam. If memory serves me correctly the next few books included David Donald’s biography of Lincoln, Eric Foner’s book about the Republican Party and James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. I read these books as I was finishing up a master’s thesis in philosophy – specifically philosophy of history. From the very beginning of what would become an entirely new intellectual focus for me I approached these books as analytical arguments that demanded careful thought and a critical eye.

My own Civil War memory is not wrapped up in visits to battlefields at an early age with the family. In fact, I have no memory of learning about the war in grade school or even high school. What prompted my foray into Civil War studies was a chance visit to Antietam in 1994. The visit certainly sparked something in me, but even this visit and subsequent visits in the weeks to follow was decidedly a function of my intellectual curiosity. It was my first visit to a battlefield apart from a family trip that included Yorktown, which I only remember as hot and boring. Continue reading “Why I Won’t Be Watching Ken Burns This Week”

The Split Personality of Ken Burns’s “The Civil War”

On September 7 PBS will broadcast Ken Burns’s The Civil War on what will be the 25th anniversary of its release. Burns hopes that the re-packaging of the series in ultra high-definition will attract a new crowd. We shall see.

Recently, Burns was interviewed¬† about the anniversary of the series on CBS’s Face the Nation. He was asked about recent polls that continue to point to the percentage of Americans who do not identify slavery as the central cause of the war or its role in shaping the war’s outcome. Burns points to movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind as continuing to shape our memory of the war and the antebellum period. Certainly these movies influenced the viewing public at some point, but it’s difficult to believe that they remain relevant.

Burns would do well to look more closely at his own documentary for a better sense of why Americans continue to struggle to fully grasp the centrality of slavery to the Civil War. Continue reading “The Split Personality of Ken Burns’s “The Civil War””

The Emotional Pull of Cold Harbor

Those of us who have spent significant time walking Civil War battlefields know that they evoke different emotions. Much of that is the result of the broader narrative that we bring to these sites. I was reminded of this yesterday as I was writing the post on Cold Harbor and as a result of following the comments. The Cold Harbor battlefield invokes in me a feeling of dread and anxiousness that I rarely feel on other battlefields. Perhaps it’s the name or some feint memory of the voices of David McCullough and Shelby Foote from Ken Burns’s The Civil War that triggers it. Continue reading “The Emotional Pull of Cold Harbor”

Old Myths Die Hard at Cold Harbor

With all the coverage of the 150th anniversary of Cold Harbor I was surprised by the persistence of two myths that refuse to give way. The first is the story of Union soldiers pinning their names to their coats so their bodies could be identified and the second relates to the casualty figures that are commonly cited. Taken together they reinforce a compelling narrative of futile bloody assaults ordered by Ulysses S. Grant – the “great butcher” of the war. Continue reading “Old Myths Die Hard at Cold Harbor”