Ken Burns: Storyteller v. Historian

I am working to finish up my presentation on how I use Ken Burns’s documentary, The Civil War, in my classroom for the SCWH meeting in June.  My goal is to demonstrate how the documentary can be used and interpreted as a secondary source alongside other sources.  This puts students in a position where they can more easily appreciate the decisions that went into the film.  Students should be able to critique the sounds, narration, images and how they come together to construct a coherent interpretation.  I am focusing on two moments in the film, including Lee’s resignation from the United States Army in April 1861 and the events that led to Lincoln’s decision to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. 

Students need to be prepped by the teacher to think critically about the role of the historical documentarist.  While the creation of a historical documentary has much in common with popular history Burns utilizes a wider range of sensory sources, including archival footage and contemporary images along with voices, and other assorted sounds, the combination of which often leads to a strong emotional connection to the past.  Understanding the ways in which history and film merge and diverge is crucial to picking out various interpretive threads that often go unnoticed.  For example, contrast the images of R.E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant that are used along with the actors used to give voice to those characters, both of which serve to reinforce the overly simplistic characterizations of Lee as the dignified gentlemen and Grant as the rough and unsophisticated modern general.  Students should be able to think critically about the choices made in a documentary and how they function. 

Consider one of the most famous chapters from the series titled "Honorable Manhood" which comes at the end of Episode 1: "1861–The Cause."  This is one of those moments where Burns works to bring the dead back to life with a letter written by Union Major Sullivan Ballou who was killed at First Bull Run.  The voice-over is accompanied by the stirring lament that serves as the series anthem, "Ashokan Farewell." Interestingly, the segment comes at the end of the episode which covers events through to the end of the year.  Students can discuss why Burns chose to place this scene out of strict sequence and what effect he was hoping to engender in his viewer.  There are six other couples shown along with static shots of the Manassas battlefield.  So, we have a letter written by a soldier that needs to be analyzed along with the sounds and images which accompany it.  Students can discuss whether these other elements help or hinder their understanding of the letter.  I usually wait to to tell my students that the letter was never actually sent to Ballou’s wife; it was discovered on Ballou’s person on the battlefield.  In addition, it is important to note that more than one version of the letter is available which raises other issues.  Some of my students are shocked to learn this and this usually has to do with the fact that they view the episode imagining his wife reading it.  Of course, Burns could have mentioned this, but chose not do so and thus another reflective moment for the class presents itself. 

[Note: forward the episode to 2:27 for the beginning of the letter.]

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2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin May 19, 2008 @ 20:41

    Harry, — Thanks so much for chiming in on this one and for clarifying those points for me. It helps a great deal. Great question re: the talking heads. There are a number of ways that I go about steering my students on this. First, there is the overall narrative by McCullough which provides the unifying voice throughout the various episodes. I usually ask them to think about how well the talking heads are integrated. Shelby Foote’s role is very different compared to Margaret Washington’s or Stephen Oates and it is interesting to hear them evaluate their tone and content. They get a kick out of Shelby Foote, but tend not to take him as seriously as they do others. The one place where I ask my students to think about the responsibility of the documentarian is in the section on emancipation. The interpretation is very top-down; in other words Lincoln freed the slaves, but nowhere in that episode does Washington appear to lay out the bottom-up view that she is so well-known for. When I play those clips a few of my students will ask why she wasn’t used specifically in that section where the subject of who freed the slaves is addressed head-on.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  • Harry May 19, 2008 @ 20:14

    “I usually wait to to tell my students that the letter was never actually sent to Ballou’s wife; it was discovered on Ballou’s person on the battlefield. In addition, it is important to note that more than one version of the letter is available which raises other issues.”

    Yes and no. Ballou’s body was burned, so I sort of doubt the “found on the body” story. The author of a very, very, very long biography of Ballou says the letter was written prior to the start of the campaign (around the 14th or so) and left in Ballou’s camp trunk, which was returned to his wfe and opened much later. The original has been lost, but the text was reprinted many times for sale. Occasionally these turn up and are thought to be originals but are quickly exposed. Part of the text is also included on Ballou’s cemetery monument in Rhode Island. The version read by McCullogh in the TV series cherry picks parts of what is believed to be the full letter. Check out this site, maintained by the author of “For Love and Liberty” – hit mute on your keyboard first:

    I’m curious: what do you teach students relative to the responsiblity of the documentarian for the statements of “talking heads” featured in a program?

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