It’s been interesting to observe how my Civil War students have responded over time to the talking heads in Ken Burns’s The Civil War. While we don’t spend too much time on the series, what I have shown has been sufficient to be able to formulate judgments about how it functions as entertainment and historical interpretation. Shelby Foote has clearly grown on them over time. At first they didn’t quite know what to make of his little stories about owls on picket duty and Lee being able to “make himself Grant”, but over time they’ve grown to appreciate his place in the documentary. I think they see him as someone who embodies the memory of the war through his accent, dress, and overall demeanor, and they respect him as someone who cares about this past. As for Ed Bearss, well, let’s just say they don’t know what to make of him. I’ve had to print out his commentary so they at least know what he said and can consider it as part of the broader narrative. My more analytical students appreciate the commentary by Barbara Fields on issues of race and emancipation.
I’ve been able to give my students background information on all of these commentators except for James Symington, who is presented as a “Former Congressman.” He makes only a few appearances in the series and his commentary is not particularly interesting – much more emotional and consensus driven than anything else. My favorite moment comes toward the end of the series in Episode 8: “War Is Hell”, which includes Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Symington Interview: They knew each other. Grant remembered Lee very well. Lee didn’t quite remember Grant. That was understandable from the time that they were acquainted back in the early days. But I think it was the sensitivity that the two men had for each other and for the moment, enormous dignity and yet the necessary informality. Grant, not wanting to get to the point too quickly, Lee bringing him up shortly to the point of why they’re together. Lee dressed in his last good uniform. Grant apologizing that he was rushing from the field and didn’t have time to change. The scribe being unable to hold the pen steady and having it taken by another soldier. That, from Lee’s point of view, awful moment, and from Grant’s point of view, glorious moment, and yet for the two of them, a sad and quiet moment. And Lee taking his leave and doffing his hat from Traveller and riding back to his troops after securing those reasonable terms. It was the beginning of the unification of the country.
Symington’s effectiveness here is not simply in his choice of words (we’ve heard them countless times before) but in his cadence. The entire episode of Lee’s surrender is dragged out with attention given to every detail of the events leading to and following the actual surrender. There are two stories coming to an end at Appomattox as represented by Grant and Lee. Burns wants his viewers to empathize or sympathize with both men as well as with the two armies. Symington contributes to this emotional build-up by drawing sharp contrasts between Grant and Lee and by reciting his words in short fragments. And just in case viewers are emotionally invested in one side over the other, Symington poignantly reminds us of what it is all about in his final few words: “It was the beginning of the unification of the country.” [Very nice…yeah…whatever.]
I am curious as to why Symington was chosen as one of the talking heads for this series. There is a Wikipedia article on him, but I was unable to find anything more substantive that might help. I am only now beginning to appreciate the extent to which the talking heads in this series contribute to shaping the film’s overall interpretation, but more importantly, the way in which we identify with key figures and events.