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.

To be fair, the series does place slavery at the center of the narrative at different points, especially in early episodes leading to the war. Talking heads such as Barbara Fields devote substantial time explaining the unraveling of slavery midway through the war as well as Lincoln’s own rocky road toward emancipation. Even with all the attention that slavery and emancipation receive throughout the series a clear Lost Cause narrative is discernible. It is given voice by none other than Shelby Foote, who dominates the series as the most vocal talking head.

In fact, Foote spoke 7,653 words compared to the second highest speaker, who spoke 1,112 words. Foote’s choice of words is worth exploring. As a total percentage of words spoken by talking heads, Foote’s commentary reached 73.5. It is important to remember that this does not include what was edited out of the final script. Remarkably, in all of the words spoken by Foote he referenced slavery in one form or another only three times. Never once did Foote reference slavery as having anything to do with secession/the cause of the war or as a motivating factor for Confederate soldiers at any point during the war.

Early on in Episode 1 the long-term cause of the war is rooted in the failure on the part of the “Founding Fathers” to come to terms with slavery. Notice how Foote’s comment fits into those made by the Narrator, Barbara Fields and John Jay Chapman.

Narrator – Some slaves refused to work. Some ran away. Still, blacks struggled to hold their families together, created their own culture under the worst of conditions and yearned to be free.

Barbara Fields Interview – If there was a single event that caused the war, it was the establishment of the United States in independence from Great Britain with slavery still a part of its heritage.

Shelby Foote Interview – It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise. Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government’s founded on it. And it failed.

John Jay Chapman – There was never a moment in our history when slavery was not a sleeping serpent. It lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention. Owing to the cotton gin, it was more than half awake. Thereafter, slavery was on everyone’s mind, though not always on his tongue.

Narrator – By the time the nation was founded, slavery was dying in the North. There were doubts in the South, too, but few could conceive of any alternative. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia said maintaining slavery was like holding a wolf by the ears: you didn’t like it, but you didn’t dare let it go.

The closest Foote comes to referencing slavery as relevant to secession and war comes a few minutes later in the film.

Shelby Foote Interview – Southerners would have told you they were fighting for self government. They believed the gathering of power in Washington was against them… When they entered into that Federation they certainly would never have entered into it if they hadn’t believed it would be possible to get out. And when the time came that they wanted to get out, they thought they had every right….

Southerners saw the election of Lincoln as a sign that the Union was about to radicalized, and that they were about to be taken in directions they did not care to go. The abolitionist aspect of it was very strong, and they figured they were about to lose what they called their property and faced ruin.

There is a tension in Foote’s referencing of self government and the “abolitionist aspect” of Lincoln’s election that is never resolved if you follow his commentary through each episode. In fact, for the remainder of the series Foote steers clear of these tough questions entirely. Consider the following examples.

Shelby Foote Interview, “The Lincolnites” – Early in the war a Union squad closed in on a single ragged Confederate, and he obviously didn’t own any slaves and he couldn’t have much interest in the Constitution or anything else. They said, “ What are you fightin’ for anyhow?” they asked him, and he said, “ I’m fighting because you’re down here.’ Which was a pretty satisfactory answer.

Shelby Foote Interview, “Kiss Daniel For Me” – The answer a Southerner would give you as to why are you fighting if you were a Northerner, he would say, “I’m fighting ‘cause you’re down here.” He was being invaded and he fought as he thought, to defend his home. Lincoln had a much more difficult job of sending men out to shoot up somebody else’s home. And he had to unite them before he could do that. And his way of doing it was double. One was to say the Republic must be preserved, not split in two. That was one. And the other one he gave them as a cause: the freeing of the slaves.

Shelby Foote Interview, “1863: The Universe of Battle” – The Confederates…marched through Maryland and on into Pennsylvania. It’s very handsome country there. The barns are magnificent and the green fields and everything and the people watching these Confederates go by. And there was a black body servant in the column and they stopped, just a halt, and the people in the house asked him what he thought of this country around here. And he said, “This is beautiful country, but it doesn’t come up to home in my eyes.”

Regardless of whether Burns acknowledged this when it was first released in 1990, Foote played a specific role in this documentary. His primary responsibility was to comment on military matters and he did this quite effectively from telling colorful stories about the experiences of the common soldier in battle to waxing poetic about Nathan Bedford Forrest. He pushed a narrative that remains incredibly popular for people who for whatever reason would rather hold on to a personal memory of the war that is void of the story of slavery and emancipation. What’s left is a popular narrative of brave soldiers fighting for their respective causes.

Shelby Foote was the star of this documentary and rightly so, but Burns ought to be able to acknowledge all these years later that the amount of air time he was given likely allowed certain viewers to slip through without fully coming to terms with the tough questions of slavery and race.

I see The Civil War as a wonderful example of the split personality of Civil War memory. On the one hand Burns embraced and even anticipated a robust narrative that deals directly with the tough questions related to slavery and race – one that we’ve seen blossom during the the Civil War 150. At the same time Burns’s film reminds us of the difficulty of fully reconciling this narrative with a lingering Lost Cause narrative.

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118 comments… add one
  • C J Landau Oct 13, 2021 @ 16:09

    Who did the DVD Southern “answer” to Ken Burns’ Civil War Series ? I saw it years ago, and it was really good, and very different than Mr. Burns’ version, of course.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 13, 2021 @ 22:49

      I have no idea.

  • Dawn Birbeck (@dawnbirbeck) Jun 15, 2020 @ 23:28

    Speaking as someone who is not American, it is interesting to see the praise this series received in the US. We have a long and strong documentary tradition in the UK and in the 1960’s and 1970’s made major TV series on the First and Second World Wars (“The Great War” on the BBC and “The World at War” on commercial TV). The Ken Burns Civil War is very good indeed, but the type of project we tend to take for granted.
    As for a “Lost Cause” aspect, I think it is interesting to note Shelby Foote is described as a “Writer”, while Barbara Fields (for example) is billed as “Historian”. This seems to create the distinction between them that one is literary, the other is academic. At no point, however, does Foote ever concede that slavery – the whole basis of Southern life and economy – was wrong in itself and there could no longer be any “compromise” with it.

  • Lee Jones Jun 22, 2018 @ 6:53

    [“Fort Sumter was on South Carolina soil, and South Carolina had seceded. It was illegally occupied by the North. “]

    No, it wasn’t. Fort Sumter was Federal soil, regardless of whether South Carolina considered itself part of the United States or not. The same could be said of Fort Pickens. It was U.S. soil, regardless of whether Florida was part of the Union or not.

    Now, the Army posts in Texas, on the other hand, actually belonged to that state. And once Texas had left the Union, it had every right to demand the departure of U.S. troops from those military posts.

  • TERESA BARRETT Jun 14, 2018 @ 11:39

    When I was ignorant I loved Ken Ben’s Civil War series. I have since educated myself. U. S. Grant LT General & President is my favorite American. I read Foote’s three volume Civil War narrative I had long before read Bruce Catton and wondered why he wasn’t mentioned by Ken Burns. I have also read A Savage War. Ken Burns misses the mark by a long ways. Sadly he has laid down what could have been a voice for good.

  • Rob Baker Jul 10, 2017 @ 10:48

    Completely off topic and you may not want to post this –

    But have you ever thought about creating a “Big Posts” page – or a “Legendary Post” type of home page. I saw this on a forum recently and basically it was a list of all posts that had incredible debate and statements in the comments section; where people added information, websites, etc.. You’ve had some great ones on your blog.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2017 @ 10:51

      Good idea.

  • Katy Jul 5, 2017 @ 17:41

    Nevermind. Wrong version.

  • HISTORICUS Jul 5, 2017 @ 16:40

    The Civil War was fought for one reason: an aggressive expansionist foreign power at its southern border and in control of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico would pose an existential threat to the internal security of the states that remained in the federal Union, and to the economic exploitation of the new western territories. It is ahistorical revisionism to imagine the northern elite refused to “let the erring sisters depart in peace” because of anything as trivial to them as the human rights of mere slaves.

    It was Machiavellian brilliance on Lincoln’s part to maneuver the secessionists into firing the first shot. This unambiguous act of treason mobilized American public opinion to suppress the insurrection before the insurgents could build the strong military they would need for the inevitable war with the United States over possession of the western territories.

    Nothing in the 1860 Republican platform threatened slavery anywhere where it was established. Only the continuing unchecked expansion of slavery into new lands was finally forbidden, on the grounds that the Founders had implicitly stated, “the natural condition of the United States is freedom.” Ironically, there was no popular interest, and no legal method, to abolish slavery before the Confederate insurgency placed both these tools into the hands of the tiny Abolitionist minority.

  • Nate Jun 24, 2017 @ 13:33

    Now that 25 years have past, have the critics attempted to correct the record with their own documentaries?

  • London John Jan 6, 2016 @ 8:38

    I thought one particularly interesting episode was the one entitled “The Kingdom of Jones”, about Southern draft evaders, deserters and unionists and a part of the South under their control. I see that’s the title of a film due this year (featuring British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw), which I gather is on the same subject. Something to look forward to.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2016 @ 8:44

      The movie is based on Victoria Bynum’s book, The Free State of Jones, which is definitely worth reading.

  • Julian Jan 4, 2016 @ 13:15

    Interesting too that Shelby Foote was not from a conventional Southern background, from his maternal line he went back to the educated Viennese Jewish middle class and a migrant background – he like Burns had a thread of a deft creative sensibility that gives the series its characteristic aura.

    Penn Warren who stood out in the Huey Long documentary which has many of Burns hallmarks already in place – also had a poetic but slightly more acidic overview of Southern History given the long diversion in All the Kings Men about the narrator’s abandoned PhD which had an antebellum and civil war focus

  • Joel Bocko Nov 13, 2015 @ 9:11

    Excellent post, and interesting discussion. I just finished watching the series again yesterday, in anticipation of a (much shorter) review I posted this morning on my own blog as part of an ongoing series on my favorite films. One aspect I addressed is that I think Burn’s mission to a certain extent is to treat history as mythology more than journalism (which isn’t to say the film can’t – and doesn’t – do both at times). And I think that’s important too in a way: this documentary’s subject is really more about the feeling of the Civil War to both the participants and the public (today as well as yesterday) than it is about the hardscrabble details of what happened, thorough as it may often be on that front. Someone on this thread described it as being art more than history, and I think that’s exactly right. It’s why it’s one of my favorite films but also something I might look at & pick apart with some skepticism and critical thinking when it comes to the historical aspect.

    As for Foote, just from reading this, some of the comments, Ta-Nahesi Coates’ article (thanks for linking to that btw) he seems like a fascinatingly complicated man, for all his surface simplicity. For all his Southern romanticism, he is certainly a far cry from the sort of neo-Confederate apologists one generally runs into on the internet nowadays (on a complete side note, I found it hilarious and revealing that – during the whole Confederate flag brouhaha this spring – the National Review ran two articles literally on top of each other, one arguing that the Confederate cause was misunderstood and unfairly maligned, while the other argued that the Democratic Party, and even liberals/the left, is and always responsible for promoting the Confederacy – as if the right couldn’t get its propaganda straight in the heat of the moment). One can’t imagine them saying things like Lincoln was as great a man as Forrest or that if the war wasn’t about slavery what was it about etc. Then again, it’s hard to imagine ANYONE else who could simultaneously praise, admire, and even lionize Lincoln and Forrest simultaneously. In that sense Shelby Foote is the perfect figurehead for the movie, embodying the confusion and uneasiness about the war in one person.

    • H. S. Anderson Jan 3, 2016 @ 8:32

      “As for Foote, just from reading this, some of the comments, Ta-Nahesi Coates’ article (thanks for linking to that btw) he seems like a fascinatingly complicated man, for all his surface simplicity. For all his Southern romanticism, he is certainly a far cry from the sort of neo-Confederate apologists one generally runs into on the internet nowadays ”

      It is a complicated set of feelings to many of us. Slavery was a moral evil, obviously, but at the same time I admire the independent spirit of the South, and how tenacious they were in defending themselves against invasion. There’s very little difference that I can find between their desire for self-government and that of the Founding Fathers and the Colonists.

      Lincoln is pretty much the George W. Bush of his day. He talked tough and got the country into a war that he thought would be quick and easy, only to find that it was a lot more difficult than he thought. Rather than course correct he stubbornly held on year after year until he finally got the result he wanted, only for the aftermath to be a lot more messy than he envisioned, had he lived to see it.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2016 @ 9:01

        Lincoln is pretty much the George W. Bush of his day. He talked tough and got the country into a war that he thought would be quick and easy, only to find that it was a lot more difficult than he thought.

        With all due respect, this is an incredibly simplistic understanding of Lincoln’s view of the war. There was broad support among Northern Democrats and Republicans for putting down the rebellion by force.

      • Jimmy Dick Jan 3, 2016 @ 10:24

        Why do you keep repeating the same erroneous information when you’ve been proven wrong by the factual evidence? Lincoln did not start the war or cause it. Jefferson Davis did that with a direct order to attack Ft. Sumter. The disagreement over the expansion of slavery was the cause of the war. The slave owners rejected the legal government under the US Constitution over that issue. They tried to create a new nation founded on slavery and created a military to illegally defy the legal government. Lincoln did not cause any of that to happen. In fact, all of that took place prior to this taking office.

        Yet, you keep saying Lincoln started a war. I suggest you find some facts to support that claim because so far you have not while instead the facts have been presented to you showing the exact opposite. Are you going to be a neo-Confederate and reject facts and stick to an opinion with no facts to support it? If so, then there is no point in discussing anything with you. You would be refusing to learn. It is the same thing as if I were dealing with a 911 conspiracy nut.

        • H. S. Anderson Jan 3, 2016 @ 11:30

          “With all due respect, this is an incredibly simplistic understanding of Lincoln’s view of the war. There was broad support among Northern Democrats and Republicans for putting down the rebellion by force.”

          And there were many voices that said the opposite. The North was no more monolithic in opinion than the South. One group may have dominated, but there were plenty of opposing views, Lincoln thought it would be over quickly. That’s a fact. He did not realize the depth and scope of Southern sentiment.

          The analogy with Iraq is obviously not perfect, but the parallels are striking.

          “Why do you keep repeating the same erroneous information when you’ve been proven wrong by the factual evidence? ”

          We’ll have to agree to disagree. Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States. It was his decision to take the country to war when there were still other options open to him, even after Fort Sumter. It was his decision to disregard the vote taken by representatives of the people of seven states. That’s not a trivial thing. A few hundred men stirring up trouble is an uprising (i.e. an incident like the Whiskey Rebellion). A few million rejecting national rule is indicative of a fractured society, and simply declaring their concerns null and void was not wise at all, and could do nothing but exacerbate the situation. Lincoln should have seen that.

          “The disagreement over the expansion of slavery was the cause of the war.”

          To be technical, while it was a cause of secession, it was not the cause of the war. Secession did not make war inevitable. You keep trying to absolve Lincoln of blame, but he’s right there in the mix with Davis and everyone else who picked the fight.

          “They tried to create a new nation founded on slavery and created a military to illegally defy the legal government.”

          The right of secession was a commonly held political belief at the time. It wasn’t the only belief, and there was conflict between the idea of a strong unitary state and the compact theory going back to the founding. I suggest you are unable to see the validity of the Confederate political views because you think slavery invalidates everything else they said or did.

          George Washington owned slaves, but I have no problem saying he was one of the great men in our history. The same is true of Thomas Jefferson. They may not have tried to form a “nation founded on slavery”, but they still participated in and profited from human bondage and involuntary servitude and did little to end the practice. And yet we’re able to recognize the good and the accomplishments as well as the faults of those men. I don’t see any such even-handedness from you when it comes to the the South. It’s very much a case of “all bad, all the time”, which is a simplistic view of history.

          • Jimmy Dick Jan 3, 2016 @ 13:54

            No point in arguing with someone who rejects facts. Secession was not a commonly held belief. In fact, the majority of Americans rejected secession including the states that seceded. There was only one state wide referendum on the subject. The rest was done through conventions and the voting for the delegates was rigged. But you would ignore that fact just like you ignore the reasons the people gave for secession which was SLAVERY.

            I’m sorry you can’t read and accept factual evidence. So far all you did in the last post was state your opinion. Your opinion has been proven incorrect. Start here.

            The compact theory was not part of the founding of this nation. In fact, the Supreme Court rejected the compact theory three times. The entire nation rejected the compact theory during the Nullification Crisis when Congress authorized President Jackson to use military force in South Carolina.

            The SCOTUS cases are Chisholm v. Georgia, Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, and McCullough v. Maryland. Please note Chisholm v. Georgia predates Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolve by five years. Also while you are at it, please note that the other states rejected both Kentucky Resolves and the Virginia Resolve when they came out. Several of the states said it would involve military force to make the offending states comply with federal authority.

            As for Lincoln, once again you demonstrate your extremely poor grasp of history. Read the US Constitution. The president is authorized to put down domestic insurrections. Lincoln did so. He acted within the Constitution. The people that tried to secede did not. They were traitors to the United States of America and were correctly termed as such by the US Supreme Court.

            To say history is simplistic is kind of funny since you don’t even know it to begin with. What you are doing is making the same old tired and dog eared lost cause claims that fail to stand up under scrutiny. I look forward to seeing you repeat the same old claims in your next post while failing to use any facts to support your claims. Did you go to the George Purvis school of denial?

            • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2016 @ 14:08

              Thanks, but I am ending this thread. No new comments will be approved.

  • The Reader. Oct 17, 2015 @ 9:00

    Mr. Lewis has written a book about the Civil War. Did you read Shelby Foote’s three volume narrative on the Civil War? I had to get local maps outs to follow the battles he wrote about. I am white, and read all I can about the Civil War, except for ridiculous fantasies in which the South won the War. I will read your book.

    However, I find it deplorable that you write a critical review of Ken Burn’s 11.5 hour series to promote your “balanced” book, Have you any idea how many people “woke up’ to the War and the horrible institution of slavery because of that series? It was a folksy time in America, Mark Twain was writing during this time – cannot get much more folksy than that,

    Everyone seems to be ignoring what Lincoln’s thoughts were. He came to the presidency wanting to keep slavery to a minimum. He used the Emancipation Proclamation when his back was to the wall. Barbara Fields makes the statement that the slaves knew what the war was about before it ever started. I find that statement the most outrageous thing in the series.

    Shelby Foote (rest in peace) was a Southern man who drank with Faulkner. The were Southern writers. Foote was not a historian, but a novelist. He was commissioned to write the narrative. I love his insights into the Southern men and commanders. Faulkner’s and Foote’s novels are burdened with the sadness of the South.

    It’s too bad there was no one to talk about the Northern experience, But let’s face it – US Grant was a drunk (and a corrupt President who ignored the plight of the freed slaves who were at sxes and sevenses after the War). Aside from Chamberlain, there really isn’t a colorful Northern commander. McClellands inaction is the most fun thing to ridicule. Custer was nothing but ego, and won a spot in history for walking into a trap.

    White men fought a war – one side to keep the South in the Union and ultimate destroy the Southern way of life and free the slaves. The other side fought to maintain their way of life – the only life they knew. It was a white man’s war. Imagine that. Whites fighting a war over what finally became freedom of blacks. I think the war continues, whites trying to keep blacks from voting and othesr fighting to retain that right. I know the people who argued the law suit to the Supremes – they were white. Are you going to criticize them?

    Mr Lewis, a white man, has written a book about the Civil War. But criticizes Burns for not using a black man to narrate the series. That is rich. I will read your book, and look to see how much of the black experience you include.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 17, 2015 @ 9:03

      Thanks for the comment.

    • London John Jan 6, 2016 @ 8:46

      Some time I’d like to see some discussion of Faulkner’s The Unvanquished. Seems to me pretty much Lost Causery, but Faulkner never gets the sort of stick more downmarket writers of that persuasion do.

  • Tammy Lawton Sep 14, 2015 @ 17:21

    All the Fields gal did was talk about blacks and slaves. Maybe that’s all she was brought into the film for.

    But she added no real value to “The Civil War;” she just provided revisionist history, stating that the only reason the USA exists today is because of the honesty, fortitude and general ability of slaves. Uh, no.

    Any decent FBI profiler will tell you that her eyes, facial movements and voice belied her dishonesty.

    I discarded everything she said as falsehoods.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2015 @ 17:28

      “I discarded everything she said as falsehoods.”

      Yes, I am sure you did.

  • Gerry Paquette Sep 10, 2015 @ 14:40

    You are absolutely right ! I think Burns purposely created controversy to gain excitement for the re-release of this very well done film .

    • Kevin Levin Sep 10, 2015 @ 14:42

      Who are you responding to? I certainly did not say suggest this.

  • BKM Sep 10, 2015 @ 4:44

    I am not necessarily a fan of the politics of Mr. Burns (I am unfamiliar with them as a set), however, I do believe he made this film in a manner that would capture the imagination of the largest possible audience. To that end, it was a success. I am aware that errors exist and I take issue with a number of them in the extreme as they relate to facts and context. That does not negate the fact that the existence of the film provides an opportunity to discuss these instances. Shelby Foote is a marketability factor. Whether or not you agree or disagree with Foote, he adds a lot to the effectiveness of the story line. I have had many long discussion with historians regarding the Civil War and have never found two in total agreement. Context and perceptions are difficult to recreate when all of the witnesses are gone.

  • Jason Zorich Sep 8, 2015 @ 17:53

    Being my third time watching the series and a fan of Ken Burn’s (Jazz being my favorite), it must be seen by the viewer as historical entertaiment. From the cut scenes about photography and patents on weapons to highlighting the gravity of battles from Shiloh to Gettysburg, Burns succeeded in encompassing America’s war into 2 hour episodes that educate the viewer with romanticism and cruel realities of battle.

    As for Foote, I too saw him more as a character demonstrating the Souths love affair with the way things used to be battling against the Norths technology and industrial strength. He was a poet for the viewer to step back in time for a small piece of the old southern charm. I enjoyed his short fables and had no issue with him overlooking the root cause. Furthermore, his acceptance that the North would have won no matter is in some small way admitting slavery was the cause and wrong from the days Jefferson and Adams wrote the papers we now hold so dear.

    Great series!

  • Robert Hawkins Sep 2, 2015 @ 17:15

    Lost Cause narrative? How laughable. Shelby Foote’s comments resonate just as heartily for Union figures he quotes, and he would never apologize for relating to the people of the war, whoever they might be. If you’ll fault Burns, it might be for selling the product with Foote and those photos and music, then spoon-feeding everyone Barbara Fields – who would have put everyone to sleep by herself, and made no bones about not caring for who shot who, but rather preferred we forget the history and focus on getting back to the task of administering the remedies and penalties. Oh, and some of Ed Bearss’ less than photogenic mannerisms when speaking are the product of his experiences in the Pacific Islands during World War II – having shared a podium with him, I know that as a speaker he simply can’t stand still for any amount of time. But I’ll take that mind and the wit and integrity that go with it, anytime.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2015 @ 17:49

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    • Bryan Cheeseboro Sep 4, 2015 @ 10:28

      Personally, I appreciate the inclusion of Professor Barbara Fields (Columbia University) in the program for providing an understanding of the Civil War Era that still eludes too many people.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Sep 2, 2015 @ 5:03

    It may just be my opinion, but I think Burns knew EXACTLY what he was doing by using Shelby Foote to such a degree. It wasn’t just how Foote spoke, but what he was saying. Burns’ series obviously knocked away one of the last great pillars of the Lost Cause, i.e. that the war was not centrally about slavery and that the war in the West was not relevant. Foote became the star, if you will, and Burns allowed him to speak like so many others had, with folksy tales about Forrest and Lee, etc. However, simultaneously Burns was destroying the Lost Cause argument with the spoken words of David McCullough along with imagery and sounds that kept bringing it all back to slavery.

    It really is, and was, quite brilliant.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2015 @ 5:39

      Excellent point, Eric. Foote certainly helped viewers to connect emotionally with the history through his stories.

  • Craig L. Sep 2, 2015 @ 1:05

    Lee and Grant could doff their hats, rear their horses and swap swords all they liked, but it was just grandstanding for the Washington press corps. It had no impact on the war’s outcome. Without Appomattox there would simply be no Lost Cause narrative.

    The war ended when Mobile fell after Frederick Steele and his Column From Pensacola, the ten thousand Mississippi and Louisiana colored troops he led, took Fort Blakeley shouting Remember Fort Pillow. Then the ammo warehouse in downtown Mobile exploded, taking out four square blocks.

  • Forester Sep 1, 2015 @ 18:53

    “He pushed a narrative that remains incredibly popular for people who for whatever reason would rather hold on to a personal memory of the war that is void of the story of slavery and emancipation.”

    That’s not really accurate. I’m reading his “Civil War: A Narrative” right now (I got it for Christmas), and he does talk about slavery. I did a search on Google Books and he only used the word 38 times in vol. 1, which I’ll admit isn’t much. He did later say he regretted not focusing more on race, but he was writing in 1958 and his own personal views had yet to be challenged by the civil rights movement. The opening prologue, which covers the Antebellum up to Bull Run only acknowledges slavery as the cause of the war. I hear people say that Foote’s narrative is rife with Lost Cause apology, but I don’t see it myself. If I only read Foote, I would still come away believing that slavery started the war.

    WHY am I reading it? Well, it was free (that helps). But also, it’s just fast-moving and fun. I read Shelby Foote for the same reasons I read John Jakes or Micahel Shaara. I basically think of it as a novel rather than scholarly history.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2015 @ 1:59

      Glenn Brasher mentioned Foote’s references to slavery in his trilogy in a separate post. Thanks for doing so here. It certainly makes his Burns commentary that much more interesting.

      • Forester Sep 3, 2015 @ 13:53

        Foote doesn’t talk about slavery MUCH, mind you. As I said before, the word is used 38 times in Volume 1 of the trilogy.

        Foote was more interested in the war itself, the battles and the “folksy tales.” Which is perfectly fine, as long as he isn’t lying about the cause of the war. Which he isn’t.

        However, if you want a heavy study of the role of slavery … Foote is NOT your man. Somewhere he said that his only regret was not making race the central issue of the trilogy. If I ever find the quote, I’ll post it.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2015 @ 13:55

          Yeah, I would really love to see that quote. Thanks.

          • Forester Mar 22, 2017 @ 17:31

            Due to my crippling ADHD, I forgot to send you the quote. One and a half years later, I have finally made good. Time flies! September 2015 doesn’t feel like that long ago…

            The following quote is from a small companion book included with my boxed set of Shelby Foote’s trilogy. “American Homer” is a 96 page collection of essays to put Foote into perspective, giving context and background to modern readers. You can find it on Google Books. One chapter deals with Foote’s complacency on race issues:

            When Bobby Kennedy said in the early sixties that he would have gone to the Mississippi Delta to work “for the Negro” if he hadn’t gone into politics, that shamed Foote into a recognition that, had it been applied to his trilogy, may have made a substantial difference in the telling of the story.

            “And it hurt me that I turned my back on something that Bobby Kennedy had been willing to devote his whole life to. You grow up in a thing and you’re not inclined to see the evil as clearly as you would if you were visiting that place. It seems so much a part and parcel of the life, especially when it contributes to your comfort, as it did to mine. The race question is the big thing.”

            MLA citation:

            Dyson, Michael. “Foote and the Problem of Race.” American Homer: Reflections on Shelby Foote and His Classic, The Civil War: A Narrative. Ed. Jon Meacham. N.p.: Random House, 2011. 72. Print.

  • Rosieo Sep 1, 2015 @ 12:45

    i wish Burns would update this film. It would be a lot of work and most certainly would be expensive. You wouldn’t replace Foote, but use historians to comment on his comments. There are other parts that could be updated based on latest research, too.
    Maybe PBS will present a documentary or news program that runs when the series concludes — or maybe before it starts — in which historians report the latest scholarship.

  • Dudley Bokoski Sep 1, 2015 @ 12:23

    Ultimately you have to have faith in the viewer or reader of historical programming and books. If a person came away from the Burns series with only Shelby Foote’s perspective they would have no one to blame but themselves. If you walk in to a bookstore and go to the Civil War section it is still battles and leaders that sell and pull people into thinking about the war. But once they are there they learn about African-American history, slavery, Reconstruction, Frederick Douglas, the connection of the war to the Civil Rights era and much more.

    Shelby Foote is not everyone’s cup of tea. I never got around to reading his books and didn’t see anything in his presentation that made me want to. I think he was there for his accent and eloquence. It’s true his segments were overdone, but then again watching the series you almost would have thought Joshua Chamberlain and a small band of infantry won the war by themselves, held back from taking Richmond only by the need for Chamberlain to stop and wax eloquent for extended periods. But Shelby Foote (and Joshua Chamberlain) have made more people interested in the war than a score of authors who have written solid research on the civilian side of war which aren’t, for the most part, catching the imagination of the public. And more than a few of those readers and viewers learned about Robert Smalls and Denmark Vesey and others once they caught the bug, so to speak.

    I mistrust either or propositions. We don’t have to choose between Foote and contemporary historians. And if someone enjoys the one and ignores the other what matters is what we ourselves do with what we learn and not how anyone else chooses to. The Civil War was and is many things to many people as most history has been since people began writing it down. Yes, the Civil War was caused by slavery, and fought on one side to preserve it. But it was also an explosion of sectional hatreds, mistrust, competing economic issues, differences in beliefs, emerging political schools, and violent contempt on both sides. If you want to walk into the woods of Civil War history, you should be prepared to walk all the way in and spend the time to see it all.

    I understand how Foote grated on some people’s nerves, just as Chamberlain, and that awful period music, got on mine. But somehow it all worked and the fact it did is a tribute to Ken Burns and the film maker’s art.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2015 @ 12:26

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I mistrust either or propositions. We don’t have to choose between Foote and contemporary historians.

      I agree and I am certainly not suggesting that readers understand my post as pointing to such a distinction. The post was a short reflection on the extent to which the different narratives presented in the documentary fit together or fail to do so.

      • Dudley Bokoski Sep 1, 2015 @ 12:47

        You make an interesting point and it is one critics made of Foote’s narrative history of the war made when it was released. He wasn’t that interested in politics or economics so he mostly left those topics out. Foote was, to his core, a storyteller. They can make great literature but not always great history.

  • Kevin Sep 1, 2015 @ 10:56

    Great article Kevin!

  • Rob Wick Sep 1, 2015 @ 8:57


    Your criticism of Burns and Foote’s role in the documentary seems to echo the book put out in the 1990s by Robert Brent Toplin called “The Civil War: Historians Respond” in which a number of academic historians either supported or excoriated Burns for his film. In the opening essay, C. Vann Woodward recounted his role in guiding Burns toward other historians who would help with the project. Woodward recounted how he was filmed by Burns with the idea of being one of the on-air contributors. However, none of Woodward’s interviews ever made it to the screen. Woodward hints at the reason for his omission when he writes “I was experimentally and earnestly photographed by Ken himself…but for some mysterious reason, possibly photogenic, I was deprived of TV fame, or more probably of future embarrassment, and do not regret the deprivation.” Translation. Woodward was too boring for television. In several reminisces of him after his death, one thing that stood out in my mind was that people said Woodward was an excellent scholar, but a horrible teacher, because he mumbled in front of students (undergraduates, in the main) and didn’t seem all that interested in reaching them.

    I am wondering, then, who else would you have made the “star” of the film if not Foote? Would it have been Fields, whose one main contribution that I can remember is her comment that the cause of Union was “a goal too shallow to be worth the sacrifice of a single life” and that only the cause of emancipation elevated the war’s carnage into something worthwhile? While we may look at that and nod in agreement, does it even begin to compare with the syrupy anecdotes that Foote delivered? This is television, not a senior seminar at Johns Hopkins. And even though it appeared on PBS, giving it a bit more intellectual heft than the poorly-named “HIstory Channel” it remains that it was a program that had a completely different goal then academic historians give their own study of history, and it took different paths in achieving its own goals.

    While I agree that Foote’s role did much to keep the myth of the Lost Cause alive, I think you’re giving one other goal of the program short shrift. If a person took Burns’s film as the final say on the study of the Civil War then the arguments of the critics have more merit. But I suspect the film caused people to expand their horizons by reading other accounts of the war, even some that might have challenged the orthodoxy of the Lost Cause. But who then was available to them? Did they search out Fields’s work on slavery in Maryland, or something of a more popular nature? After the opportunity she received did Fields attempt to bridge the divide between academic and popular historians by writing books that would appeal to the broader masses while maintaining a scholarly rigor? Look at the titles on her webpage at Columbia, and you’ll see the answer is no. Of course, she cannot be blamed for following her own career goals, but given the opportunity she received by appearing on such a huge stage, one has to wonder if she didn’t squander that opportunity.

    Finally, in Toplin’s book, Woodward recalls a screening of excerpts from the film in front of people he described as “the younger generation, the dissidents, the radicals.” Noting that the observers “lost little time in moving into their posture of dissenters and critics” Woodward felt it necessary to defend Ken and Ric Burns. “They should realize, I admonished, that they were not addressing their usual opponents, an older generation of historians grown complacent and out of touch with new ideas and demands. They were speaking to artists, artists whose purpose was to bring to life for the present a profound national ordeal of the past, a great tragedy as it was seen, heard, felt, lamented, and mourned, or greeted as liberation by the people who went through it in the 1860s. The artists could not be expected to abandon their true role and take sides in current generational or ideological disputes among scholars. Nor should they be required to use their art to promote political, social, or moral causes and movements of the present day, however worthy they may be. Historians should be able to help artists without attempting to use them for ends quite foreign to their art.”

    And I would argue, if historians want to contribute something to that story, or even help control the narrative, they need to rethink their approach. Some even need to stop viewing the mass market with what seems to me utter disdain and condescension.


    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2015 @ 9:13

      Hi Rob,

      I appreciate your comment, but it seems to be in response a critique that takes us beyond this post. I have not ‘excoriated’ anything. All I have done is made an observation about the content of the film in light of a comment made by Burns in a recent interview. I have written extensively about this film over the years on this blog and have made use of it in my classroom. My understanding of the film bridges its worth as a work of history and entertainment. You may want to read an essay I published a few years ago on how I use the series in the classroom.

      I am going to steer clear of the academic v. popular history narrative since it has nothing to do with the point that I was making or the perspective from which they were offered.

      • Rob Wick Sep 1, 2015 @ 10:17

        Actually, Kevin, I didn’t say you excoriated anything. I said Tolpin’s book did. But, you clearly have an issue with the amount of airtime Foote received as opposed to other writers and historians, and the reason I glean from your post is because of Foote’s seeming devotion to the Lost Cause narrative, which we both disagree with. I noticed too you didn’t answer my question as to who should have received more airtime, which based on your detailed analysis of the amount of words spoken by Foote is a legitimate question. I truly would love to hear your opinion and why you reached it. Of course, if you choose not to respond that is certainly your right.

        As for your disagreement on the academic v. popular history debate, I again respectfully disagree. It is all about that. Academic historians would have never allowed Foote airtime and would have missed an important voice in the historiography of the war. Fields’s voice would have been more pleasing to the academic gatekeepers, but four people would have watched and 25 years later, no one would have dreamed of rebroadcasting it. While it may not have been at the top of your discussion in your mind, the undercurrent is certainly there.


        • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2015 @ 10:25

          Perhaps I read your comment too closely. No problem.

          Honestly, I don’t have any strong views about who should have been given more or less time. I know nothing about how documentaries are made so I leave it to the experts like Burns. From a certain perspective Foote was absolutely the right choice.

          I will leave it to academic historians to comment on your final point if they are so inclined. I can’t speak to it.

        • Bryan Cheeseboro Sep 1, 2015 @ 11:30

          I also wonder what happened to Barbara Fields. But I think you make some very good points, Rob. Fields has, I think, a much better grasp on the roots of slavery’s role in bringing on the war and why Southerners fought as opposed to Foote, who, apparently, was weaned on the Lost Cause and then baptized in it like frying chicken.

          But the reality is, Burns could not have made a documentary with Fileds as the primary speaker then, and maybe not even now, and expect the same level of public approval. I love that Fields stood toe-to-toe and challenged all of the myths and sterotypes of slaves as docile and helpless without White people to save them; or simply ignorant minions on the sidelines of the great event. The problem is, Barbara Fields is a Black woman and for too many, her beliefs are “nigger bullshit.”

  • Jerry McKenzie Sep 1, 2015 @ 8:00

    Burns could redeem himself of the weak slavery aspect of the Civil War series with a documentary on the horrors of Reconstruction, the rise of the KKK, and the Lost Cause mythology.

    I loved the Civil War series when it came out and still think a lot of it. Foote had a engaging speaking style, but I really didn’t like what he was saying as he got all misty-eyed (it really pissed me off in fact). I don’t remember Bearss at all in the series, even though he comes to the Scottsdale Civil War Roundtable every January and is a very interesting and engaging speaker in person. His memory is remarkable and he can give a whole talk right off the top of his head (although he has gotten up there in years and is not as sharp as when I first saw him; the talks are now a question and answer session).

  • Mike Musick Sep 1, 2015 @ 7:18

    Let me add a few words in defense of Shelby Foote and Ken Burns. I was one of the advisers on the series, and vividly recall the several days long meeting at a Washington, DC, hotel at which many of the advisers were present to discuss an early version of Geoff Ward’s script. Since I spent most of my time grubbing as an archivist in the stacks at the National Archives, I felt somewhat like Cinderfella at the ball. It was a chance to meet Shelby Foote, C. Van Woodward, Eric Foner (who left after expressing outrage at what was then no mention of reconstruction), Don Fehrenbacher (who noted his direct descent from a Union officer killed during the war), Barbara Fields (she expressed disapproval of the use of the demeaning word “flocking” to describe enslaved people coming into federal lines), and many more. At one point there was an animated discussion of the conflict’s causes, with state rights brought up. Foote essentially ended the topic when he quoted N.B. Forrest as saying “If we ain’t fightin’ for slavery, then I don’t know what we’re fightin’ for” – a quote, by the way, I’ve never been able to substantiate. The emphasis he put on slavery was not reflected in his on-screen appearances. Overall, Kevin, you are right to highlight the artistic aspect of the production. Ken Burns, his brother Ric, and everyone else connected with “The Civil War” were exceedingly considerate of me throughout the production. Whatever viewers liked about it I was probably responsible for; anything you hated I had nothing to do with.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2015 @ 7:22

      Hi Mike,

      This is great. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with the production.

      Foote essentially ended the topic when he quoted N.B. Forrest as saying “If we ain’t fightin’ for slavery, then I don’t know what we’re fightin’ for” – a quote, by the way, I’ve never been able to substantiate.

      That’s one hell of a statement by Foote.

    • Andy Hall Sep 1, 2015 @ 8:19


  • David T. Dixon Sep 1, 2015 @ 6:26

    Kevin: Let’s all remember that Ken Burn’s Civil War, like Skip Gates’s family history history program, is primarily about entertainment. Even producers of a film like 12 Years a Slave, that tries to present brutal honesty about the slave experience, still ultimately make editorial choices based on what will fly in the popular consciousness and may alter the “documentary” record for dramatic effect. PBS is not immune to such pressures. Burns and PBS want a broad viewership, and Shelby is the sage old grandfatherly type that can reinforce the Lost Cause myth in a way that sounds rather benign while it functions (almost sub-consciously with many viewers) to reinforce old stereotypes. Just because it is called a “documentary” does not mean it does not have a point-of-view, and I think Burns is trying to appeal to the masses, instead of being focused on truth-telling, per se. In another twenty-five years, people will look back on what they will view as Burns’s quaint, old-fashioned mini-series, and hopefully have a nice giggle when they hear some of old Shelby’s comments about what he thinks the average solider would have said as if he could read their minds.

    Agree with the comments of others. I think Burns has good intentions and helps raise important issues to a large audience. Most of the audience does not want a debate between, say Shelby Foote and David Blight or Eric Foner. No one would watch it and fully exposing the Lost Cause for the farce that it is would alienate too many viewers. Myth-busting seems to be best accomplished by the political and social revolutionaries who are finally bringing it to the forefront of public debate through brave actions like climbing a flagpole. Historians can back them with sound scholarship, but they will not win the war of public opinion without social action. Popular television programs designed to entertain are not that medium.

  • Boyd Harris Sep 1, 2015 @ 5:04

    It may be important to remember that some folks were upset at the documentary because it actually mentioned slavery. I recall being ten years old (1992) and talking with a reenactor at a living history encampment about the documentary. His response: It was the Civil War according to a Connecticut Yankee. This reenactor went on to stress the non-issue of slavery during the war and going even further than Foote did by actually denying it as an issue.

    If anything, I blame Foote for accentuating the importance of Forrest in the western theater. I’ve heard countless Lost Causers repeat Foote’s “authentic genius” line too many times to count. It usually is followed by some claptrap about how that half illiterate rube would have been a better commander of the Army of Tennessee. They always forget he included Abe Lincoln in there too…and they always get pissy when I bring that up. 🙂

  • James F. Epperson Sep 1, 2015 @ 3:32

    At the time the series was made, Shelby Foote was perhaps the most widely read and well-known author on the Civil War. (McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom had been published just a few years previous, I think.) So his inclusion has to be seen almost as a marketing issue. I was not aware of the extent of his dominance of the interview segments, and I am chagrined to read it. Like someone up-thread, Ed Bearss grated on me with his delivery, but I knew him to be an authority. I have never understood why Symington was included—what were his bona fides?

    Despite the excessive influence of Foote and some other weak “talking heads,” I think the series deserves credit for putting slavery at the forefront of the causality discussion, even if Shelby Foote couldn’t bring himself to admit it.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2015 @ 3:38

      Hi Jim,

      Battle Cry was published in 1988. Here is a short post I wrote about Symington. Check out the comments.

      Let me be clear, I am not criticizing the series for not focusing sufficiently on slavery. Quite the opposite. What I find interesting is the extent to which Foote was able (intentionally or unintentionally) to comment despite this focus. One could even interpret certain comments as challenging the centrality of slavery to the war.

      • James F. Epperson Sep 1, 2015 @ 6:25

        OK, that would explain it. I suspect the “old school tie” was the bottom line reason.

        At the time of filming, Battle Cry would not have had the reputation it eventually achieved. In fact, since it took 5 years to make the series (according to the Wikipedia article), it didn’t even exist when they started, although I suspect the “talking heads” were among the last things done.

        Foote was, IMO, the most attractive of the “talking heads” in terms of his camera presence and voice and manner of speaking. (Note that I am deliberately ignoring the content of what he said in that assessment.) It might be interesting to hear Burns explain why he gave Foote so much air time. I wonder if it was a deliberate or accidental effort at giving a contrary point of view something approaching “equal time.”

        Good post. Lots for folks to ponder.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Sep 1, 2015 @ 9:34

        By the way, what about Barbara J. Fields? She was very good in this program (better than Shelby Foote, in the long run) but I always thought it was interesting that she was apparently “one and done” with historical documentary programs. Whatever happened to her?

        • Ken Noe Sep 1, 2015 @ 10:45

          She continued to publish, now teaches at Columbia, and is currently the president of the Southern Historical Association.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 31, 2015 @ 22:21

    Hi Kevin,
    Before Ken Burns’ documentary premiered on TV, I heard that 10 years before he produced the program (actually, less than 10 years, I’m pretty sure) he said he didn’t know anything about the Civil War. In considering his work as a whole (films like “Baseball” and “Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”), I absolutely appreciate how much Mr. Burns is in touch with the history of race relations in America. To be sure, he famously said “The black-white rift stands at the very center of American history. Is is the greatest challenge to which all of our deepest aspirations to freedom must rise. If we forget that – if we forget the great stain of slavery that stands at the heart of our country, our history, our experiment – we forget who we are, and we make the great rift deeper.” I truly love it that people like him and yourself are very much aware of the effects of race that others go to great pains to ignore every day.

    In Burns selecting Foote to speak in his program, I wonder if he did so not knowing the depth of his opinions? Also, 25 years ago, a lot of current historians were not really on the scene yet. But I’m also thinking that, once again, it was all a business decision made for TV ratings. i mean, the program had to sell in the South, too. Was a grandfatherly, aplolgetic White Southern gentleman mixing Civil War history with folk tales (much like the Negro Leagues’ Buck O’Neil in “Baseball”) just what that program needed?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2015 @ 2:49

      Hi Bryan,

      I agree with the thrust of your comment. I tend to interpret The Civil War as much as a work of art as a secondary source – at times more of the former than latter and I try to get my students to understand this distinction as well. It is important to acknowledge and even celebrate the extent to which the series focused on slavery and other issues beyond the battlefield in 1990. We take it for granted in 2015, but Burns certainly helped to lay the groundwork for it.

      I can’t say much of anything about what Burns knew or didn’t know about Foote before filming. It’s a good question. Foote was the star of the show and Burns acknowledged it. I am curious as to whether Burns was able to discern an alternative interpretation of the war from Foote throughout the series.

      • Ken Noe Sep 1, 2015 @ 3:13

        I knew at least one established historian who turned Burns down, and I understand that there were others. He was, after all, a relative unknown then. Plus the now-forgotten “The Divided Union” had appeared on to some fanfare in 1987, with bigger names, and quickly disappeared. I suspect that Foote became the star by default.

        • Bryan Cheeseboro Sep 1, 2015 @ 4:07

          Hi Ken,
          I remember “The Divided Union” documentary series. It wasn’t bad but Ken Burns comes out on top because of:

          1) the Ashokan Farewell music;
          2) the Sullivan Ballou letter;
          3) the folksy, rocking chair, front-porch style of Shelby Foote. Even where he is wrong, he’s captivating for people to listen to;
          4) The Ashokan Farewell music;
          4) more social history and not just battles;
          5) did I mention the Ashokan Farewell music?

          And let’s not forget “The Ken Burns Effect.” This transformed documentaries.

          • ken Noe Sep 1, 2015 @ 5:31

            True, but the original version of “The Divided Union” had Eric Foner and George Peppard.

            • Katy Mar 30, 2017 @ 19:00

              I am looking for a vhs or dvd copy of the one that aired with George Peppard.

      • Keith Muchowski Sep 1, 2015 @ 7:16

        The way I have always understood it is that Burns interviewed Robert Penn Warren for his documentary about Huey Long. (Warren of course was the author of the novel All the King’s Men, a fictionalized account somewhat based on Long.) When Burns told Warren in passing that he was thinking of doing a Civil War documentary the writer told Burns he should get in touch with his friend Foote. Burns apparently had never heard of Foote before then.

        Huey Long came out in 1985 and then production began on The Civil War shortly thereafter. So he did not know Foote too well.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 31, 2015 @ 22:00

    In Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” I really like it when Shelby Foote states that “any understanding of this nation has to be based, I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War.” But, later in the program, he makes another statement that, I believe, contradicts his own claim:

    “The South never had a chance to win that war.”

    I used to think he made this comment just to piss off some of his Southern neighbors. As I recall, this statement was prefaced by him saying that the North fought with one hand tied behind its back and , if things got really difficult, all the North would have done is bring the other hand out to crush the South. But I think the South had several chances to win the war. It had chances to gain foreign recognition and it had chances to win the war on the battlefield. And I don’t just mean winning at Gettysburg. The South had to convince the Northern civilian population that the war wasn’t worth fighting anymore.

    As far as the North fighting “one-handed,” I think there is some truth to that but the North eventually had to draft soldiers. They recruited immigrants. They created the Invalid/Veteran Reserve Corps to utilize veteran soldiers no longer fit for front line service but could still be used in other capacities (such as guard and/or provost duties). The VRC organized 60,000 men, thus freeing up that number of able-bodied men for combat. And of course, the recruitment and enlistment of 180,000 Black soldiers (eventually 10% of Northern military forces) was absolutely significant.. I don’t think the North fought the war “with one hand tied behind its back” any more than the United States did in WWII.

    • MARGARET D BLOUGH Apr 28, 2018 @ 3:57

      You’re right. For one thing, I think the “the South never stood a chance” paints the secessionist leaders not just as the advocates of the institution of chattel slavery based on race that they were but as responsible for dragging the slave states into a suicide pact. The fact is that the resources weren’t disproportionate. The antebellum South was wealthy, with much of its wealth in land and slaves. They also held a less daunting position than the US government did, once the war began. The US government had to regain control over a massive amount of territory and people; the rebel government just had to defend what it had. Slavery also provided the rebels with labor to fulfill laboring roles both in civilian and military applications, making many more white males available. They might have pulled it off before the railroads made it far more logistically possible for the US government to fight a multiple front war. Ultimately, it was a battle of wills.

  • Al Mackey Aug 31, 2015 @ 19:18

    I cringe every time I watch the DVDs and hear Shelby Foote’s portions. Shelby certainly makes compelling television, but he makes for terrible history. He’s the voice of the lost cause myth, and he came across in such a trustworthy manner there were people who actually believed he had fought in the Civil War.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2015 @ 2:52

      …and he came across in such a trustworthy manner there were people who actually believed he had fought in the Civil War.

      I agree and coupled with the amount of time he was given compared to the other talking heads it is impossible not to interpret Foote as an authority on the subject.

  • Ira Berkowitz Aug 31, 2015 @ 18:25

    I watched the series on Netflix over a couple of weekends and generally enjoyed it. I was troubled by how much face time Foote recieved. But the opening segments focused on slavery and especially the pictures of disfigured and damaged slaves really hit home to me. Spread out over more time I can see how those images may be lost. But taking the entire series in over a very short time frame they really set a tone and had an impact on me. Thank you for the very thoughtful post.

  • Brad Aug 31, 2015 @ 17:15

    His folksy manner and the “compromise” is what, in retrospect, was wrong with the series. I think that awhile back Ta Nehsi Coates took him to task for this comment.

  • John Betts Aug 31, 2015 @ 16:45

    I can only speak for myself of course, but I credit Ken Burns’ series with being one of the “rude awakenings” you could say, that I wasn’t taught in school everything I needed to learn about the Civil War. Slavery was dodged as the primary reason for secession when I was a young student and Burns put it center stage for me. Spielberg’s “Amistad” had a similar effect. I can criticize both films for flaws, but they did spark my curiosity and set me on a different course. Burns also introduced me to some I hadn’t heard of before like Fields. What a wonderful and gifted speaker, as was Foote.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2015 @ 16:47

      Let me be clear that I am not denying the film’s importance along the lines that you suggest. It is well worth watching. I am simply trying to use the film to highlight what I see as the difficulty posed by the interviewer’s questions concerning Americans and slavery.

      • Pat Young Aug 31, 2015 @ 20:07

        I had been intensely interested in the Civil War as a kid, but by my college years I had lost interest. Watching Burns with my dad reawakened the subject for me. Like John Betts, I got more of a sense of the racial politics of the war than I had ever had before. I understand that for university trained historians the series is flawed, but for me, it was the Civil War lesson I had never had.

  • Sandi Saunders Aug 31, 2015 @ 16:34

    I have always struggled with Foote and what he says. I know you had his “compromise” video on once before, but this one is often used by flaggers and then I read this, He comes across as an apologist IMO and therefore the content is what is compromised.

    • Richard j.Willett, Jr. Jan 1, 2016 @ 7:34

      I’m glad there was exactly the right measure of Shelby Foote and Ms. Barbara Fields regarding the treatment of the Civil War and the issue of slavery. The magnitude of reasons why each side fought were accurately portrayed by Mr Foote. That slavery was an issue is indeed correct. That it was then wrong is fully accepted by Shelby Foote in no uncertain terms. But let’s tell the truth. The Civil War was not about the abolition of slavery. For the North it was about the preservation of the Union and a body politic that did not include slavery. The South, on the other hand, wanted to participate in a life style that was foreign to the North to govern themselves accordingly. Slavery existed as a form of that existence. It was not preeminent in the minds of Southern States when they went to War and seceded from the Union. Let us not contrive or lessen the sacrifice that both sides made and 750000 brave men on both sides lost their lives fighting for when the issue was simply not what was being contested. The best evidence of this is Lincoln himself. If he could have preserved the Union by eliminating slavery he surely would have done so. If on the other hand he could have saved the Union and I assure you this was the President’s motive by Not eliminating the problem he would have done that. Saving a Union versus eliminating slavery. Simply not of equal importance. Let’s stop trying to go back and say this issue was central to War. It wasn’t. Let’s stop attacking the South for saying it should have been central to their reason for fighting. And finally let’s top trying to question Shelby Foote’s description of the War from the prospective of both North and South as anything less than probably the most intuitive analysis of a War that I have ever heard about, read or been privy to. As Lincoln also says in his Gettyberg address we can not consecrate neither the ground nor the lives lost in this or other Civil War battle. It can only be done by the brave men from both sides who fought to preserve their interpretation of democracy for their respective sides. Maybe that pure endeavor of self determination is what should foremost occupy our minds and hearts just as much as the pursuit of equally compelling God given rights which we fully appreciate as guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The Civil War as Mr. Foote agreed is a failure to compromise and in the case of slavery a total failure of our democratic process. However to use this issue to the extent Mr. Burns and others now recognize slavery as the principal issue of the Civil War is just not correct. For me I have never respected more a person’s view of events times and circumstances of the War more than Shelby Foote’s Civil War accounts and Interviews which I have previously seen and read and for which I am grateful. I congranulate Ken Burns and thank him for a Series and content which is fundamental to my beliefs of citizenship and democracy and the love of my country North or South.

      Dick Willett- January 1st 2015.

      • Erick Jan 1, 2016 @ 13:49

        ” But let’s tell the truth. The Civil War was not about the abolition of slavery. For the North it was about the preservation of the Union and a body politic that did not include slavery. The South, on the other hand, wanted to participate in a life style that was foreign to the North to govern themselves accordingly. Slavery existed as a form of that existence. It was not preeminent in the minds of Southern States when they went to War and seceded from the Union.”

        I’m not exactly sure what your distinction between the abolition of slavery and “For the North it being about the preservation of the Union and a body politic that did not include slavery.” If the North was fighting to preserve a Union and body politic without slavery then how do they do so without abolishing slavery?

        Secondly if the extinction of slavery wasn’t “preeminent in the minds of Southern States when they went to war and seceded from the Union then why would the Charleston Mercury News publish an article on November 3, 1860 entitled “What Shall the South Carolina Legislature Do?” (in response to Lincoln’s election which started with these words:

        “The issue before the country is the extinction of slavery. No man of common sense, who has observed the progress of events, and who is not prepared to surrender the institution, with the safety and independence of the South, can doubt that the time for action has come–now or never.”

        It seems to me that at least in this instance in South Carolina, and in all the other states who seceded and started the war they did so to preserve slavery. They were fighting to create an independent country which protected and further developed the institution of slavery. It was delineated in the Confederate Constitution. Jefferson Davis propagated it in speeches as late as October of 1864, and Robert E. Lee even said he was leading the Army of Northern Virginia to preserve “the best relations between the black and white races” as late as January of 1865. If the southern states didn’t secede, form the Confederacy and fight the war to preserve slavery then why did all of the Confederate leaders claim they all they did was to preserve the peculiar institution?

        Look up the letter from Robert E. Lee to Andrew Hunter dated January 11, 1865, the speech Jefferson Davis gave in Columbia South Carolina on October 4, 1864, and the Confederate Constitution and each state’s Ordinance of Secession and Reasons for Secession documents for further reference.

      • Sandi Saunders Jan 5, 2016 @ 19:00

        When you wrote “It was not preeminent in the minds of Southern States when they went to War and seceded from the Union”, I knew that was why Foote is so important to you. I disagree and I believe documented history does as well.

        The Confederacy did not trust Lincoln or Congress on slavery and nothing was going to change that. They had schemed for a decade to get international slave trade restarted and to get slavery into the new territories that were not yet states. They knew it was not going to happen if they stayed in the union. They even said so: From South Carolina’s secession documents: “On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States”

        And from Texas: “…they have elected as president and vice-president of the whole confederacy two men whose chief claims to such high positions are their approval of these long continued wrongs, and their pledges to continue them to the final consummation of these schemes for the ruin of the slave-holding States.”

      • Mitchell Langbert Jun 10, 2016 @ 16:47

        The southernmost states that first seceded did so over slavery, but the more populous northern South–Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina–did not until after Lincoln raised an army to attack Fort Sumter. Hence, there is ambiguity about the South’s initial motivation. Not so the North. The North had absolutely no interest in abolishing slavery, and it definitely did not fight the Civil War to end slavery. Saying the Civil War was fought to end slavery is silly because Buchanan and then Lincoln favored Constitutional amendments protecting slavery.

        Four border states that fought on the North’s side had slavery. Northern Democrats opposed manumission in part because they feared economic competition. That was also true of the free soil movement, which opposed slavery in the territories because they wanted free, small-holding whites to benefit.

        Let’s stash the political correctness.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2016 @ 16:51

          The Upper South may not have seceded immediately with the Lower South, but slavery dominated the debates that took place within special conventions right up to Sumter.

          It is true that Lincoln did not prosecute the war at the beginning to end slavery. The goal was reuniting the nation, but emancipation certainly came to occupy a central place in achieving that end by the middle of the war.

          • Mitchell Langbert Apr 25, 2018 @ 13:19

            The issue of slavery became important to Lincoln after the war started, and it did so as a military rather than a moral issue. Lincoln offered to sign the Corbin amendment, which would have constitutionally banned illegalization of slavery. To claim that the North fought the war because of developments that occurred after the war started is fallacious, a classic example of specious, ex post reasoning.

            • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2018 @ 13:45

              OK then.

            • Andy Hall Jul 2, 2020 @ 6:25

              Let me fix that for you:

              To claim that the North South fought the war seceded because of developments that occurred after the war started tariffs is fallacious, a classic example of specious, ex post reasoning.

              I like this game.

          • james garrett Jul 1, 2020 @ 7:25

            That was because the North was losing the war in the initial two years. A rationale had to be made for the tremendous loss of life. If the Union could not be held together, then the war had to make the slavery issue a primary cause.

        • Brian Farrington Mar 21, 2017 @ 13:36

          I’m afraid most of this comment is simply wrong. Obviously, Lincoln did not raise an army to attack Fort Sumter. The secessionists attacked Fort Sumter, and it was in response to that aggression that Lincoln called for volunteers.

          The notion that the North “had absolutely no interest in abolishing slavery” is also wrong, or at least quite incomplete. The abolition movement had been gaining strength in the North since the 1830’s, and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act infuriated many Northerners. Of course, there were many, maybe even most, people in the North, who were not abolitionists. It is for this reason, and to avoid pushing the Border slave states into the Confederacy, that Lincoln did not propose emancipation immediately. But it was only a little over a year after Ft. Sumter, in July 1862, that Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation.

          As for Lincoln supporting an amendment protecting slavery, you are right on the fact but utterly omit the context. Just before his election, Lincoln was presented with a “compromise” plan, the Crittenden plan, to save the Union. Part of this was an amendment saying the federal government could not interfere in slavery in the states. This, however, was exactly what Lincoln and everyone else understood to be the case anyway. Lincoln believed it was beyond his power to interfere with slavery, so supporting an amendment to that effect conceded nothing. But the Crittenden plan also called for allowing slavery in at least of of the Territories, and Lincoln would accept no compromise on that point. He and many others also believed that if slavery could not expand, it would ultimately wither away. He accepted war rather than compromise on the expansion of slavery.

          The great irony of secession is that without it, slavery would have continued, probably for many years. In the context of a war, however, the inherent war powers of the President allowed him to attack slavery as supporting the enemy war effort. But the slaveholders were completely irrational on the subject. “And the war came.”

          • Mitchell Langbert Apr 25, 2018 @ 13:27

            Fort Sumter was on South Carolina soil, and South Carolina had seceded. It was illegally occupied by the North. You have zero evidence that more than 10 or 15% of the North ever favored abolition. As you say, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was very much in accordance with the South’s wishes, as was the Corbin Amendment, which Lincoln had proposed to sign (following Buchanan). Buchanan did not respond militarily to secession; that was Lincoln’s doing several months later, after which Virginia seceded. The claim that not allowing slavery in the new territories is the same as favoring abolition is false. Racist Northerners wanted all-white states that they could farm without competition from slave owners. Claiming that slavery would have continued for many years raises the question as to why the Ottoman Empire banned African slavery in the 1880s, and why the North, which did not benefit from slavery, was far more successful economically than the South. Claiming that a backward slave economy could continue into the 20th century is worse than speculation.

            • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2018 @ 13:43

              You clearly need to do some reading.

              Claiming that a backward slave economy could continue into the 20th century is worse than speculation.

              Start with Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams (Harvard University Press) and Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told (Basic Books)

              • Mike Furlan Apr 25, 2018 @ 15:19

                Southern slave plantations were more efficient than free farms. And it wasn’t until the 1950s with the invention of herbicides that the need for a large labor force in the cotton fields was eliminated.

                Even without the money to be made, most white folks are very much in favor of brutal control of African Americans. Today, in 2018, we imprison a higher percentage of African Americans that Stalin tossed into the Gulag at the height for the “Terror.”

                Had the slaveowners not overreached, we’d have slavery still.

            • HankC Apr 25, 2018 @ 16:43

              ‘Fort Sumter was on South Carolina soil, and South Carolina had seceded. It was illegally occupied by the North’ – that was pretty much the issue, yes? No need to re-fight it now.

              ‘Claiming that a backward slave economy could continue into the 20th century is worse than speculation.’ – claimed by who?

            • chancery Apr 26, 2018 @ 14:15

              “Fort Sumter was on South Carolina soil, and South Carolina had seceded. It was illegally occupied by the North.”

              See Al Mackey’s blog for the text of the 1836 statute by which South Carolina ceded to the United States its title to Fort Sumter, and the soil on which it stood.


  • woodrowfan Aug 31, 2015 @ 15:49

    I wish there was more of Dr. Fields (a LOT more) and less Shelby Foote. (and, frankly, less Ed Bearrs, his delivery grates on me). I still like the series though.

  • Christopher Shelley Aug 31, 2015 @ 15:47

    Spot on.

    • Jon Phillips Aug 31, 2015 @ 17:46

      Ken Burns is one of the most lazy and unfortunate blights on the medium of the documentary. The lazy pans of photos and pretentious music loops of the same damned fiddle are a clarion to zap the mute on the remote.

      Hack, pretentious and in the instance of Shelby Foote in mouth, revolting drivel.

      • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2015 @ 17:48

        You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but I think your assessment misses a great deal.

      • jeff Anderson Sep 15, 2015 @ 13:34

        Jon Phillips, you must be a graduate of the Donald Trump School of Understatement. I wish you would tell us how you really feel

    • David Cherson Sep 3, 2017 @ 13:40

      I’ve always maintained that slavery was a secondary reason for the war. The industrial revolution was upon the country and the factories, for the most part, were in the north. The south had the raw materials, cotton. And I think that Shelby Foote was spot on when he said that none of the soldiers on either side cared about slavery. I know that we all like to think of Union soldiers as liberators but they really weren’t. And by 1863 emancipating the slaves would by extension provide needed additional troops, etc. If one listened to abolitionists it was slavery over all other reasons. If you listened to fire breathing rebels it was a second american revolution and freedom from tyranny, etc.

      • Kristoffer Sep 4, 2017 @ 6:45

        Sorry, the industrial/agricultural divide was debunked long ago:

        The soldiers on both sides cared about slavery at different times, the southern ones through various ties that ensnared even non-slaveowners, and the northern ones who recognized that they could wield emancipation to weaken the Confederate war effort. Union soldiers were liberators from January 1, 1863 onward.

        • David Cherson Sep 4, 2017 @ 6:58

          I’m not a ‘professional student of the civil war’ just someone who has an interest from time to time. So these figures show almost equal amount of farm land in the north and the south. But you have not given any statistics for industry and I am sure that it would show much more of it up north. Only the idealists and abolitionists in the north would claim to have fought for the emancipation of the slaves. The overriding cause for union soldiers was just that, the preservation of the union, period. Sure the emancipation proclamation was a successful tactic in that it took away a source of labor and also added more soldiers to the northern side, etc. But I seriously doubt that most of the white soldiers of the union believed in freeing the slaves as the cause worth fighting for. Also it is a matter of record that Abraham Lincoln gave a speech during the war in which he stated his belief in the supremacy of the white race.

          • Kevin Levin Sep 4, 2017 @ 7:02

            You make a good point that for the vast majority of Union soldiers the preservation of the Union was the paramount goal, but plenty of soldiers understood that this would not be achievable without destroying slavery. A number of historians have also noted a shift in the thinking of some Union soldiers as they confronted the horrors of slavery for the first time. Most white northerners, including Lincoln, expressed views that today would be understood as racist. It is important, however, to understand that you could distinguish between the question of the morality of slavery and a belief that white men were superior. You should also resist plucking Lincoln references out of their context. He evolved on the issue of race throughout his presidency. By the end, Lincoln considered granting the vote to some African Americans.

            • David Cherson Sep 4, 2017 @ 7:10

              Thanks Kevin. But I didn’t “cherry pick” from Lincoln’s speeches, etc. Somehow I remember reading that speech in it’s entirety. And yes views that were acceptable back then would not be now, etc. However by the same token I tend to not believe in the idealistic representations of founding fathers and others. It is also an important point to remember that protecting our borders on the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, was also a critical factor in preserving the Union. The US-Mexican war was very recent history back then.

              • Kevin Levin Sep 4, 2017 @ 7:17

                I was simply suggesting that you can’t cite one Lincoln speech and draw a conclusion about his views on race. Like I said, they evolved in ways that even he could not have anticipated.

                • David Cherson Sep 4, 2017 @ 7:25

                  Well likewise I never accepted Shelby Foote’s view of Jefferson Davis either, i.e., a misunderstood humane family man, etc. (Although by reading through here I see where Shelby Foote isn’t well liked). I like Foote and reading and hearing his perspective on the Civil War. That doesn’t mean I should accept his opinions on different personalities either. However he had a great way of imparting how Stonewall Jackson was a great military leader but not a very good human being.

                  • Kevin Levin Sep 4, 2017 @ 7:27

                    I recommend William C. Cooper’s biography of Davis and James I. Robertson’s biography of Jackson.

        • woodrowfan Sep 4, 2017 @ 11:36

          that’s why the southern states trying to secede barely mentioned slavery in their declarations while going on and on about industrialization.

          oh, wait, never mind.

          Why do these folk never seem to read what the confederate leaders themselves said was the reason they wanted to leave the Union??? It’s not a huge mystery, they were pretty explicit about it.

          • David Cherson Sep 4, 2017 @ 13:05

            >Why do these folk never seem to read what the confederate leaders themselves said was the >reason they wanted to leave the Union???

            Because everybody and Hollywood wants us to think that the Union was only fighting for justice. Reconstruction and Northern carpetbaggers compounded the post-war situation, especially for African-Americans.

            • Kevin Levin Sep 4, 2017 @ 13:08

              Who cares what Hollywood ‘wants you to think.’ I suggest you read something published in the last few years on Reconstruction. You could start with Eric Foner’s abridged version of his book *Reconstruction.* Let’s leave the “Norther carpetbaggers” to the wind, if you know what I mean. 🙂

              • David Cherson Sep 4, 2017 @ 13:15

                As I said at the outset I am not a “professional” or “highly active amateur” in civil war history. I would have (and should have) followed a career path in history but I chose otherwise and that’s my tough luck, etc. I will check out the book that you suggest. However I will never be convinced that the Union’s primary goal was emancipating the slaves. However that did become a useful secondary cause in the latter half of the war. I’m just never an idealist. That all being said, I’m not replying any more to this conversation, it is not going to do any good. Further study on my part just might.

                • Kevin Levin Sep 4, 2017 @ 13:19

                  So you claim not to be an expert or even informed and you continue to share what you are or are not willing to believe. With all due respect, this is absurd.

                  However I will never be convinced that the Union’s primary goal was emancipating the slaves.

                  Who is saying this? I already suggested in a previous comment that it is much more complicated.

                  • David Cherson Sep 4, 2017 @ 13:23

                    So am I not allowed to express opinions because I am not a historian?! Anything that I express is based on what I have read and absorbed up to this point in my life. Yes reality is always more complicated than it appears on the surface. Please no “I am the expert” approach, ok? Enough said about all of this.

                    • Kevin Levin Sep 4, 2017 @ 13:32

                      I think this thread has been exhausted. I appreciate you taking the time to comment and wish you all the best.

            • hankc9174 Sep 5, 2017 @ 17:59

              The south fought to preserve slavery; the north fought to preserve the union. All else follows in a pretty straight line.

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