Why I Won’t Be Watching Ken Burns This Week

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

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

One of the things that I recognize in my own relationship to Civil War history is that I am not holding on to anything for reasons having to do with nostalgia. I know this stands in sharp contrast with the personal stories of many of my friends who I have met over the years with a mutual interest in the war.

I’ve been reminded of my own relationship to the history of the Civil War in the last week as fellow bloggers and other commentators assess the re-airing of Ken Burns’s landmark documentary, “The Civil War”, on PBS. A number of people have reflected on what the series means to them and one friend even referenced it as responsible for launching his career as a historian. As for me, I can’t even remember when I first saw it, but what I do know is that my first viewing would have been driven by the same intellectual curiosity described above. Over the past 15 years I have watched it numerous times with my students and have written about how I utilize it in the classroom. I have written extensively about it here on this blog over the years. The film has shaped my understanding of the war, but as far as I am concerned it is just another interpretation of American history. As a documentary, it has its strengths and weaknesses.

A post I wrote last week about the Ken Burns series received a good deal of attention and feedback both within the post and in the form of private emails. Many comments and private emails critical of my post included some reflection about the documentary as a transformative experience. It was as if my own critical assessment was interpreted as a personal attack or as intended to undercut their own relationship to the film. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ultimately, each of us must find our own way of pulling meaning from the past. This week many of you will do so by re-watching Ken Burns. Enjoy.

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19 comments… add one
  • Brad Sep 11, 2015 @ 10:42

    I haven’t watched the re-airings. It’s not as if they’re not readily available. They’re one click away on Netflix.

  • Sherree Sep 10, 2015 @ 6:17

    My introduction to the Civil War came late one night when I was eight years old and listened to my grandmother tell stories of her grandfather–who was in the Civil War–and of the local battles that were fought. There was a quality to it all that I cannot quite describe; it was as if the moments, themselves, were transported through time, alive. That is the power of oral history, and, also, its potential downside. Luckily for me, there was no downside, and my ancestors fought for me and for future generations of family the battles of race and prejudice that are still raging. That is quite a legacy for a white Confederate soldier.

  • msb Sep 9, 2015 @ 23:06

    “my first introduction to the ACW”

    I had a great-uncle on the state Civil War roundtable (had no idea what that was). As I was majoring in history in college, I was incredibly lucky to have a wonderful professor who did one semester on the War and one on Reconstruction – some of the happiest hours I ever spent in a classroom or library, even though my friend and I used to tear up while taking notes on the battles.
    At the family Christmas party, I mentioned the course to my great-uncle, and he asked me what scholars’ work we were reading. I mentioned a few, including C. Vann Woodward, and he snorted: “Upstarts!”

  • Marian Latimer Sep 9, 2015 @ 20:43

    Oddly enough, I had a professor/adviser at University of Michigan who was a big Civil War person, taught it and held an interest in it, but I don’t think he wrote about it much, if at all. He certainly didn’t push it on me, although he did sort of try to steer me to the American West briefly. I ended up with my history concentration being mostly in Great Lakes history, if that can be such a thing, but I did go to Andersonville as a high school senior (family trip) and of course, Bruce Caton was from Michigan and I did read some of his works in college. I don’t remember much. Who knew my father grew up near Fort Donelson?

    I found this series lovely and moving when it first came out, enough so, that I detoured to Gettysburg on my way to somewhere else in PA a year or so after it first came out. I supposed it triggered enough of an interest in the war and parts of it that I began attending events at the battlefield, mostly the women’s history symposium, that no longer exists, sadly, because of what I was researching at the time. I gradually learned that there were plenty of mistakes in the documentary and plenty of things left out that should not have been left out.

    I’m watching it now, more out of background noise as anything else. I am watching it with a different point of view, but I suppose it does do what it should do in this age of scrubbing history from the course offering in schools, or at the very least, scrubbing the way its presented, it gets people interested in its subject matter, hopefully enough, to realize that they will stick with it and long enough to realize Ken Burns is not the be all and end all. He does not have total ownership of history and neither does Tom Hanks. who seems to get to do the interpretation on CNN.

    I guess I’ll say what I said 25 years ago, as a documentary, it was pretty. Yes, I am (or was) blonde.

  • London John Sep 9, 2015 @ 12:52

    I’m a bit surprised to find I can remember my first introduction to the ACW. In my London primary school a teacher taught the class to sing “John Brown’s Body” and gave us an age-appropriate explanation. A little later (c age 10) I saw John Huston’s film of The Red Badge of Courage and I was hooked.
    Funny thing about Jay Ungar’s fiddle in the Ken Burns series. I found it really created the right atmosphere, I thought he got it just right. But Ungar was on a multi-series BBC programme with the great Scottish fiddler Ali Bain called The Transatlantic Sessions, and he always seemed rather irritating. I guess he’s better when you don’t see hjm.

  • Tom Clemens Sep 9, 2015 @ 9:42

    Just struck by your “Antietam” connection and glad you chose the right battlefield to get started. 🙂

    • Kevin Levin Sep 9, 2015 @ 9:51

      Hi Tom,

      Nice to hear from you. I ended up on a tour with Ted Alexander of all people. Ted was incredibly supportive of my earliest efforts as a historian. When he wasn’t calling me a communist he helped me to better understand the civilian experience in Sharpsburg and pointing to archival sources at the park.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Sep 9, 2015 @ 8:51

    I think at this point,I feel the same way about the Ken Burns series as I do about Civil War TV miniseries and movies like The Blue & The Gray, North & South, Gettysburg and even Glory- they are nice programs to watch, but my knowledge of the actual history of the period has grown past them. But I’ve found that when I discuss these programs on internet message boards and I criticize the “history” in them, some people are truly bothered by my questioning.

    • Forester Sep 14, 2015 @ 15:06

      Yeah, I’m with Bryan on this. I think of the Ken Burns series as being like a movie.

      I don’t think I’ll be watching Ken Burn’s “Civil War” ever again, simply because it has nothing to teach me at this point. And as a pre-med student, my time is precious. If I am going to read or watch something so far outside my field of study, I want to read something with some read meat to it — new information, something that asks hard questions and challenges the status quo.

      BTW, I’m now reading Kevin’s Crater book, which I just found at the ODU college library last week. Your book is in college libraries, Kevin! Be proud of that! 🙂

      • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2015 @ 15:07

        Hope you enjoy it.

        • Forester Sep 14, 2015 @ 15:24

          I’m gonna write a review, but right now I’m only up to the “Lost Cause” chapter.

          I have one question, if you don’t mind: in your research, did you find any evidence that General Mahone PERSONALLY ordered the black and white captured troops to be marched together? It seems shockingly racist for a man who would be a Readjuster. Do you know what level of involvement he had?

          I read the following quote in a local soldier’s diary, but I don’t know if the narrator is accurate or not:

          “After the fight, rather an amusing thing occurred. General Mahone put in practice the Yankee theory of a Negro being as good as a white man by marching them in alternate files of white and black. It is true that the Yankees, especially the officers, grumbled at this arrangement, but I cannot see what ground of complaint they can have when we adopt the theories which they publish to the world as theirs and seem to glory in. This is the second new and novel feature of field warfare that Grant has introduced. What he will try next remains to be seen.” — July 30, 1864

          *Walters, John. “Norfolk Blues: The Civil War Diary of the Norfolk Light Artillery.” Burd Street Press, Shippensburg PA, 1997.

          • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2015 @ 15:32

            Great question. I didn’t find any evidence of Mahone’s direct involvement in the parade of prisoners that followed the battle.

  • Rob Wick Sep 9, 2015 @ 6:54

    Fair enough.


  • Rob Wick Sep 9, 2015 @ 6:34


    How one enters into a relationship with history is such a subjective thing, that no one will (or should) say one path is superior to another. You came to it with a deep intellectual curiosity that sounds like it was innate and a part of your makeup long before your trip to Antietam. Mine came about because of a small wooden bust of Lincoln my mother gave to me when I was a boy after she traveled to Springfield to take her beautician’s license test and from subsequent family and school visits. To further drive into the ground an overused phrase, “it’s all good.” Given the pull, however, that most memories made in youth have on an adult, I can also see how some might take exception to what they, rightly or wrongly, perceive to be a dismissal of something that had a big impact on them. When I was in college I had a friend who changed his major from history because the professor who taught Civil War history spent a short amount of time on battlefield maneuvers in favor of the social and political aspects of the war. He had grown up on Cattonesque stories of battles and leaders and expected more of the same as a history major, and when he couldn’t get that he abandoned the study completely. While that obviously was an aberration and an overreaction, I still think there are a number of people who are so focused on just one aspect of a particular part of history that they miss out on much more, and really don’t care that they are.

    I do have one nit to pick, though. I know you disagreed with my placing the issue in the context of the popular/academic historian debate. Yet in your first sentence you say that the first Civil War book you read wasn’t written by Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote or the editors of American Heritage, implying that Sears was a level above those authors (at least as I read it). Sears was (and is) as much a popular historian as the aforementioned authors, and even was an editor at American Heritage.


    • Kevin Levin Sep 9, 2015 @ 6:40

      Thanks for the comment. I was simply pointing it out as the first book that I read which happened to be on my first visit to Antietam.

      Yet in your first sentence you say that the first Civil War book you read wasn’t written by Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote or the editors of American Heritage, implying that Sears was a level above those authors (at least as I read it). Sears was (and is) as much a popular historian as the aforementioned authors, and even was an editor at American Heritage.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Sep 9, 2015 @ 5:58

    My first visit to a Civil War battlefield came without my even knowing it- the battlefield of Fort Stevens. I grew up the the neighborhood surrounding the remains of the fort. The house that I grew up in was built on the battlefield itself. I’ve loved history ever since I can remember and it’s funny to me now that all that time I spent reading about the Civil War when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that I was sitting right on top of it.

    Anyway, I loved the Burns’ program but it wasn’t until 1993-94 that I watched the whole thing (I could never keep up with the broadcast schedule, even with a VCR). While Shelby Foote’s comments betray his own belief that “any understanding of this nation has to be based on an understanding of the Civil War,” I think the program still has a lot of value. Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” was, I think , the first time I heard the right-between-the eyes statement of “Our new government is based on the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the White man.” I remember in the last episode, General Hood’s complaint about living among Yankees and their “Nigra allies.” And I remember it featuring Ed Ruffin’s suicide because he couldn’t bring himself to live of anything short of Black enslavement. I remember after watching the whole thing feeling like the message I got from it was “I’d rather die than live in a country where Blacks are placed on an equality with White people.”

    The series is not perfect; it’s dated and plays up the reconciliationist, “Let’s all be Americans again (as long as Black lives DON”T matter)” at the end of the series but I’ve always liked Ken Burns because he has understood race in American history a lot better than many others.

  • Annette Jackson Sep 9, 2015 @ 5:26

    Interesting observations, Kevin. I can’t really remember what specific incident triggered my interest in the Civil War, other than having a father who was very interested in history in general. He was virtually a self-educated man who probably had the equivalent of a B.A. in history due to extensive reading on the subject. I was also fortunate to have some excellent high school and college history teachers. And having families who sent many fathers, sons and brothers off to the war doesn’t hurt, although my knowledge of their service post-dates my interest in the war.

    Ken Burns produced a series that captured the imagination of a nation 25 years ago. Looking at it again over the past few days, I am taken by how much screen time Shelby Foote received, and was definitely presenting one point of view…..I have heard and read that quote from the Southern soldier about “we’re fighting because you’re down here” multiple times ….just the other on a Facebook site devoted to the war. Is that even a real quote? Or does it even matter if it is real or not, since it certainly expresses one point of view for those who then and now are devoted to the concept of government “overreach…”

    I will be watching off and on..I have the original set and eventually will receiving the new set due to my contribution to PBS. I love the photographs, the music, even the sentimentality, along with the knowledge that underneath all that are the graves of men who died too soon ..

  • Pat Young Sep 9, 2015 @ 5:21

    I did not become interested in the Civil War Era because of Ken Burns’s film, but it, along with the movie Glory and Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction,” prompted me to make it a focus of research that has led me to write more than a half-million words about it online.

    I am watching it (for the fourth time) this week, not because there are parts I missed or can’t recall, but out of a sense of community with my readers. It is rare that large numbers of people have shared collective experiences anymore. We can “access” just about anything whenever we want. I am enjoying the process of watching the series with people I never met, and reading their real-time commentary on it as I watch.

    A lot of those who watch it discuss the obvious, “Was McClellan as bad as the series implies,” “Would the gilm have worked if there was not fiddle music by Jay Ungar,” etc. Others tell me that they were wondering if they would be as moved by Sullivan Ballou’s letter this time as they were the first time. (Like good sex with a caring partner, it never gets old according to one correspondent.) Still others tell me they have cried when they heard a line in the film that brought up memories of a discussion they had with a now dead parent or spouse.

    Watching it as a collective activity is a participatory form of memory studies as well as a way to form new memories along the poetic lines of the series. It also reminds me of the performance of the Greek tragedies, in which the audience knew every aspect of the story, but were there for the experience of community in poetry.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 9, 2015 @ 6:17

      I am watching it (for the fourth time) this week, not because there are parts I missed or can’t recall, but out of a sense of community with my readers. It is rare that large numbers of people have shared collective experiences anymore. We can “access” just about anything whenever we want. I am enjoying the process of watching the series with people I never met, and reading their real-time commentary on it as I watch.

      One of the best reasons I’ve heard for watching it again. Thanks, Pat.

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