The small girl clutching a pink plastic snake in one hand makes her declaration. "I'm thinking of a song. It's about Grover Cleveland."

She is humming a little something as she waits for a response, but a song about Grover Cleveland -- nothing comes immediately to mind.

"She's doing that because she knows all the presidents," her father explains.

Finding that sufficient invitation, the 3 1/2-year-old begins in mid-presidential stream. "Grover Cleveland," she announces. "Benjamin Harrison. And then -- Grover Cleveland again!"

The joke is wonderful to her, Grover Cleveland's presidential return visit, and Lilly Burns giggles with delight.

It has been an apparently quintessential display of the Burns family personality: the love of history's characters and rhythmic surprises, the mastery of the dramatic, the precocious and disarming charm, the bravura performance. Like daughter, like father. But now Lilly's turn is over, and Ken Burns sits down to his lunch and suggests his daughter retreat to another part of the hotel suite.

He is, as usual, doing several things at once. The creator of the epic "The Civil War," which premieres tonight on Channels 26 and 32, is renowned for his 15-hour workdays and maniacal devotion to his own vision. Now he manages simultaneously to give an interview, issue periodic instructions to his wife, Amy, on the care of the visiting "Civil War" stars and historians here for a screening of the show, answer a bleating phone and dissect a sandwich of postmodern decorativeness.

The most obvious thing about the elder Burns is that in photographs and at first glance the 37-year-old looks like a 19-year-old kid. Precisely thin, his delicate face framed by a youthful bowl of brown hair, he wears worn white pants, sneakers and a tired button-down shirt and is so physically unprepossessing that his eloquence and contagious intensity come as a surprise.

"I'm a historian of emotions," he is saying, "and the Civil War is about emotions much more than it is facts or battles. If you see history as dull I can't really help you. But if you see history as everything that came before this moment -- then it's the most important thing there is."

It is a definition of history so broadly encompassing it might as well be renamed "life," which would probably suit Burns fine. The show he took five years to complete has the compelling characters of a novel, the beautiful and grueling images of an art exhibit, the narrative power of a tragic story told by a friend. Burns's history is all about people, from Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant to the two privates, one from the South and one from the North, whose letters home Burns uses to chart the progress of the war.

Perhaps more than any period in American history, the Civil War attracts passionate devotion -- the assiduous readers of biographies, the large numbers who dress up in period costumes to reenact battles. But through contemporary photographs, evocative film of battlefields, music, and the words of the people who lived the war, Burns and his collaborators have managed to craft a show that will interest even those who left high school determined never to look at another battle plan of Gettysburg.

Burns's on-screen alter ego, historian Shelby Foote, shares his vision of the war in particular and history in general. Foote does not speak about historical trends or abstractions. He tells stories of men and women, some of them moving, some of them amusingly tangential. A humane and beguiling figure who may be the first person to deserve a Best Actor award for an appearance in a documentary, Foote shares with Burns an essential interest in the human quirks and realities of the war -- and a strong faith in the relevance of those realities.

"The Civil War defines us -- who we are as a people," says Burns. "It's a window into ourselves."

What race means to us, how we face death, what home is, where our loyalties lie -- these are among the lessons of the Civil War, and among the issues Burns's film addresses.

"We are looking for self-definition as a people," he says. "The Civil War is a way of finding that. We do everything very well in the present except find out who we are. Everything in our society tells us that if we live in a consumer moment everything will be all right. Our souls, our hearts don't cry out loudly enough, 'That's not true!' "

But, Burns believes, Americans continue to seek ways to satisfy their hearts and souls. History is one of those ways, he is certain, and he chooses to teach the lessons of history through individual lives. By the end of the series the viewer has been introduced to scores of participants in the war and through their letters and diaries heard their fears and hopes.

"I think that's what makes the war come alive, when you realize each name is really just the lid of an extraordinary package," says Burns's younger brother Ric, who shares writing and producing credit for the series. "And once you start looking at the smaller figures, you can see that the larger figures so encrusted with cliche -- Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant -- were real people. There was once a time when U.S. Grant was just a guy who had been a failure in everything he did, just a schmo from Galena {Ill.}."

Ken Burns has been an admired filmmaker for eight years now, ever since his 1982 documentary on the Brooklyn Bridge won him an Academy Award nomination. Son of a professor of anthropology, he grew up in Michigan, studied film at Hampshire College and has made well-received films on Huey Long, the Shakers, the Statue of Liberty and the history of Congress. But "The Civil War" is certain to propel him into a higher sphere of public attention and accolades.

Both critics and real people are already melting with praise for the show, and PBS has taken the unusual step of broadcasting the 11-hour series over five consecutive nights, a test of endurance that commercial broadcasters would be more likely to think appropriate for a roiling miniseries.

"I think the experience of this film is best done in a concentrated period," Ken Burns says. "The Civil War is best run on all cylinders, and film can be, in its rare moments, able to run on all cylinders.

In fact it does seem fitting that Burns would prefer a format that mirrors his own obsessive nature, a five-night marathon that (in a vastly miniaturized form) echoes the overwhelming, seemingly endless experience that the Civil War was to the people who lived through it. Originally he planned for the series to be a mere five hours long, one hour per year of the war, "but this thing ballooned."

For the past five years the Civil War has engulfed and warped Burns's life, and his dedication ensured that it engulfed the lives of those who worked with him as well. Every Monday he left his family in New Hampshire and went to New York, where he lived "a monastic life" in a one-room Manhattan apartment, working constantly on this film and other projects on the artist Thomas Hart Benton and the history of Congress. "I realized I had to increase my output," he says, as if speaking of some inefficient machine.

"I stopped drinking. I started exercising. I literally don't remember the last months of 'Benton.' What I didn't have in my life was my family. What I didn't have was a social life. What I didn't have was anything other than this film."

"I said recently to someone that it was like 'The Red Shoes' ballet," Burns says. It is a grim reference for a successful young filmmaker. In "The Red Shoes" a ballerina is entranced by her ballet shoes and cannot stop dancing. Eventually she dies, her love having become her destruction. A tragic story, but of course, just a story. Shoes (or cameras) do not move on their own. You can close the door and leave them behind -- if you want.

But how do you relinquish the breathless thrill of doing too many things at once and finding you do them well? How do you hand over control of even a fraction of your adored creation? Burns has already begun work on his next two projects, histories of radio and baseball, and although he says he has actually allowed his co-producer on the baseball film to begin interviews without him, it seems somehow unlikely he will take off the shoes.

He himself describes his style as "the autocratic rule which every producer-director has to have." It is also apparently the autocratic rule of the creative, the charismatic, the obsessed.

Ric Burns was so seduced by his brother and film that he has abandoned an unfinished PhD and is editing his own film on the history of Coney Island. But, he says, "I think Ken would agree that there was constant creative friction, not just between him and me, but also with Geoffrey Ward, the principal writer.

"As brothers it was tough at times, but I think it's fruitfully tough. He's a year and a half older than me, an inch and a half shorter than me. We both have the same anachronistic Beatles bowl cut we both adopted in 1964. It is a close relationship. Now, however, I think having worked together for five years, we'll give it a rest."

When Ken Burns talks about the Civil War -- or baseball, or radio or the Brooklyn Bridge -- the listener knows that he must be repeating himself, re-weaving many of the images created for other audiences long before. But he is a man who knows how to persuade, whose living depends on getting actors to read for him, historians to help him, and organizations to give him money. Even though you know the thoughts are not new, he brings to them the fervid determination of someone who has just realized something terribly important that you must come to understand with him. He is a storyteller, sweeping his listeners along.

And many are swept. Lynn Novick, co-producer of the baseball project, describes collaborating with him as "working at the feet of the master."

The other face of that powerful ability to convince, to draw people into his work and cause, becomes visible in small moments when the autocrat emerges. His wife, a filmmaker and colleague who is currently in temporary retirement while she raises their two daughters, enters the room with a message. He looks at her and says, "Proceed." He is a man who knows how to get what he needs.

Right now he is at work in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, an appropriate site for his Washington visit given its popularity during the Civil War. As Burns walks through the lobby to get his picture taken, he comes upon a disgruntled Jason Robards, who reads the voice of Grant in the film and has just been informed that there is no reservation in his name. (History -- everything that came before this moment -- is alive again, for as the series points out Grant himself went unrecognized by a Willard clerk the day before he was placed in charge of the entire Union army.)

"We were just about to get back on the plane and leave!" Robards grumbles, and he seems to mean it. There is word that Julie Harris, the voice of Southern diarist Mary Chesnut, has already been through similar trials. Burns snaps into action, expressing outrage and assaulting the hotel's public relations staff.

With his hand lightly touching Robards's back, he firmly tells the assembled hotel employees, "Of course you know who these people are!"

Perfect. A star's battered ego has been soothed and fed. A point has been made. The whole thing is resolved within 10 minutes. (When he returns to his room, Burns will have his wife call Robards's suite to ensure everything is truly fine. The Red Shoes allow for no less.)

Coming from such a compelling personality, the mood of "The Civil War" is somewhat surprising. It is oddly peaceful. There is a way his camera moves: slowly panning an empty field, resting its eye on the sinking sun above a glistening river, climbing -- from feet to legs to hands to face -- a photograph of a young soldier with almost discreet hesitancy. The chaos of battle is suggested by sound and words rather than darting cameras and showy visuals. It is an elegiac breed of movement, a camera that seems to feel both mourning and nostalgia.

"You have to be quiet," Burns says of the sort of documentary filmmaking he prefers. " 'Honorable' is the 19th-century word I return to again and again. It looks traditional and it is, but it's very hard. You need to make yourself as a creator invisible."

It is a style that does not approve of actors reenacting the past. "I find re-creations abhorrent," he says. "I don't think recreations do justice to the people who died."

However, the thousands upon thousands of Civil War photographs that remain do justice, Burns believes. He talks about "extending faith" to those pictures as a filmmaker, as if there is some sort of courteous compact between the living and dead.

"If there were movies of those battles, that would have been it and there would have been no other alternative," he says. But because there are not even photographs of battles underway -- the technology of the period necessitated that all pictures be staged and taken slowly -- viewers must re-create those battles themselves with the help of the filmmaker.

Silver Spring cinematographer and documentary filmmaker Allen Moore worked with Burns on much of the series, shooting many of the battlefield scenes and sharing with Burns the sense that a certain quiet was appropriate to the subject.

"The way that the battlefields are now preserved, they are a memorial to the people who sacrificed their lives to the war, and memorializing a landscape is part of what we were out to do," says Moore. "Everyone knows when they see a color image of a battlefield, they know it wasn't shot in 1860, but because of the way it is given a special reverence it becomes timeless. That is the word Ken always stressed, timeless."

So a shot of Antietam or Manassas or Gettysburg is a picture of lost years and lost lives. You are supposed to be touched by that loss.

"The vision of the Civil War that comes out of this," says Burns, "is intensely personal." By that he means each viewer should see and feel the war personally, in some still part of the heart and mind. As he did.