Filmmaker Ken Burns pulled the letter from his wallet, being careful not to rip it. It was tattered, barely holding together at the creases, and he handled it gingerly. He has carried and treasured the letter for five years. But he did not write it, and it wasn't sent to him.

It is dated July 14, 1861, Washington, D.C., a week before the first battle of Bull Run. Major Sullivan Ballou of the Second Rhode Island Volunteers was writing to his wife.

"Dear Sarah,

"The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps tomorrow. Unless I shall not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter ... And I am willing, perfectly willing, to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government ...

"Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break. And yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly, with all those chains, to the battlefield.

"The memory of all the blissful moments I've enjoyed with you come crowding over me and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you that I have enjoyed them for so long ... If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield it will whisper your name."

The letter says many things about Ken Burns and "The Civil War," the masterpiece and landmark television series he has created for PBS.

The 11-hour, five-night presentation airs Sunday through Thursday (8 to 10 Sunday, 8 to 10:30 Monday to Thursday). General Motors put a million well-spent dollars toward the production, with a number of foundations contributing too. WETA is the sponsoring PBS station.

That Burns should carry Ballou's letter all these years speaks to Burns's commitment to -- or perhaps obsession with -- his subject. The quality and impact of this history is proportional to that commitment.

The Ballou farewell itself speaks to the style of the series: "The Civil War" is emotionally compelling and full of excerpts from letters and diaries and quotations from other sources, giving this program a depth and texture unprecedented in TV documentary fare.

The military history of the Civil War is the skeleton of the series, "the narrative-driving engine of this machine," said Burns. But fleshing out that skeleton, fueling that engine, are the stories of scores of men and women, many of them famous, many not so famous, many obscure or anonymous. Their stories -- "story is a large part of the word 'history'" -- help describe the social, political, diplomatic and economic winds that swirled around the awful conflict.

Giving voice to those individual stories -- and indeed the series might have been titled "Voices of the Civil War" -- is an amazing array of actors and other personalities. Sam Waterston (who played him in "Gore Vidal's Lincoln") is the voice of Abraham Lincoln; Julie Harris is diarist Mary Chesnut; Jason Robards, Ulysses Grant; Morgan Freeman, Frederick Douglass. Checking the credits is one of the series' added delights. You'll find Jody Powell there too.

But in addition to the voices, there are photographs and paintings. Burns estimates he visited 160 archives and handled some 100,000 pictures, choosing more than 3,000. A number of them are shocking, many more quite simple; most are riveting as they offer glimpses of those Americans and their terrible time.

Burns includes some contemporary footage, typically shot at battlefields during the same time of year the historic clashes occurred. There are no attempts to re-create or restage events, and there is no footage of Civil War re-enactors.

The series' musical theme is "Ashokan Farewell," written by Jay Ungar, a friend of Burns. It fits in perfectly.

Burns has enlisted Shelby Foote, whose three-volume history is a landmark in Civil War literature, to help stitch together the pictures and voices. (The series is ably narrated by David McCullough.) Other historians offer their perspectives, notably Barbara J. Fields of Columbia University.

"I've been possessed by the stories of our past," said Burns. "I've spent the past 20 years trying to make those stories come alive. And here I was faced with not only a mammoth project, but the most defining event in our history.

"The Civil War speaks directly to the American soul. It's the Rosetta Stone as to who we are as a people."

With his boyish face and his hair cut in bangs, it is hard to believe that Ken Burns has spent 20 years doing anything. At 37, he has behind him a body of impressive work: "Brooklyn Bridge" won an Oscar nomination in 1982; "The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God" (PBS, 1984) won a blue ribbon at the American Film Festival. "Huey Long" played in theaters as well as on PBS. Other credits: "Thomas Hart Benton," a 1988 biography of the painter; and a bicentennial history of "The Congress."

Burns formed something of an odd couple with the Foote, the program's chief commentator. Burns is a Yankee who lives in Walpole, N.H., and speaks in perfect, often complicated sentences. Foote sports a tidy white mustache and beard and spins wonderful yarns in his soft southern drawl. "History attempts to embrace all activity," said Burns of working with Foote. "Shelby seemed more than anyone like someone who'd been there."

But getting Fields, a black woman, to assist was not easy. "There was a problem convincing Barbara about our motives," said Burns. "I think she thought we might give it an old-folks-down-home treatment."

She sounds one of the series' most vital themes -- the paramount importance of black emancipation in the war. Emancipation, she says, ennobled the war's carnage. There was more at stake than the idea of union and control of the Mississippi River, she says, and that was the liberation of black people.

One of the biggest myths surrounding the war, Burns feels, is the idea that blacks were passive spectators during the war. While faulting the movie "Glory" for what he feels is cliche'd treatment of blacks -- "you have the angry black, the kindly black, the intellectual and mute black" -- he applauds it as far as it went to dispel the non-participation myth.

The PBS series indicates that by the end of the war blacks made up 10 percent of the Federal forces and 1 percent of the Union population.

And there are other themes. "If I told you I was working on a film about the imperial presidency, the feminist movement, about defining the civil rights movement, about flag desecration, military contractors -- all of these subjects and more have their most profound and tragic expression in the Civil War."

"The Civil War" is so full of themes, not to mention the stream of images and its chorus of eloquent voices -- tragic sometimes, often surprisingly funny, but always eloquent -- that viewers may wish to tape it. A companion book has been published, "The Civil War, An Illustrated History," and there's Foote's "The Civil War, A Narrative" to turn to.

"It was an age unlike ours. People kept journals and wrote letters, and expressing feelings was important," said Burns. "That eloquence, on both sides, makes the Civil War much more special."

In addition to the likes of Lincoln, Douglass and the rest, the series gives voice to the memoirs of two privates, Sam Watkins, a Confederate, author of "Company Aytch," and Elisha Hunt Rhodes, great-grandfather of one of Burns' Walpole neighbors. The Rhodes memoir, "All for the Union," previously published in limited numbers, may be reissued by Random House, Burns said.

The voices are legion:

A soldier describing the awful food: "We have rice two to three times a week, and worms as large as your finger. I liked rice once, but god damn the stuff now."

Lee, after Stonewall Jackson's left arm has been amputated: "He has lost his left arm. But I have lost my right."

A blood-stained page from the diary of a Massachusetts volunteer, recovered after a Union disaster, dated June 3, 1864, Cold Harbor, Va.: "I was killed."

Story upon story. "I came into contact with excruciating events and people who are models for today," said Burns of his work on the series. "There's something extremely contemporary about the questions of the Civil War."

Before the war, the United States' population was 31 million, with one in seven Americans belonging to someone else. The term "all men are created equal" had an asterisk attached to it, Burns noted. The war was fought to remove it. During the war, 2 percent of the population was lost.

But black freedom was achieved -- in a way, for a time -- and union was preserved.

"Before the war, we said 'the United States are,'" observed Foote. "After the war, we said 'the United States is.' That's what the war did. It made us an is."