At the battle of Shiloh, a wounded Union soldier was told to leave his rifle and go to the rear. He soon returned, saying, "Gimme another gun. This blame fight ain't got any rear." Neither did the war.
It was fought in 10,000 places, this monsoon of our history. And beginning Sunday, and for the next four nights, "The Civil War" is magnificently encompassed on public television. If better use has ever been made of television, I have not seen it and do not expect to see better until Ken Burns turns his prodigious talents to his next project.
He is the filmmaker five of whose 37 years went into the making of this masterpiece of national memory. Our Iliad has found its Homer: he has made accessible and vivid for everyone the pain and poetry and meaning of the event that is the hinge of our history.
The Civil War is the largest event in human history. A large claim, that, but defensible, on five grounds.
At issue, and not just for this country, were the two polarities of political possibility: self-government and slavery. The war catalyzed the world's noblest political career, Lincoln's. The war (in Walt Whitman's phrase) "condensed a nationality": it completed the American founding, settling questions unanswered in 1789. It transformed the foremost democracy into a nation of such philosophic clarity and political unity that, in the next century, it could save the world from several tyrannies akin to slavery.
For more than a century this argument has raged: What caused the war? Was it an "irrepressible conflict"? What, at its core, was it about? About 15 minutes into Burns's 11-hour series, you learn -- you see -- the answer.
You see a 19th century photograph, black-and-white, of course, of a black man's back. It is hideously covered with scars left by a lash. Burns's camera does not dwell; the narrative does not even mention what we have briefly seen. Burns knows how to blend passion and delicacy: reticence can be its own emphasis.
The Civil War was the prototype of the great engine of change -- social, cultural, scientific -- in the modern world. It was the first modern war, waged, in the end (in Georgia and South Carolina, by Sherman) against civilians, and won by the side best at mobilizing an industrial base.
The First World War, from the wounds of which the Western world is only just now recovering, was prefigured in the trenches at Petersburg, Va. The firepower that killed 7,000 in 20 minutes at Cold Harbor, Va., was an anticipation of the Somme.
Two days fighting at Shiloh killed more Americans than all previous American wars. Sept. 17, 1862 -- Antietam -- is still the bloodiest day in American history. Two percent of the American population died in the war. And then there were the survivors of the first great modern war and the last great war before modern medicine: in 1866, one-fifth of the state of Mississippi's revenues were spent on artificial limbs.
Was it worth it? Yes. When the war began, one in seven Americans was owned by another American.
Less than 1 percent of the North's population was black, but by the end of the war 10 percent of the Union forces were black. One of them was a handsome boy named Jackson, about 12. Burns's camera pans slowly up an old photograph, up past the bare feet, ragged trousers, shredded shirt of "Contraband Jackson." (Contrabands were slaves that escaped to Union lines.) Then the camera pans up another photograph, up over boots, fine trousers, past a drum and snappy blouse, to the face of . . . Drummer Jackson.
Burns's film of the battlefields today, and the old photographs, are "framed" by ambient sounds -- hoofbeats, cannon, musketry, steamboat whistles. The birds you hear are the kind that called at the times and places of battles. The camera moves, sometimes at a canter, down roads and over ridges.
And the pictures are exquisitely married to words, astonishingly rich 19th century English usage, not only from leaders but from the letters and diaries of soldiers and citizens. Sunday's episode includes a love letter of unbearable beauty, written on the eve of the first battle of Bull Run by a soldier who was to die there.
The war was haunted by eerie occurrences.
Wesley Culp was born on Culp's Hill in Gettysburg. As a teenager, he took to wandering, wound up in Virginia. Came the war, he enlisted. He died a few yards from the house in which he was born, on Culp's Hill.
Because first Bull Run put soldiers in his kitchen, Wilmer McLean moved deep into Virginia to escape the war. He settled in Appomattox. The war ended in his living room.
That was the way of the war with "no rear." That is why it resonates so, and why Burns, by enriching our understanding, enriches our citizenship.