Among the prime-time choices last Sunday night were a two-hour made-for-TV film, "The Queen of Mean," about hotelier Leona Helmsley and a documentary about the Civil War. Twice as many Americans watched Helmsley. If sheer audience numbers count, a canned drama about an utterly insignificant -- and, even, boring -- figure won the ratings battle.

Of course, it didn't "win." Aside from an implicit commentary on mass taste, akin to the absurdly posturing Donald Trump again making the best-seller lists with his latest paean-to-self book, the Helmsley story already is forgotten, while the Civil War drama will be long remembered.

Something important has happened with the airing of the series. From its first installment, Ken Burns's justly acclaimed Civil War documentary has attracted a record audience for a public television series. About 14 million Americans have watched each night, and the impact of this remarkable production is bound to be great. For years, it will serve as primary source material in schools. Already, it has spurred new interest in understanding the most tragic episode in American history. It might even encourage similar works of excellence on public television, and, dare we hope, on the commercial networks as well.

All this is reason for cheering. Herein lies a magnificent example of the value of reality over tinsel drama. No dreadful TV "docudrama" of dubious historical accuracy, or TV miniseries with Hollywood cast of thousands, can remotely approach the sheer power of this scrupulously faithful-to-fact documentary. Here is genuine eloquence from genuine people, from presidents to humble citizens, not phony expressions crafted from a ghostwriter's hand or a TV scriptwriter's word processor. Here, too, for all to see and none to forget are human suffering and striving, nobility and stupidity and the horror of war.

Lessons abound. Among them are the hazards of miscalculating the cost of war and the naive belief in quick and easy victory.

As Gen. Ulysses S. Grant later wrote in his memoirs: "This war was a fearful lesson and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future."

As one of the millions who watched this series, I was struck by something else. Throughout, as effective backdrop, one hears strains of familiar music of the period. Some is haunting and sad; most, though, is uplifting and expresses the sunny side of the American character.

In the Civil War, for instance, Americans took the tragic Irish ballad, "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye," and, keeping the same tune, turned its mournful verses into an optimistic tale with a typically American happy ending.

In the American version, called "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," joy and celebration will mark the return of the soldier hero. Bands will play, chapel bells will ring, and crowds will chant, "Hurrah! Hurrah!" The American verses sketch the happy homecoming scene:

The boys will cheer,

The girls will shout,

The ladies they

Will all turn out,

And they'll all be gay

When Johnny comes marching home.

Compare that with the original Irish verses, dating from the 18th century when many young Irishmen fought with the British in India and the East Indies.

The original ballad tells the story of a "doeful damsel" who fails to recognize her former lover, the father of her child, after passing him on a road upon his return home from the wars. "Darling, dear, you looked so queer," she cries out to him, "Johnny, I hardly knew ye." Then, in verse after verse, she recounts in growing horror how he has changed. "Where are the eyes that looked so mild?" she asks. Then: "Where are the legs with which ye run? . . . . when first you went to carry a gun."

Finally, she blurts out what the war has done to him:

Ye haven't an arm, and ye haven't a leg,

Hoo-roo, hoo-roo.

You're an eyeless, boneless, chickenless egg,

You'll have to put in a bowl to beg.

Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

Then, the poignant refrain, in such contrast to the American soldier's happy homecoming:

I'm happy for to see ye home,

Hoo-roo, hoo-roo.

I'm happy for to see ye home,

Hoo-roo, hoo-roo.

I'm happy for to see ye home,

All from the islands of Ceylon,

So low in the flesh, so high in the bone.

Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

I have long thought that original ballad to be the most powerful of all anti-war songs. That kind of grim realism provides the central lesson of the Civil War series and remains more pertinent to present events than do martial songs that portray wars as pleasant outings with happy endings.