Sullivan Ballou, the narrator tells us, was a major in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers. He was killed a week later in the first battle of Bull Run, dying in a Civil War clash in Virginia hundreds of miles from his home.
This scene has been played, parodied, rewound and played again countless times in the 30 years since it first aired on PBS. But it is no less affecting now than it was in 1990 when the Ken Burns series, “The Civil War,” became a cultural phenomenon.
The nine-part documentary drew 40 million viewers — one in every six Americans alive at the time. President George H.W. Bush watched it. So did Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, while preparing for the Persian Gulf War. And it has had a lasting, and in many cases, misleading impact on how Americans see the war.
Sarah Sanders once invoked the documentary to defend a senior Trump official who’d claimed a “lack of an ability to compromise” caused the Civil War. Historians online said the claim was outrageous, offensive even. Even Burns chimed in, tweeting, “Many factors contributed to the Civil War. One caused it: slavery.”
But the press secretary had prepared a defense that day. “I don’t know that I’m going to get into debating the Civil War,” she told reporters, “but I do know that many historians, including Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’s famous Civil War documentary, agree that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War.”
She was partially right. Not about the cause of the Civil War, nor about Foote being a historian — he wasn’t, not a trained one anyway. But in the first few minutes of the series, Foote does in fact say the conflict happened “because we failed to do the thing we have a real genius for, which is compromise.”
Re-watching the series now, after a summer of protests sparked by the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans, popular culture may have finally caught up to those historians.
Much of the documentary comes off as hopelessly dated, archaic even, and at times breathtakingly tone-deaf.
Even three decades ago, Burns correctly pointed to slavery as causing the Civil War.
In the first episode of his series, there’s a 13-minute explanation of how slavery divided the nation until it broke, set to the keening harmonies of Sweet Honey in the Rock, as archival photos of enslaved people drift slowly across the screen.
One of the first historians to appear is a Black woman, Barbara Fields, saying, “If there was a single event that caused the war, it was the establishment of the United States, in independence with Great Britain, with slavery still a part of its heritage.”
In the next clip, she is contradicted by Foote’s “failure to compromise” claim.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with two interviewees disagreeing — one might even call that balanced, responsible journalism. But then Foote keeps talking. And talking. And chuckling at his own jokes, pausing to smoke his pipe before talking some more. All told, Foote is on screen for nearly 46 minutes; Fields only eight and a half. Balanced it is not.
“You really get the feeling that Burns, for all of his incredible gifts as a filmmaker, he really kind of fell in love with Shelby Foote,” said James M. Lundberg, a Civil War historian who teaches at Notre Dame, in a phone interview with The Washington Post.
Foote’s screen time is dripping with Lost Cause fables as thick as his accent. Stonewall Jackson looks out over a gruesome battlefield, eating a peach. A Confederate private, on duty alone at night, has a conversation with an owl. And Nathan Bedford Forrest — a slave trader who oversaw the massacre of hundreds of Black soldiers at Fort Pillow and founded the Ku Klux Klan — is as much a genius as Abraham Lincoln, physically attractive, “born to be a soldier the way John Keats was born to be a poet.”
Historian Keri Leigh Merritt, who called for a new Civil War documentary series in 2019, is stunned by the flowery compliments bestowed on Forrest. “There’s no such thing as a good slaveholder, but there were slaveholders who were not horrifically violent. He was horrifically violent,” Merritt said in a phone interview. “And that was well-known at the time. That was well-documented. Both Foote and Burns clearly knew that.”
Foote, who died in 2005, was a novelist, not a trained historian, though Sanders is not the first to declare him one. So did The Post in a 1990 article that also called Foote “Ken Burns’s onscreen alter-ego.” He’s so omnipresent that Burns seemed to endorse him.
In contrast, Fields, who still teaches at Columbia University, is an Ivy League-trained historian and the only person in the series with a PhD in history, Merritt pointed out. Her fewer appearances are largely confined to segments about Black people; there are several episodes of the series in which she doesn’t appear at all.
In 2015, when Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg pressed Burns about the imbalance between Fields and Foote, and asked if he would edit it the same way again, he said, “Yes. Because what works, works.”
When asked if Burns still feels this way in 2020, a spokesman pointed to a June CNN interview, in which Burns said, “In many ways, we would probably be making a different kind of film now,” before pointing out the discussion of slavery in the first episode and that Fields gets “one of the last moments in the film.”
Not the last, though. She’s followed by Foote, again, and a long reading of a Confederate soldier’s reminiscence, dreaming that he’ll still get to fight the war in heaven.
A ‘magnificent’ general and ‘runaway boy’
To the untrained eye, history written nearer in time to the period it covers seems like it would be more accurate than history written much later. Memories are fresher, records more plentiful.
This isn’t necessarily the case, and a prime example is the Civil War. After the end of Reconstruction, as white supremacy re-clutched its grip on Black America, a false history began to emerge. In this “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” narrative, White Southerners didn’t sacrifice their sons to preserve the “cornerstone” of slavery; they were the victims of a Northern aggressor, fighting nobly for dignity and states’ rights. Enslaved Black people, when they were mentioned at all, were not terrorized captives whose labor and wages were stolen, but happy in their servitude and tricked into rebellion by devious abolitionists.
For decades, the proponents of the Lost Cause put up the statues and wrote the history textbooks, and ten of millions of Americans learned this version of events.
Unfortunately, even setting Foote aside, a thread of Lost Cause glorification is stitched through the fabric of “The Civil War.” In nearly every episode, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is described by the narrator as a “courtly,” “magnificent,” “brilliant,” “commanding” man who “disapproved of secession” and “hated slavery,” despite his avid and intentional participation in both.
There are other threads. Even amid the constant fawning over Forrest, Burns doesn’t sanitize the horror of Fort Pillow. The series does a good job of describing Abraham Lincoln’s evolution from “Send them back to Africa” to the Great Emancipator. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s writings are quoted throughout. But the narrator introduces him as a “runaway boy.” Douglass was a man of 20 when he escaped slavery and in his early 40s at the start of the Civil War. Such clumsy language wouldn’t escape notice now, in an era in which Ibram X. Kendi and Isabel Wilkerson dominate the bestseller lists.
“If he, Ken Burns, and his co-writers had been trained … they would have learned that the people they were relying on for much of this history were in fact white supremacist, pro-Confederate, pro-Lost Cause men. White men,” Merritt said. The academy is generally a few decades ahead of popular culture, Merritt explained, and it was entirely possible to make a more accurate film in 1990 had they relied on other scholarship, such as that of W.E.B. Du Bois, Kenneth M. Stampp and Eric Foner.
Instead, the series suffers from an inappropriate presentation of “both sides.” Again, showing both sides is often a sign of responsible journalism. But the problem with the Lost Cause narrative is not just that it isn’t “woke” by today’s standards. It is also not true.
The attempt to splice together real and pseudo histories of the war is perhaps best encapsulated by the narrator’s thesis: “What began as a bitter dispute between union and states’ rights ended as a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America.”
Well, no. Something close to the reverse is true: What began as a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America was afterward whitewashed into a dispute over states’ rights.
Burns had no way of knowing what would happen the past few decades, but another refrain in the series — that the conflict united us in a way that we could never conceive of splitting again — rings hollow in these bitterly partisan times.
Both Merritt and Lundberg credit “The Civil War” with sparking their interest in history in their youths. That’s a common story for White historians of a certain generation, Merritt said. It wasn’t until later that she began to realize its problems, and she thinks White audiences are ready to hear truths that may make them uncomfortable.
She isn’t waiting for Burns to reboot the series. She is writing her own — which will center on the experiences of enslaved people — with co-writer Rhae Lynn Barnes and an advisory board of big-name scholars like Tera Hunter and Douglas Blackmon. They were in talks with production companies when the pandemic shut everything down.
If it does get made, perhaps Burns will be among the first to watch it. As protesters tore down statues in June, he told Chris Cuomo, “It’s very important for people like me, my complexion, to be as quiet as possible and to listen. What I know from my reading of history is that the Confederate monuments have to go.”
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