Ken Burn’s The Civil War and Thinking Critically

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As I have said in prior posts, I’m watching Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  As a point of entry and an overview, I think it is outstanding.  I think it is an extremely well done documentary series that includes an incredible amount of information in an easily understandable way.  It is great TV.  I think it is good history too, as long as you view it as an overview.  One could make a documentary series just about the battle of Gettysburg, or any number of things that this covers.

I can’t help but feel watching parts of it though, that it is sanitized history.  I don’t necessarily mean this as a dig against the series.  When I was a history major in college I realized that the larger the period of time that you covered, the more the class was only going to deal with surface events.  If you took European History you would get names and dates and a couple of overreaching themes.  I took a class on just the years of the Third Reich leading up to World War II, for instance, and you got much deeper into the human mud of what was going on in that time.  So I think that in dealing with a subject as epic as the Civil War, only having eleven and a half hours to tell it, they did about as good as anyone could.

Let me diverge for a minute.  In the TV show Deadwood, which is a western TV show that takes place in the town of Deadwood, there is a scene where the army comes to town.  The commander of the army makes a speech that is the kind of speech you can imagine a commander making.  Meanwhile a deranged looking soldier mutters things like, “We ate our horses.”  In one scene you are getting the noble version of a story and the less noble truth at the same time.

Now before I go any further I want to make something clear.  I am not saying that people shouldn’t believe what they read in history books.  I’m not saying that every event has a conspiracy behind it and that traditional history is a deception.  In fact many history books are brutally honest.  But one should always read history with a critical eye.  Most of the time historians are doing their best to get at the truth.  But everyone has certain biases, only certain information might be available at anytime, or they just might have real world issues like certain time constraints upon their work.  Some people are just better writers than others.  As with most things in life approaching something from multiple viewpoints is the best way to get a well rounded portrait of something.  I read two or three books on Custer last year, I honestly can’t remember, and each book made the picture a little clearer.

But by sanitized history I mean that something paints a narrative that, while telling the truth, doesn’t challenge the existing order of things.  I mean Lee is constantly treated as revered.  It’s always mentioned that he had time for privates, that he was a good man at his core, that he was a brilliant general. But he fought for Virginia because he believed that is where his duty lay.  He let duty lead him to fight on the side of slavery.  Now I understand, and I myself risk simplifying things, that slavery at the start of the war, wasn’t the only thing that people were fighting over.  I also understand that you have to try to look at things in the context of their time.  But at the end of the day he did do just that, he fought on the side that wanted to protect slavery.  And while he was no doubt a brilliant general in a lot of ways, he sent many troops to their slaughter at Gettysburg in a terrible blunder.   Stonewall Jackson, in the book I am reading, is often sweet and good natured in his private life, but could commit acts of war with bloody ferocity.  Both his private kindness and his public savagery were allowed to exist because he, and many in the Civil War, believed they were instruments of God.  Well it would be a an incomplete picture to not present them as complicated, fully realized humans, that had both good and bad qualities, too often often history does not lay it out bare that these people were emotional mutants.  They could play with children and then send those children’s fathers to die for state pride at best, and the right to maintain slavery at worst.  It is true that Grant could also send large numbers of troops to die, but at that point emancipation was on the table, and that was something morally worth fighting for.

I think the show Deadwood, a work of fiction based on reality, does a far better job than a lot of history in terms of exposing the ugliness, and sometimes the human grace, in our past.  I mean these Civil War battles were truly things of the utmost horror.  Thousands of people were often shot down in mere minutes.  These were battles of butchery and savagery.  The documentary series shows dead bodes, and uses words like butchery and savagery, but I don’t think it makes it vivid enough how truly horrible these battles were.  They too often seem like things of the past, safe from the modern world.  These were our ancestors, only two human life spans away, that were dismembering each other in the most horrible ways imaginable.  This wasn’t the middle ages.  There was a scene in the episode last night where white and black Union troops were fighting the Confederates.  The Confederates were saying, if there were captives to take, “Take the whites and kill the niggers.”  That’s somebody’s great great grandpa!  I mean slave owners were selling people’s children off.  People that did that shit helped build this country!  Again, all of this stuff is talked about in the show, but there it seems to be treated almost too reverential at times.  While the show often acknowledges the horrible, it often doesn’t acknowledge the absurd, and these things are often disconnected from our present.

I actually think this is a great documentary series, despite my criticisms above.  My point is not to disparage the show.  I think, again, given the amount of material they had to cover in a given time, they did so in a truly extraordinarily way that is a great overview of this time in history.  But I think one can hold the contradictory opinion of acknowledging someone’s achievement while also criticizing it.  The filmmakers did an outstanding job, but the viewer must now do theirs in thinking critically about the information presented.

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