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Opening Arguments

Not quite a masterpiece

One big reason the Civil War sesquicentennial is getting so much enthusiastic attention is the monumental PBS series 20 years ago in which Ken Burns, aided principally by Shelby Foote, managed to "take a knotty and complex history of violence, racial conflict, and disunion and turn it into a compelling drama of national unity." (George Will gushed that the series was a"masterpiece of national memory. Our Iliad has found its Homer.")

Historian James M. Lundberg looks back at the series, however, and sees mostly sentimental tripe.

For all its appeal, however, The Civil War is a deeply misleading and reductive film that often loses historical reality in the mists of Burns' sentimental vision and the romance of Foote's anecdotes. Watching the film, you might easily forget that one side was not fighting for, but against the very things that Burns claims the war so gloriously achieved. Confederates, you might need reminding after seeing it, were fighting not for the unification of the nation, but for its dissolution. Moreover, they were fighting for their independence from the United States in the name of slavery and the racial hierarchy that underlay it. Perhaps most disingenuously, the film's cursory treatment of Reconstruction obscures the fact that the Civil War did not exactly end in April of 1865 with a few handshakes and a mutual appreciation for a war well fought. Instead, the war's most important outcome—emancipation—produced a terrible and violent reckoning with the legacy of slavery that continued well into the 20th century.

These are important realities to grasp about the Civil War, but addressing them head on would muddy Burns' neat story of heroism, fraternity, reunion, and freedom. It would also mean a dramatically reduced role for Foote, the film's de facto star. Foote's wonderful stories and synopses of the war's meaning, which manage to be at once pithy and vague, cast a spell on the viewer. When Foote tells us that "the Civil War defined us as what we are and


Fri, 06/10/2011 - 10:32am

A book I'm re-reading now and would highly recommend to anyone is Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz.

The line that I remember from last night's read was a black woman in Charleston, talking about a Confederate commemoration of some sort. "I don't mind if they remember their ancestors; so long as they remember they lost."

Leo Morris
Fri, 06/10/2011 - 2:06pm

Little name dropping -- Tony worked for The News-Sentinel as an education reporter from 1983 to 1984 before going on to win a Pulitzer for national reporting in 1995.

Fri, 06/10/2011 - 2:26pm

I worked for a library for a couple of years in South Carolina. They had a magnificent multi-volume history of the Civil War titled "The War of Northern Aggression."
You simply cannot get a Southerner to admit that (a) the South started the war, and (b) the war was principally about slavery. Jefferson Davis' own journal states plainly that it was about slavery.
It's amazing how pissed off Southerners still are 150 years later. Maybe it's because they lost.
I've come to believe that assassinating Abraham Lincoln was the stupidest thing the Confederates ever did (aside from starting a war they couldn't win, of course). If you take a moment to read Lincoln's second inaugural address, it is clear he wanted to treat the defeated Confederates as gently as possible.
When Booth shot Lincoln, he simply gave the job to Andrew Johnson, who was a mean drunk with no charity whatsoever toward the South.

Harl Delos
Fri, 06/10/2011 - 8:33pm

It's reasonable to argue that the North started the war, and that it wasn't about slavery.

The North demanded that Southern states reapply for admission to the Union. The war didn't start with the South attacking the North, but with repelling Northern forces who were in the South. Invasion is an act of war.

The greatest part of Southern capital was invested in slaves. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution says 'nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation, and yet abolitionists weren't talking about freeing slaves by buying them from slaveowners and manumitting them, they were talking about punishing slaveowners by simply declaring slaveowning illegal - which is, as we see, exactly what eventually happened, even in the border states where the emancipation proclamation did not apply.

Sadly for Horwitz's woman, the fact that the North won the war doesn't mean they were right, it just means they were left. An unwillingness of the North to see the South's point of view has served us all poorly.