The Civil War: Episode 9 – The Better Angels of Our Nature (1865) |Ken Burns Documentary

This is the last episode of the Burns miniseries.  It’s where Shelby Foote makes the silly claim that the result of the war caused us to stop referring to the United States in the plural and instead refer to it in the singular.  I discussed the evolution of American English and its treatment of collective nouns here.  Andy Hall has weighed in with evidence showing “United States” being referred to in the singular prior to the war as well:  “A similar search comparing the frequency of the phrases ‘United States are’ and ‘United States is’ reveals that, contrary to Foote’s assertion that the former was the preferred usage in the decades before the war, the two phrases were actually used about equally through the first few decades of the Republic. That began to change in the 1840s, when ‘United States is’ (shown in red) began gradually to pull away from ‘United States are’ (in blue) in printed usage. By the beginning of the war (shown here as a green bar), ‘United States is’ was solidly more common in usage–though not greatly so–than ‘United States are’ ”  There were still disagreements about the usage even at the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century.  See here and here.

This episode gets into the legacy of the war.  Highly reconciliationist, it paints a picture of brotherly reunion after the war, for the most part.



  1. As you might imagine – I tend to focus on this episode more than the others.
    At any rate, Lynn Hunt, Joyce Appleby, et al made a similar claim in their book Telling the Truth About History, so I don’t think Foote’s remark is as silly as it is not necessarily on the mark. He makes plenty of other actually silly claims in the series.
    What’s really remarkable though, is that 25 year after the original airing we are all still talking about this series. Which means – Ken Burns was certainly on to something…

    1. I think they probably got it from Foote. McPherson did. I agree completely about Burns, Keith. I’ve tried to always give him credit for outstanding television and for getting people interested in the Civil War, no matter how many mistakes we can find in his documentary.

      1. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

        I have to agree with you on Burns. There is a lot he go right in the series as well. Part of the problem is no matter how hard you try to get things right, when you are doing these huge projects there is an amount of error creep which you cannot prevent. Let’s consider just how much work went into the making of this series. I think we can all agree this was a significant undertaking involving a lot of people. The more people you involve in something, the more chances something will not be 100%. People will overcome errors and setbacks in various ways in order to meet the ultimate goal.

        There are no perfect documentaries. I show selections from this series and others of Ken Burns, particularly The West. I show scenes from The War that Made America where Geo. Washington was involved in the killing of two French diplomats which helped spark the Seven Year’s War (not the only event in the causation). I show scenes from Liberty, from The Story of Us, and other documentaries. I try to get clips that are factual and to show certain points which I think are more effectively learned with visual help.

        This is a common debate for involving film with history. I have seen historians on both sides of the fence and there is no right answer. For me as a teacher, I go with what works the best.

        1. I’m with you on all of that, Jimmy.

        2. The best part about the Burns series, and why I think it continues to resonate today, is that (besides a few errors) there is plenty in the series – the reconciliation episode in particular – that leaves room for interpretation and opens the door for further discussion. I think we can all agree that Burns did a service to Civil War study for precisely this reason. Much like Bruce Catton did for my generation, Burns is a real landmark for those who went on to further negotiate the issues of the war, big and small.

          1. I agree completely, Keith. The Burns series makes a great introduction, though there will have to be some unlearning and relearning once a person sees it.

  2. I agree, I think Burns is a little too reliant on Foote, but it is still a stunning documentary, and Foote’s Civil War is a phenomenal history of the war. In regards to the think it’s up to the watcher/reader to explore the source material further. In the same vein, I think Barbara Fields overgeneralises the role of slavery in the war, especially in her pithy speech on how emancipation justified the slaughter. Many good things came from the Civil War, not least of which was the emancipation of the slaves. Lincoln’s legacy deserves better than that.

    1. Foote’s narrative is a work of art. Having said that, his uncritical reliance on secondary sources is a weakness, as is his lack of notes. He tends to downplay the role of slavery in the war, and he makes some errors in the text as well. Dr. Fields didn’t appreciate the value of fighting for the Union.

      1. Problem is, I don’t think neither of them are truly objective. As much as Foote tries to be objective, he was a Southerner through and through. Which is why I believe he downplays slavery in favour of states’ rights. Its not as criminal as completely ignoring states’ rights and pinning the whole war on slavery though. However, Foote’s work is groundbreaking, it paved the way for narrative history.

        1. I think you’re overemphasizing state rights. Slave states were willing to ignore state rights when it came to protecting slavery. They demanded other states repeal laws they believed were repugnant to slavery. They demanded other states silence critics of slavery. They demanded other states allow slave owners to travel through them with their slaves without those slaves becoming free. They would trample the rights of any other states in the service of slavery. Really, in their perception, the only state right at stake prior to the secession of the deep south was the state right to have slaves. Without the perceived threat to slavery there would have been no secessions and thus no war. Where Dr. Fields went awry was in discounting the importance of Union on the part of the soldiers in blue. Preserving the Union was sacred to the majority of Union soldiers, but not to her. She felt that without emancipation the war would be ugly and useless. Not to those Union soldiers who felt their freedom depended on the preservation of the Union.

          In a sense, one could say that state rights played a role in that whether or not states had the right to unilaterally secede from the Union was technically what they were fighting about, and I understand that position. However, the states who seceded and told us why they were seceding didn’t say they were doing so in order to prove they could secede. Again, slavery was the overwhelming factor in bringing about the war, and it underlay the entire war, including influencing strategy on both sides of the conflict.

          1. Of course slavery played a huge part, but it also boils down to indecision from Washington as to whether to allow slavery to go westward. The 1850 Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act just papered over the cracks. And it’s obviously only the North who viewed secession as illegal. I think the fact that Lee and Johnston – both quietly anti-slavery – sided with their native states and not the Union reinforces that idea. I think slavery played a huge part in bringing about the war, in as much as Federal legislation regarding slavery pushed the Southern states into believing their situation in the Union was untenable. It was the states’ right to manage slavery as they saw fit.

          2. North and West all saw unilateral secession as illegal, as did a highly significant portion of the South, including many in secession conventions. The expansion of slavery was the crucial question regarding slavery at the time, with both proslavery and free soil advocates being of the belief that if slavery didn’t expand it would die. Hence it was a matter of protection of slavery for the proslavery people. Lee, a slave owner in his own right beyond being the executor of GWP Custis’ estate, wasn’t quite as antislavery as many have portrayed him. In 1865 he wrote that he regarded the master-slave relationship as the best that could exist between white and black races in the same country. In the famous letter to his wife that people point to where he says slavery was a moral and political evil, he also says that it is a “painful discipline” “necessary to their instruction as a race.” He regarded Lincoln’s issuing the Emancipation Proclamation as a “savage and brutal policy.” Joe Johnston was instrumental in suppressing Pat Cleburne’s proposal to emancipate and arm slaves.

            Even state’s right to manage slavery is a slavery issue.

          3. You sir, are a true Civil War authority, and I salute you for it! I’ll have to read up on Lee’s and Johnston’s questionable ethics. I find the notion of secession’s illegality to be ludicrous, as its a nation based on secessionism in a way. Liberty from Washington is still liberty. Send us a an email, we’ll discuss if further if you like. It’s nice to talk to someone whose arguments are backed up by rational thought and knowledge. Our email is

          4. Thank you. I wouldn’t say they had questionable ethics, as they lived in an area where slavery was considered a positive good. The US isn’t based on secession, as there is a difference between secession and revolution, as James Madison pointed out in his 1833 letter to Daniel Webster. And the Declaration of Independence lays out what makes a revolution justified. Keeping people enslaved is not what makes a revolution justified. Unilateral state secession is a violation of various parts of the US Constitution. For example, by Article VI, Clause 2 no state can declare the US Constitution or any US Laws no longer apply to it. The Constitution gives the power of determining the makeup of the Union to the US Congress, not to individual states.

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