A MISTAKEN FORM OF TRUST: KEN BURNS’S THE CIVIL WAR AT THIRTY

We recently looked at Professor Gary Gallagher’s consideration of whether or not the Ken Burns series still stands up. Here is a view from last year by graduate student Ella Starkman-Hynes in the Journal of the Civil War Era. She writes, ” When it was first broadcast on PBS, thirty years ago this September, The Civil War was an unprecedented cultural event: a history documentary that not only won Emmys and Grammys, but was mentioned on Twin Peaks, parodied on Saturday Night Live, and immortalized in New Yorker cartoons. To this day, it’s enshrined as the definitive story of the American Civil War. There’s just one problem: the war depicted in these nine episodes never happened.”

In elaborating, she says, “Ken Burns presents a Civil War caused not by slavery, but by a failure to compromise. A war in which the Confederacy fought for a noble cause, and whose heroes include not only Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, but Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest – the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1996, Robert Toplin published Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond, a collection of nine critical essays about the documentary. Scholars compared it to everything from Homer’s Iliad, to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and many historians signalled their dismay with Burns’s simplistic treatment of the war. These debates, however, have had little effect on the popular consensus, and most viewers continue to accept Ken Burns’s version of the war uncritically. But The Civil War is long overdue for a reckoning – and a remake. In romanticizing the Confederacy, obscuring the role of slavery, and refusing to grapple with the war’s devastating racial repercussions, the much-loved documentary is complicit in a long tradition of distorting the meaning of the Civil War. The trouble begins with the documentary’s star: Shelby Foote is a southern novelist with a down-home drawl, a gift for storytelling, and a very troubling version of the events of 1861 to 1865. Foote’s account of the Civil War has very little to do with slavery. He argues the war began ‘because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise,’ and that southerners were merely fighting to defend themselves against the northern aggressor. Foote’s unabashed admiration for the men who led the Confederacy is clear: Robert E. Lee is a ‘warm, outgoing man’ who ‘always had time for any private soldier’s complaint,’ Confederacy president Jefferson Davis ‘an outgoing, friendly man; a great family man, loved his wife and children; an infinite store of compassion.’

We read, “Foote speaks of the men who fought for the South as if they were not historical figures, but old friends – a method that made him a fan favorite upon the documentary’s release. It’s also what made him so dangerous as a historical source. This cozy brand of storytelling allows Foote to create deeply sympathetic portraits of men who fought to preserve slavery. In one of his most alarming assertions, Foote proclaims that ‘the war produced two authentic geniuses’: Abraham Lincoln, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. The former slave-trader Forrest oversaw the infamous massacre at Fort Pillow, in which Confederate troops murdered an estimated 200 Black Union soldiers who were trying to surrender. Forrest would go on to become the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a fact Foote neglects to mention when he thrills at the memory of once twirling the general’s sword over his head. And Foote wasn’t done yet. In a 1999 interview with the Paris Review, he stated that he would certainly have fought for the southern cause had he been alive during the Civil War. ‘What’s more,’ he added, ‘I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar.’ In an interview for the 1998 book, Confederates in the Attic, Foote told author Tony Horwitz that he was dismayed by ‘the behavior of blacks,’ who ‘are fulfilling every dire prophecy the Ku Klux Klan made. It’s no longer safe to be on the streets in black neighborhoods. They are acting as if the utter lie about blacks being somewhere between ape and man were true.’ Everything that Ken Burns gets right in this documentary – the music, the imagery, the storytelling – is powerfully overshadowed by everything that Shelby Foote gets wrong.”

She continues, “Shelby Foote’s views on the war, and race, stand in sharp contrast to that of the documentary’s other principal source, an eminent Civil War historian who gets a mere fraction of Foote’s screen time. Barbara Fields, the first Black woman awarded tenure at Columbia University, clearly identifies slavery as the foremost cause of the war, and is emphatic about the war’s devastating racial legacy. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Fields says, ‘The Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought and, regrettably, it can still be lost.’ As Keri Leigh Merritt notes in her essay, ‘Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary,’ Barbara Fields is granted fewer than nine minutes of screen time. Shelby Foote gets forty-five. Foote’s presence points to a larger problem with the documentary: its embrace of the Lost Cause. This mythology appears throughout all nine episodes, beginning minutes into the first. The war, the viewer learns, ‘began as a bitter dispute over union and state’s rights.’ Missing from this statement is the fact that the southern states seceded over a very particular state’s right – the right to own slaves. The documentary also buys into the classic Lost Cause tenet that the Confederacy was doomed to fail from the outset of the Civil War, never standing a chance against the vast industrial might of the North, but fighting nobly to the end. Perhaps the film’s most troubling adherence to Lost Cause lore is its idolatry of Robert E. Lee. The Confederate general is introduced as ‘the courtly, unknowable aristocrat who disapproved of secession and slavery, yet went on to defend them both at the head of one of the greatest armies of all time.’ Lee’s greatness, Burns suggests, was evident from his early days at the military academy West Point, where he did not earn a single demerit. ‘Classmates called him ‘The Marble Model’ – but liked him in spite of his perfection.’ The Robert E. Lee celebrated in this documentary is valiant, tragic, and brave. The real Robert E. Lee was something else entirely.”

Starkman-Hynes continues, “As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer writes in ‘The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,’ Lee was not only a slave owner, but a ruthless one. He separated slave families and brutally beat those who disobeyed him. Wesley Morris, an enslaved man who tried to escape from Lee’s plantation with his sister, recalled what happened when they were recaptured: ‘Not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh,’ he recollected, ‘Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.’ The image of Lee as a noble man who personally despised slavery – but fought for it out of loyalty to his beloved Virginia – is one of the most persistent myths of the Lost Cause. Yet instead of reckoning with any of this, Ken Burns introduces the courtly Marble Man of Perfection to new generations of history students.”

In considering how the documentary treats the postwar period, she writes, “The Lost Cause shares screen time with another troubling Civil War narrative: reunion. The Civil War memory historian David Blight notes that although reconciliation is a ‘noble and essential human impulse’ after a convulsive Civil War, reunion came at a devastating cost, as civil and political freedom for Black Americans became ‘sacrificial offerings on the altar of reunion.’ But reunion is a theme Ken Burns is unable to resist. Poignant scenes of reconciliation tug at the heartstrings as the series draws to an end. The final episode takes viewers to the 50th and 75th Blue-Gray reunions in Gettysburg, PA, with photos and grainy film footage dating back to 1913 and 1938. Frail, elderly Union and Confederate soldiers embrace one another, laughing and shaking hands on the very battlefield where they had fought against each other a lifetime ago. As the historian Eric Foner notes, ‘Faced with a choice between historical illumination or nostalgia, Burns consistently opts for nostalgia.’ Foner’s critique points to a curious fact about the series: historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction have long been troubled by many aspects of Ken Burns’s brand of storytelling – a concern that has never quite reached the rapt mainstream audience, likely because The Civil War is a documentary. The historian Robert Rosenstone writes that people are generally more trusting of documentaries than they are of feature films. But this is a ‘mistaken form of trust.’ Rosenstone argues that, like feature films, documentaries also dramatize scenes and impose certain storytelling conventions – often constructing a narrative that begins with a conflict and ends with a resolution. Unlike the Hollywood film, however, the documentary implies that ‘what you are seeing onscreen is somehow a direct representation of what happened in the past.’ Professor of education Jeremy Stoddard refers to this as ‘The History Channel Effect,’ and suggests that documentaries are ‘often treated with the same reverence given to primary historical sources.’ And few documentaries are treated with the reverence lavished on this one. For three decades , teachers have used The Civil War as a teaching tool. Just last year, PBS launched Ken Burns in the Classroom, offering teaching resources and lesson plans as companion material for The Civil War and other Burns documentaries. But The Civil War has been teaching lessons for years. In 2017, former White House chief of staff John Kelly ignited controversy when he stated that the Civil War was caused by ‘the lack of an ability to compromise.’ Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended him: ‘I do know that many historians, including Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’s famous Civil War documentary, agreed that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War.’ Ken Burns was swift to respond on twitter, getting it right thirty years too late: ‘Many factors contributed to the Civil War. One caused it: slavery.’ “

I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with using the Burns film in the classroom as long as it’s used judiciously with discussion of its points and correction of any errors seen.

Starkman-Hynes concludes, “The year 2020 has brought a profound reckoning with the Civil War’s legacy – and it is long past time that reckoning reached Ken Burns. His beloved documentary invites viewers to revel in the drama and emotion of the war without ever acknowledging its legacy of white. Echoing Keri Leigh Merritt and others, it’s time for a new Civil War documentary: one that honors Barbara Fields’s observation that the Civil War isn’t over – and can still be lost. Every Confederate monument can be toppled, but as long as Ken Burns’s The Civil War is seen as the definitive telling of the story, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest will remain on their pedestals.”

The film still has value, and it should be rightly saluted for bringing Civil War history to more people, but Starkman-Hynes makes excellent points about where it falls short. Teachers who want to use it need to be aware of its shortcomings so they can mitigate them for their students.

One comment

  1. Robert F. Davenport Jr · · Reply

    The seven deadly sins, according to the standard list, they are pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. Some of these are the basis for both real and imagined causes for the Civil War. Greed and lust are implicit in the need for slavery to provide for wealth of the planter class and the political ability to continue slavery. Pride explains the desire to maintain southern culture and, after the war, to justify it by the “lost cause”. Now we have “heritage not hate”. misplaced pride in a heritage, much of which demands acceptance and apologies if not atonement.

    “Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended him: ‘I do know that many historians, including Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’s famous Civil War documentary, agreed that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War.’ ” If press secretaries are not outright liars, they are spin masters. A failure to compromise might increase tensions but it was a reason that a war was not avoided. Often compromises only kick the can down the road.

    Blue-Gray reunions are typical of those between once bitter enemies. The overriding feeling is that they shared the horrors of war which is more compelling to them than the reasons for fighting it. The reasons the soldiers fought were not necessarily the reasons behind those who advocated/justified starting the war.

    From the examples given, Shelby Foote misuses the word genius by wanting us to assume that genius is good in some way. If Forrest was a genius, he should probably be called an evil genius. I’ve never thought of Lincoln as a genius despite his greatness. A genius for compromise may be an appropriate term to use for an individual who is good at it but I’m dubious that America in general qualifies for the designation.

    Nostalgia not history seems about right to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: