... Filmmaker Ken Burns used a great many of those gruesome pictures from Antietam and the many other battles fought between 1861 and 1865 in his monumental 11-hour documentary film series, “The Civil War,” first broadcast 25 years ago. Now, to mark the silver anniversary of that momentous television event, PBS will rebroadcast it over the course of five consecutive nights, beginning on Labor Day, and in a never-before-seen high-definition version that should be almost as vivid as Brady’s stereo cards.
But if you saw the documentary a quarter-century ago, or indeed one year ago, you are likely to feel as I did, after binge-watching it once again over the last few days, that the experience is very different than it was in the past, and not because of the technology, but because of what happened in Charleston, South Carolina, in June of this year.
After a young loser named Dylann Roof walked into a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and allegedly murdered nine innocent people for no other reason than that they were black and he saw himself in the sick tradition of Confederate-flag-waving white supremacists, comfortable perceptions of the Civil War and its legacy began to change, and very quickly.
In the debate over the flag and the decision to take it down from the pole where it was locked in place on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, not only Southerners but all Americans had to think again about why the Civil War was fought and what it did, or did not achieve. And Ken Burns’s documentary, wonderful as it is in many ways, does not quite tell us that—or, worse, as historian Eric Foner pointed out some years ago in what seemed, at the time, a rather churlish essay, the series sentimentalizes the aftermath of the war to the point of obscuring the deep problems of race and racism that endure to this day.
During the debate since the Charleston shooting, we’ve discovered that a great many Americans, and not only Southerners, question whether slavery was the central issue that caused the Civil War. And on re-watching the Burns documentary, it’s clear he leaves that question open, letting it be subsumed, as it has been far too often and for far too long, in the mythologized details of politics and the excitement of battle. ...