Airing over a span of five nights during late September in 1990, Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” remains, to this day, the only documentary that claims to explain the entirety of the war that engulfed the United States in the mid-19th century. “The Civil War”’s premiere became the most-watched PBS program at the time, with the nine-episode series carrying a total running time of 11 hours, and to this day it remains one of the most popular shows ever to air on public broadcasting. Garnering scores of awards, “The Civil War” has now influenced generations of Americans and shaped their beliefs about slavery, the war itself, and its aftermath. The documentary had an outsized effect on how many Americans think about the war, but it’s one that unfortunately lead to a fundamental misunderstanding about slavery and its legacies—a failing that both undergirds and fuels the flames of racism today.
With the recent debut of Henry Louis Gates’s new multi-part documentary “Reconstruction” on PBS amidst great fanfare, I found myself reflecting upon why Americans desperately need an updated Civil War documentary as well. (You can, and should, stream the documentary for free on PBS.)
Watching “The Civil War” as a teenager several years after its initial release, I became enamored with the series—so much so that I spent my hard-earned money on the expensive companion book and the soundtrack for the haunting “Ashokan Farewell”—a song from the 1980s (not the Civil War era!) that played throughout the series. In many ways, the documentary helped spur my own interest in U.S. history.
Yet as I grew older reading broadly on both the war itself and the 19th-century South, enjoying scholars such as Bell Irvin Wiley, John Hope Franklin, and Victoria Bynum, I realized that I fell in love with the series—but not for its historical accuracy. Instead, it offered a kind of self-satisfaction for me as a white American, and, more importantly, as a white Southerner. I came to realize that by downplaying the importance—and horrors—of slavery, and instead concentrating on hard-fought battles, valiant, virile soldiers, and heart-wrenching tales of romantic love and loss, the documentary specifically targeted one audience: white people.