Re-Watching ‘The Civil War’ During the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd ProtestsHistorians in the News
tags: Civil War, documentaries, popular history, Ken Burns, Shelby Foote
While still giving credit where it’s due, scholars have spent three decades trying to undo the damage of “The Civil War,” writing op-ed after op-ed, and even whole books of criticism, charging large sections of it are misleading and inaccurate.
Re-watching the series now, after a summer of protests sparked by the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans, popular culture may have finally caught up to those historians.
Much of the documentary comes off as hopelessly dated, archaic even, and at times breathtakingly tone-deaf.
Even three decades ago, Burns correctly pointed to slavery as causing the Civil War.
In the first episode of his series, there’s a 13-minute explanation of how slavery divided the nation until it broke, set to the keening harmonies of Sweet Honey in the Rock, as archival photos of enslaved people drift slowly across the screen.
One of the first historians to appear is a Black woman, Barbara Fields, saying, “If there was a single event that caused the war, it was the establishment of the United States, in independence with Great Britain, with slavery still a part of its heritage.”
In the next clip, she is contradicted by Foote’s “failure to compromise” claim.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with two interviewees disagreeing — one might even call that balanced, responsible journalism. But then Foote keeps talking. And talking. And chuckling at his own jokes, pausing to smoke his pipe before talking some more. All told, Foote is on screen for nearly 46 minutes; Fields only eight and a half. Balanced it is not.
“You really get the feeling that Burns, for all of his incredible gifts as a filmmaker, he really kind of fell in love with Shelby Foote,” said James M. Lundberg, a Civil War historian who teaches at Notre Dame, in a phone interview with The Washington Post.
Foote’s screen time is dripping with Lost Cause fables as thick as his accent. Stonewall Jackson looks out over a gruesome battlefield, eating a peach. A Confederate private, on duty alone at night, has a conversation with an owl. And Nathan Bedford Forrest — a slave trader who oversaw the massacre of hundreds of Black soldiers at Fort Pillow and founded the Ku Klux Klan — is as much a genius as Abraham Lincoln, physically attractive, “born to be a soldier the way John Keats was born to be a poet.”
Historian Keri Leigh Merritt, who called for a new Civil War documentary series in 2019, is stunned by the flowery compliments bestowed on Forrest. “There’s no such thing as a good slaveholder, but there were slaveholders who were not horrifically violent. He was horrifically violent,” Merritt said in a phone interview. “And that was well-known at the time. That was well-documented. Both Foote and Burns clearly knew that.”
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