Ken Burns's Merciful Portrayal of the South in 'The Civil War' Is a Good Lesson for 2015

Civil War
Civil War re-enactors at Fort Sumter National Monument celebrating the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, April 14, 2015. Randall Hill/Reuters

In September 1990, Wilson Phillips’s "Release Me ” was the No. 1 song in the U.S., President George H.W. Bush vowed to rescue Kuwait from Iraqi aggression and America was surprisingly enraptured with old black-and-white photographs and a heart-wrenching violin score. When The Civil War appeared on PBS, it enraptured viewers. Over 39 million Americans watched at least one episode of the 11-plus-hour series on the nation’s great battle with itself.

The series’ format was simple but thoughtful. Instead of staging reenactments, Ken Burns—who would, of course, go on to be America’s most beloved documentarian—found a way to re-create the past without actors in stovepipe hats. Zooming in on archival still photographs, filming the sites of famous battles as they are today, interviewing historians—he created a film without special effects but whose effect was special. When he added great narrators to offer the voices of Civil War icons—Morgan Freeman played Frederick Douglass, stage-TV-and-film veteran Sam Waterston was Abraham Lincoln, and a slew of authors from Robert Penn Warren to George Plimpton to Kurt Vonnegut lent their voices to lesser-known figures from the period—the effect was galvanizing. Author David McCullough was the narrator who held it together.

The 25th anniversary of the series is a chance to consider a number of things: the changing state of television, the Civil War itself, the never-ending discussion of race in America, the future of public television. But one narrow question is whether the film could be made today.

The question is kind of tautological. Burns became so successful through The Civil War that he followed it with wonderful (although never quite equally acclaimed) series including ones on Jazz and Baseball, all lenses through which he could view American history. Burns can make what he wants and there’s enough PBS and NEH and corporate money to make it happen. (One of the great backers of the series was Lynne Cheney, who headed the National Endowment for the Humanities at the time.)

So perhaps the question ought to be, if by some chance Burns was making the series today, would it be the same? In one sense we know the answer. He put the whole thing through a master digital reworking. The wounds of slain soldiers are even more startling. One of the most haunting images in the series, the scar-covered back of a slave, is perhaps even more wrenching than before the restoration, if such a thing is possible. Burns didn’t have to rework the series in any substantive way to suit the tastes of contemporary palates. There was no colorizing, no Wilson Phillips added to the soundtrack.

But one wonders whether Burns would make a Civil War epic that’s so empathetic and knowing about the white, Confederate south. The Civil War never drank the "lost cause" Kool-Aid. It dispenses with myth: The war wasn’t northern aggression, as Dixie long maintained, nor was it about economic rivalry, as lefty historians once contended. The fight was about slavery. And the horrors of “the peculiar institution,” as it was called, are not given passing attention. Burns’s camera doesn’t dawdle on the scars of that tortured slave. He doesn’t have to. The sickening, morally depraved enterprise of slavery is laid bare throughout the movie, in the words of Frederick Douglass and by contemporary historians like Barbara Fields, and in the narratives of slaves themselves.

But at a time when the confederate flag is rightly being taken off of public buildings and put in museums—though individuals may unfurl it as they wish—it’s startling to see that the Robert E. Lee that Burns presented is a sympathetic, noble soldier, not a 19th century version of Heinrich Himmler. The narration of Mary Chesnut, a white antebellum woman whose diary runs through the film like a red skein, inspires understanding, not scorn. We hear the voices of Confederate soldiers—hungry and homesick—like their counterparts in blue.

Shelby Foote, the author of a three-volume work on the war, is a central narrator. The grandson of a Confederate, the Mississippian even looks like a gray-uniformed officer and, as the New York critic John Leonard put it in 1990, “Everything during the war seems to have happened, that afternoon, on his porch. "Foote’s drawl and deep interest in the details of battle—Stonewall Jackson eating a peach on his horse, surrounded by corpses, saying, “God has been very kind to us this day”—made him one of the breakout celebrities of the series.

Today, I think Foote would not be so well-received. The desire to banish any praise of Confederates, even if it’s their heroism in battle, and the urge to remove all tributes to them is common now. And it’s understandable in the age of the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting, but it’s not commendable. Burns showed that there was plenty of humanity in the Southerners promoting a cause. On a much smaller scale, the German film Das Boot tells the story of Nazi sailors on a doomed submarine. Having empathy for those who fought on the wrong side of history doesn’t mean condoning the wrong side of history. Removing monuments to Confederates or no longer holding a Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, as the Iowa Democratic Party has decided to do in a fit of piety, seems more like a desire to cleanse history rather than reckon with it.

Burns understood that the tragedy of the Civil War wasn’t just the body count—625,000 military deaths, still the largest of any American war—the mother who lost five sons, the piles of limbs, the Dachau-like skeletal cadavers at the Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia. The tragedy of the war is also that it was a necessary war, a conflict begun with the political objective of keeping the Union together was lifted to a higher plane as Lincoln and the North came to see that emancipation was the fight.

It’s easy to have empathy in a morally ambiguous war, some 18th century swords-and-horses battle where one king defeats another. The hardest thing to do after a good war—this, World War II, the fight against tyrants like Bashar Assad—is to avoid looking at the enemy with unalloyed scorn. To see your enemy’s humanity is harder but ultimately sweeter. A quarter century ago, America wasn’t in as good a place on race as it is now, although that’s hard for many to believe. By the standards of things like intermarriage, college graduation rates and, yes, the election of a black president (now treated by many as a marker for how little the country has changed), things are better. After all, The Civil War aired at a rotten time in race relations a year after Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the first ugly David Dinkins-Rudy Giuliani election battle in New York. But we’ve gone backward since 1990 when it comes to empathy for the losers in our cultural wars—the anti-gay-marriage defenders or the Confederate extollers. Lincoln understood the importance of “charity towards all and malice towards none” even as he crushed the South. Being empathetic in victory was part of his genius. We should realize that being a sore winner is not what The Civil War or the Civil War was all about.