Do We Really Need a New Civil War Documentary? (Part 4)
In 2019 historian Keri Leigh Merritt published a thoughtful critique of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary. According to Merritt:
“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.
Merritt argues that the documentary was “was written, directed and produced by white men with little in the way of historical training and few connections to academic historians”.
Not surprisingly, much of her criticism is reserved for Shelby Foote and his misleading comments about slavery as well as the film’s failure to integrate the scholarship of Eric Foner on Reconstruction and the work of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project.
There is much that I agree with in Merritt’s critique, but I also think it misses the mark in certain respects. I certainly would have preferred a more diverse list of commentators. Yes, there is a problem with the film’s interpretation of slavery, especially the inconsistency surrounding its role as the cause of secession. Yes, the film largely ignores the violence of Reconstruction, but not completely. Undoubtedly, Burns bombards his viewers with a healthy dose of nostalgia.
But as I have argued in this series, there is a very strong “emancipationist” narrative that emerges throughout the film, which is given voice by historian Barbara Fields. The film likely introduced many viewers to the story of the home front as well as the military service of United States Colored Troops and the war’s ultimate impact on the enslaved.
Even with all its shortcomings, The Civil War is far more nuanced than Merritt acknowledges.
According to Merritt, the documentary’s failures have had a long-standing impact on how Americans think about the war:
The sins of omission in “The Civil War” unfortunately are not without consequence. Because so many Americans have had their basic understanding of the causes of secession, the realities of racial slavery, and the atrocities of the Confederacy profoundly shaped by this documentary, current day topics, from the Confederate Monument/flag debate to the push for reparations by American Descendants of Slaves, remain bitterly divisive, even though clear historical answers obviously exist.
I think this is too much to hang on Burns and his team. As far as I know there has been no study focusing on how the audience’s understanding of history has been influenced since the series aired in 1990.
As I have written elsewhere, we need to recognize that this film came at a pivotal moment. A Lost Cause/reconciliationist narrative pervades parts of the film, but it also anticipates a change in Civil War memory and the ascendancy of an “emancipationist” narrative—one that was even more fully embraced during the Civil War 150.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that we could credit Burns for this narrative’s growing popularity at the time. [Again, keep in mind that neo-Confederate groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans hated this film.]
So, do we really need a new Civil War documentary? Absolutely.
Though we have seen a number of Civil War documentaries over the past few years, nothing has approached the comprehensiveness of The Civil War. We need such a documentary simply because of the amount of time that has lapsed and where we are now as a nation.
Historians are now asking very different questions about the period. New sources have emerged. There is the potential for a much richer narrative that helps us to better understand the past and the present. I suspect that Burns would agree with this.
Merritt herself is currently working on just such a documentary, which you can support. I can’t wait to see the final product.
Americans would greatly benefit from a new telling of the Civil War, of its causes and effects, of its soul-crushing violence and its joyful freedoms, of its heartening triumphs and abject failures. But it must be the story of ALL Americans—not just of white politicians and soldiers. Ideally this new documentary would draw on the burgeoning and innovative field of slavery studies, featuring the work of new scholars.
I don’t agree that Burns only told the stories of “white politicians and soldiers” but I completely agree that we could use a new documentary that appeals to a much wider audience and one that is informed by a deeper well of historical sources.
But let’s not kid ourselves. There is little chance that a new comprehensive documentary will have the same impact that Burns had in 1990. This is not in any way intended as a criticism of Merritt’s or anyone else’s project, but as an observation.
The Civil War was more than a documentary, it was an event. It didn’t just tell a story about the past, it captured viewers’ imaginations and made many want to learn even more about this history. Burns accomplished this because he is a masterful storyteller.
Thirty-nine million viewers tuned into at least one episide and each of the nine episodes averaged fourteen million viewers, but we should also consider the broader historical context of when the film aired. The Berlin Wall had come down in 1989 and the Soviet Union was in a state of collapse. A consensus narrative that situated the United States as the “leader of the free world” was still embraced by many. As a result, Americans remained optimistic about the triumph and continued spread of democracy around the world.
Burns’s ultimately triumphant narrative was informed by and reinforced this outlook.
For all its attempt to highlight division during the war, The Civil War offered viewers in 1990 a consensus narrative that Americans will ultimately come through any conflict stronger and more united.
While I have no doubt that a new comprehensive documentary about the Civil War era will accurately reflect new scholarship; give voice to new historical actors; and feature a much wider range of commentators, it is unlikely that it will attract anywhere near the same size audience or have the same impact on public memory.
That’s OK. There is an opportunity to educate and right now we’ve never needed it more.
In the meantime, check out The Civil War if you haven’t already done so. There is much to learn and enjoy.
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