Should You Watch Ken Burns's Civil War Documentary? (Part 2)
In the first installment of this series I briefly explored the way in which The Civil War deals with slavery as a cause of the war. For many viewers this is the biggest problem with the documentary, owing to Burns’s reliance on Shelby Foote as his main talking head. I certainly don’t want to diminish these concerns, but it often prevents us from looking at other themes that are thoughtfully explored in the series.
I am going to look at three of these themes, including the home front, emancipation, and the service of Black soldiers in the United States Army. First up is the home front.
Before saying anything, I think it is important to recognize that military history has long dominated our memory of the Civil War. Students of the war or “Civil War buffs” are interested overwhelmingly in stories about the great battles from Bull Run to Shiloh to Gettysburg. This was certainly the case when The Civil War first aired in 1990 and Burns didn’t disappoint when it came to stories of battles and campaigns.
The 3-day battle of Gettysburg alone takes up 50 minutes in Episode 5, but at no point are these stories considered in isolation from what was happening elsewhere. Burns notes how events on the battlefield influenced politics and policy related to emancipation and vice-versa.
Burns also does an excellent job of showing how the battlefield and home front were connected. He chose Clarksville, Tennessee and Deer Isle, Maine to explore this theme. We can certainly question Burns’s choice, but I would suggest that no two towns or cities were entirely representative of the United States and the Confederacy during the war.
Clarksville is first mentioned early on in Episode 2:
Narrator – After the Confederate defeat at Fort Donelson, the Female Academy and Stewart College at nearby Clarksville, Tennessee were converted to hospitals.
Nannie Haskins – Sunday the news came, such panic-stricken people were never before seen. The wounded were being brought up. The citizens were running. There were already two hospitals here which were filled with the sick and they, poor fellows, were crawling out from every piece, walking, going on horseback, in wagons.
Narrator – The Union army was right behind the wounded. They met no resistance. A white flag flew above tiny Fort Defiance west of town, and Mayor Smith came out to inform the Union commander that the Confederate army had retreated to Nashville.
Farmer John Barker wrote in his diary that there were nothing but “Lincolnites” throughout the county. An uneasy federal occupation of Clarksville began.
In Episode 3, Deer Isle gets its first mention:
Narrator – At Deer Isle, Maine people were afraid to go to the post office, where the casualty lists were posted.
E.A.P Brewster Captain Commanding Company A, 23rd Massachusetts - New Berne, North Carolina. March 20th, 1862 – To Mr. John Webster Jr., Deer Isle, Maine, Dear Sir. It is with pain that I have to announce to you the death of your brother, Charles Gray. By his good conduct and bravery while with me, he had risen to the rank of Corporal, and had he lived I should have promoted him again. He was shot through the body at the battle of New Berne… His last words were, “We will never give up.” He is buried here. His effects I shall send home at the earliest opportunity… Yours Truly.
Narrator – Deer Isle had lost its first soldier. A parcel containing Charles Gray’s personal effects arrived in the mail: his hat, promotion papers attesting to his valor, and a cartridge box in which someone had placed the mangled bullet that killed him. His mother refused to look at it.
The men of the reduced fishing fleet struggled to harvest a catch. Wives tended kitchen gardens and scraped linen for the lint from which army bandages were made. More bad news arrived: Private Alex Henderson had died of disease at Fort Jackson, Louisiana, leaving a widow and several children.
Burns established a clear difference between the civilian experience during the war. Most northerners didn’t experience military occupation and if they did it was only for a brief period of time. They stayed connected to the war through newspapers and letters. Many white southerners experienced the hardships of war, including occupation and the transformation of their communities as a result of the influx of wounded, the proximity of battle and its disruption to slavery.
Later on in Episode 5 both communities are referenced to remind viewers of the shared experience of white Americans in the wake of deadly battles such as Gettysburg.
Narrator – After Gettysburg, the residents of Deer Isles, Maine began scanning the casualty lists for familiar names: two privates, John Gray and Isaiah Eaton, were badly wounded and soon died in hospitals. Both were buried in the new National Cemetery at Gettysburg.
The streets grew quiet when news of Gettysburg reached Clarksville, Tennessee. The 14th Tennessee Regiment had left town two years before with 960 men. When the battle of Gettysburg began only 365 remained. By the end of the first day there were sixty men left. By the end of the battle, there were only three.
Voice – A gloom rests over the city; the hopes and affections of the people were wrapped in the regiment… what a terrible responsibility rests upon those who inaugurated this unholy war.
Later in Episode 9—which covers the period following Lincoln’s assassination and the surrender of Confederate armies—both communities are referenced together once again:
Narrator – By May  most of the Yankees had withdrawn from Clarksville, Tennessee. What remained of the 49th and 14th Tennessee Regiments came home. Private John J. Denny of Company K was not among them. He had died at Chancellorsville. Of the twenty-nine Stewart College seniors who went to war, sixteen had been killed in battle. Seven more had died of wounds and disease.
In September, railway service to Clarksville was resumed.
Deer Isle, Maine was an indirect casualty of the war: When its men came home, they found fishing had fallen off. There was new money to be made in other industries in nearby towns. The old families moved away. Some of the houses they left behind became summer homes for vacationers, most of whom were unaware of what had happened there.
Admittedly, neither community is explored in much depth. We learn nothing about their respective political cultures or social dynamics, but they do serve to remind the viewer that the war was much larger than the battlefield and that home front and the front was often indiscernible.
It should also be pointed out that Burns references a number of other town and cities throughout the series, including New York City, Richmond, and Atlanta. Episode 4 includes 7 minutes devoted to Jones County, Mississippi. I am guessing that most viewers knew little to nothing about unionism in Mississippi during the war before watching Burns.
There were relatively few scholarly books about communities during the Civil War in 1990, but over the past few decades we have seen a proliferation of such studies. Check out Victoria Bynum’s wonderful book about Jones County, Mississippi. Nicole Etcheson’s study of Putnam County, Indiana will take you from the Compromise of 1850 to the end of Reconstruction. Finally, there is Edward L. Ayers’s comparative study (2-vols) of Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania that spans the prewar years through Reconstruction.
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