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American Experience - Death And The Civil War

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Death And The Civil War debuts tonight on most PBS stations at 8 p.m Eastern, but check your local listings.

With its mixture of black-and-white photographs of battlefield carnage and almost equally somber color footage of historians and other talking heads providing quotations and context, Ric Burns’ sobering American Experience film Death And The Civil War bears more than a passing resemblance to The Civil War, the 1990 miniseries directed by Burns’ brother Ken. That’s not much of a shocker; ever since it became the biggest domestically generated nonfiction phenomenon in PBS history, a lot of TV documentarians have imitated the folksy music cues, martial noises, and reenacted correspondence of The Civil War. (The all-time champ of Ken Burns imitators remains, of course, Ken Burns.)


Once it gets into the material, though, Death And The Civil War develops its own voice, and it’s a voice that The Civil War wasn’t comfortable with for any sustained length of time: despairing, mournful, determined to learn something useful from the waste and loss yet still unable to process and come to terms with it. The film (based on This Republic Of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust) seems almost too shocked at what people are capable of doing to one another to get angry about it. One reason The Civil War was so popular was that, while it paid lip service to the terrible cost of war, it still found plenty of time to celebrate individual acts of valor and revel in all the surprising developments and colorful characters. It almost left you with the feeling that the war was a hellish experience, but that it was worth going through it to get all these cool stories. Death And The Civil War, which focuses squarely on what its title says it’s about, can take no such comfort in its subject; despite the presence of such heroic figures as Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, and Henry Bowditch (the abolitionist who, after his son died of wounds suffered in battle, devoted himself to the cause of establishing battlefield ambulance service and better care for the wounded), it’s about waste, pure and simple.

The film opens with a reminder that the American Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict that the United States has ever been involved in. The fact that it claimed more American lives than any other war seems like a no-brainer, given that all the lives claimed by either side were American. Burns stresses that there was more to it than that: As the historian J. David Hacker puts it, “Military tactics, military strategy, was 10 years behind technology,” and the war unleashed a new level of advanced killing machinery on a populace that was totally unprepared—emotionally, psychologically, or intellectually—to deal with it. People who never imagined that the war might go on for four years were signing up for 90-day stints in the military, in the spirit, says narrator Oliver Platt, of “a lark.”

Once the killing begins, it isn’t just the loss of all those lives that wakes people up and creates a new awareness of the horror of war: It’s the presence of all those dead bodies. Neither side had made any official provisions for what to do with them, and after such terrible battles as Bull Run (or Manassas, for any Confederate purists or Stephen Stills fans out there) and Antietam (where some 23,000 men were killed), rotting corpses were laid out for days in the sun, with “maggots holding high carnival over their heads.” Alexander Garland, a photographer from Matthew Brady’s studio, was there to record the scene, and a month later, Brady exhibited his work in New York, under the title The Dead Of Antietam. The reaction to the images helped lead to what Platt’s narration describes as “a seismic shift” in the government’s perceived responsibility to men killed in its service.

Burying these soldiers was the least of it. Not only were there no federal hospitals or national cemeteries, there were no adequate personnel records, no system set up for identifying the dead. So soldiers took it upon themselves to establish networks of communication to let their family members know what had happened to them—a service not required for those who received the mixed blessing of having a few minutes left to scribble a note on their deathbed. (The film opens with the reading of a letter from a soldier who expresses hope that the respondent will be “delighted to receive word from your dying son.”) The film explains Lincoln’s speech at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg as marking the tipping point in a new attitude towards treatment of the dead. But the day the Gettysburg Address was delivered, the site was still dotted with open graves and unburied coffins.


One of the film’s less-heralded heroes is Edmund Whitman, a Union quartermaster who, after the war, was put in charge of selecting sites for national cemeteries. He toured the South, searching for as many Union corpses as he could find, and noted that Southerners who hated these men when they were alive didn’t seem to like them much more once they were dead. (One soldier was found left to rot where he had fallen, with a pitchfork still sticking out of his back.) Another reason for the popularity of Ken Burns’ The Civil War (which premièred when America was ramping up for the first Iraq war) was that it did its best to conclude—partly through the prominent placement of Shelby Foote, who put a human face on Southern nostalgia for the Confederacy—that at the end of the day, we’re all Americans, members of a united country who recognize that what we have in common is more important than anything that separates us, now or in the past. 22 years later, Death And The Civil War isn’t convinced of that.

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