Is Ken Burns Documentary a sore subject?

Joined
Jul 22, 2021
a sore subject? I don't wish to start anything.

I did quite a search and all the past threads on the Civil War series and Ken Burns were not available. Wassup?
 

Kurt G

Sergeant Major
Joined
May 23, 2018
Generally it was well done and got a lot of people interested in the subject . There were some issues however , and I remember 3 about Gettysburg . Despite what the documentary said , the battle of Gettysburg was not started over a search for shoes , the 20th Maine did not save the Union and Custer's charge leading the 1st Michigan was anything but "reckless."
 

Joshism

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Apr 30, 2012
Location
Jupiter, FL
I did quite a search and all the past threads on the Civil War series and Ken Burns were not available. Wassup?

You might need to search for "Ken Burns" with the quotation marks. Without them the search engine might not be able to search for Ken (3 words or less), and there will be an ocean of threads with the words ken (a common first name) and burns (a verb as well as a name).

The general opinion of Burns (and Shelby Foote) is they are engaging and got many of the people here hooked on their subject matter, but they were amateur historians whose works are now several decades old and experienced buffs (and academics and other professionals) notice the weaknesses. Both get discussed here occasionally, albeit without usually turning over much new ground.

At some point we should really have an organized watch-along of Burns and a read-along of Foote. We could probably have some good discussion of the specific content rather than the broad strokes.
 
Last edited:

Cycom

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 19, 2021
Location
Los Angeles, California
Depiste any discrepancies and or inaccuracies... I could watch it over and over again. I remember watching it as a 15 year old boy and enjoying it. I watch it as a 38 year old man today and still enjoy it very much.
Totally agree. I’m close in age (40) and am having a similar experience. Hearing the theme music again after decades was very moving.
 

thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
Wonder why. He comes across as pretty even handed.
If you just like reading books about the war, then he was arguably one of the best writers out there. And I agree that his interpretation is pretty fair in general and I don't agree with much of the complaints about him.

But the problem for me is the simple fact that he is not a historian.* The point is not that he did not study history at university.
I know of plenty very good historians who did not study history at university...a good number of people on this forum I would call (Amateur) historians.
(and I also know some who did and are just very bad at it)

The problem is that he don't follow the standards used by actual historians... because he don't back up his claims with sources.

His work would not pass a high School history exam here in Denmark... no matter how much he knew or how great a storyteller he was.

As long as one don't back up ones claims with sources, then what one write is basically no better than a novel for anyone who study history.

* It is also my impression that he himself did not claim to be one.
----

That said, I think it is a great TV documentary. Its 1000 times better than most of the stuff we get today from "history" and other networks. And it did a lot of good with getting people interested in the period and in reenactment.
 

Cycom

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 19, 2021
Location
Los Angeles, California
If you just like reading books about the war, then he was arguably one of the best writers out there. And I agree that his interpretation is pretty fair in general and I don't agree with much of the complaints about him.

But the problem for me is the simple fact that he is not a historian. The point is not that he did not study history at university.
I know of plenty very good historians who did not study history at university...a good number of people on this forum I would call (Amateur) historians.
(and I also know some who did and are just very bad at it)

The problem is that he don't follow the standards used by actual historians... because he don't back up his claims with sources.

His work would not pass a high School history exam here in Denmark... no matter how much he knew or how great a storyteller he was.

As long as one don't back up ones claims with sources, then what one write is basically no better than a novel for anyone who study history.

That said, I think it is a great TV documentary. Its 1000 times better than most of the stuff we get today from "history" and other networks. And it did a lot of good with getting people interested in the period and in reenactment.
Anything that stood out to you as being wrong or not properly backed up with sources in his miniseries? I’m rewatching and would like to keep an eye and ear out for inconsistencies.
 

Pete Longstreet

2nd Lieutenant
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Mar 3, 2020
Location
Hartford, CT
If you just like reading books about the war, then he was arguably one of the best writers out there. And I agree that his interpretation is pretty fair in general and I don't agree with much of the complaints about him.

But the problem for me is the simple fact that he is not a historian.* The point is not that he did not study history at university.
I know of plenty very good historians who did not study history at university...a good number of people on this forum I would call (Amateur) historians.
(and I also know some who did and are just very bad at it)

The problem is that he don't follow the standards used by actual historians... because he don't back up his claims with sources.

His work would not pass a high School history exam here in Denmark... no matter how much he knew or how great a storyteller he was.

As long as one don't back up ones claims with sources, then what one write is basically no better than a novel for anyone who study history.

* It is also my impression that he himself did not claim to be one.
----

That said, I think it is a great TV documentary. Its 1000 times better than most of the stuff we get today from "history" and other networks. And it did a lot of good with getting people interested in the period and in reenactment.
Are you referring to his lack of footnotes in his trilogy?
 

RedRover

Corporal
Joined
Dec 16, 2019
If you just like reading books about the war, then he was arguably one of the best writers out there. And I agree that his interpretation is pretty fair in general and I don't agree with much of the complaints about him.

But the problem for me is the simple fact that he is not a historian.* The point is not that he did not study history at university.
I know of plenty very good historians who did not study history at university...a good number of people on this forum I would call (Amateur) historians.
(and I also know some who did and are just very bad at it)

The problem is that he don't follow the standards used by actual historians... because he don't back up his claims with sources.

His work would not pass a high School history exam here in Denmark... no matter how much he knew or how great a storyteller he was.

As long as one don't back up ones claims with sources, then what one write is basically no better than a novel for anyone who study history.

* It is also my impression that he himself did not claim to be one.
----

That said, I think it is a great TV documentary. Its 1000 times better than most of the stuff we get today from "history" and other networks. And it did a lot of good with getting people interested in the period and in reenactment.
Mr. Foote did not intend to write history books useful to academia. He wrote this article in 1964:

Foote article, 1964; Novelist's view of history...

He makes the argument that the social-science prose and writing methods of many modern historians ensure no one will bother to read their work. More, historians frequently made the writing error of demonizing, berating, or overtly criticizing historical figures; something even better novelists know not to do in fiction, lest the reader unconsciously disbelieve the writer's claims to certainty. He preferred the narrative process of unveiling the actions/sayings of historical persons to demonstrate them to the reader versus pure analysis or description; Consequently, his non-fiction work was published as "The Civil War; A Narrative."

Here is a quote on his method:

"I am what is called a narrative historian. Narrative history is getting more popular all the time but it's not a question of twisting the facts into a narrative. It's not a question of anything like that. What it is, is discovering the plot that's there just as the painter discovered the colors in shadows or Renoir discovered these children. I maintain that anything you can possibly learn about putting words together in a narrative form by writing novels is especially valuable to you when you write history. There is no great difference between writing novels and writing histories other than this: If you have a character named Lincoln in a novel that's not Abraham Lincoln, you can give him any color eyes you want to. But if you want to describe the color of Abraham Lincoln's, President Lincoln's eyes, you have to know what color they were. They were gray. So you're working with facts that came out of documents, just like in a novel you are working with facts that came out of your head or most likely out of your memory. Once you have control of those facts, once you possess them, you can handle them exactly as a novelist handles his facts. No good novelist would be false to his facts, and certainly no historian is allowed to be false to his facts under any circumstances. I've never known, at least a modern historical instance, where the truth wasn't superior to distortion in every way."

— Shelby Foote seminar excerpt, New York State Writers Institute, March 20, 1997

Contrast the modern historian's method of writing to support a thesis...

Here is a 20 minute discussion by historian Niall Ferguson on the historical "state of the art" of the history field decades after Mr. Foote's comments above.

Niall Ferguson: Decline and fall of history... YOUTUBE.


J. Marshall.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Burns should have started with: this is horse. This is how much eats. This is how long it takes to become strong, and the diseases that could happen and did happen.
Then: this is a mule. It eats like a horse, but is tougher. But mules don't fight. When the shooting starts the mules head for the rear.
Then: this is steam transport.
Then: this is river steamboat.
Then: this is an 1854 locomotive and compare that to an 1861 locomotive.
To keep it short I have simplified, but one would include where they located, and where they were raised or manufactured.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Then 20 minutes spent on: this is a telegraph key. These are collections of electronic cells called batteries. Here on the companies that were controlling telegraph communication in 1861. These are some of the bright young men, and some women, who became coders that transmit telegraph messages and sometimes transcribe them directly from the clicks of the keys.
 

Ole Miss

Captain
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Regtl. Staff Shiloh 2020
Joined
Dec 9, 2017
Location
North Mississippi
The greatest assest of Ken Burn's Civil War series was it brought the War to public attention with pictures that most, if not all, Americans had never seen. The interviews, narration, voice overs and espcially the pictures were dramatic and have gripped the nation for the last 31 years.
Regards
David
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
He could have used TV differently to show the animals and crops that made up the economy in 1861. It would have explained the US Civil War and started the explanation of what slaves were doing and for whom, in that era.
1628221050812.png
 

Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
Maybe Ken Burns addressed the War as it was and not as a vehicle to feed anyone's modern political agenda? Maybe those of you critical of him should make your own documentaries?

Shelby Foote was pretty clear that Abraham Lincoln was America's greatest president. Maybe those of you whose 21st century political agendas are not satisfied by Foote should write your own versions of the history?

Go ahead, tell it like (you think) it is.
 
Top