Book Review Ken Burn's Civil War: Historians Respond

Joshism

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Ken Burn's Civil War: Historians Respond
edited by Robert Brent Toplin
Oxford University Press (1996)

Ken Burn's Civil War documentary miniseries debuted on PBS almost exactly 30 years ago. I must admit I haven't watched it since it's original run when I was not quite 9 years old. Nevertheless, coming across this slim volume at my local public library made me curious enough to give it a read.

This is a small book - less than 200 pages and not as wide or not as tall as a typical book either. There are nine essays. One by Ken Burns himself about the process of making the series and two by his collaborators on the project are obviously positive. One by the book's editor I would rate neutral. The other five are negative, mostly criticizing what Burns did or did not focus on in the course of 9 episodes totaling 11 hours. Not enough about women, blacks, or Reconstruction. Too much focus on the Virginia theater in particular and the military events (battles and generals). Too safe and conventional.

Some of the criticism seems especially misguided. Reconstruction could (and should) be the subject of its own 11 hour documentary. But the criticism that seemed almost absurd to me was that women disguised as men is mentioned "only in passing." Between the Union and Confederates, roughly 3 million men served in the war. The most generous estimate of disguised women soldiers is less than 1,000 for both sides combined. In other words, less than 0.03% and probably none as officers. Some fascinating stories I'm sure, but extremely trivial in the big picture.

The biggest takeaway I got from the book is the divide between the film Ken Burns made and the modern interpretation of history - what might be called social/cultural history. In brief, this mindset places the focus on a much broader spectrum of common men and women, contrasting to the old "great men" view of history. It's interesting to see how strong this school of thought was even in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps Burns' work marked the end of an interpretive era.

If Ken Burns is your gateway to the Civil War, by all means give this a read afterwards to broaden your horizons. But if you're a Civil War buff you're already familiar with the larger issues this book addresses, especially in 2020.
 

Pete Longstreet

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Even 30 years old and composed of mostly still shots using the "Ken Burns effect", to me it still sets the bar for a Civil War documentary. There could be more on reconstruction, but as you stated... that could be a documentary by itself. I own the series on VHS, DVD, and also purchased through Google Movies.... so i guess you can say I'm a fan lol
 

frontrank2

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I saw the series when it first aired and then purchased it on VHS and then DVD. I have always liked and admired it. To me, it is balanced and fair. And since our public schools do such a lame job teaching our children about the war, I believe it fills a void for anyone who might be interested. Perfect it's not, but it gives the basics in an objective manner.
 
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Anymore this PC nonsense it focused on the majority instead of the .01 or 10% has sadly become the norm to be expected. That complaint has become a mark of merit it may be actually worth watching as it does focus on the majority and important events instead of the trivial.

Agree reconstruction is a separate topic from the war as well.
 

Joshism

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This book underscored to me that the American Civil War & Reconstruction desperately needs the "in real time" / "week by week" treatment (plus special episodes) that both world wars have/are getting on YouTube. And it would be a massive series.

  • About six months of broad strokes episodes addressing slavery, tariffs, to 1860.
  • Week by week episodes from Nov 1860 through May 1865.
  • Month by month episodes from June 1865 through the end of Reconstruction
  • Wrap up with episodes about key topics that are post-Reconstruction fallout from the war (reunions, monuments, Jim Crow, Birth of a Nation, etc)
In other words, about a 15 year long YouTube series.
 

Joshism

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Something perhaps lost on the academics concerning Burns' series: I don't think it was ever intended to be a comprehensive history of the war. Rather, broad strokes intended to raise awareness and stir emotion. Ken Burns succeeded in making people passionately interested in the war who were not before. That seems to be Burns' greatest goal as a filmmaker and one that he succeeds at marvelously. He created a popular cinematic interpretation that is certainly better and more accurate than Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind, its only real rivals.

There's an amusing passing comment in the Introduction that Shelby Foote sold more copies of his trilogy in the 5 years after the documentary debuted than he did in the decades prior.

Burns or one of his collaborators mentions some other modern interpretation of the war is less brother against brother than "heaving bosom against heaving bosom" which I assume was a dig at North & South.
 

Ole Miss

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Sadly we now have Monday Morning Quarterbacks judging the 1990 Ken Burn’s The Civil War through today’s political lenses! When this mini-series came out, 29 years after the Centennial, most Americans knew little accurate information about the ACW. The format, content, the presenters and singers were beautifully woven into presenting a fairly based presentation of this seminal American event! It is difficult to present the stories of the nearly 3 million soldiers and politicians in 10 hours of video!

Honestly the attention span of the average American is so short that I don’t see how Burns could have done any better with his program! We are so critical as a society yet I see few if any others bringing quality presentations of similar quality. Do you?
Regards
David
 

Joshism

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Sadly we now have Monday Morning Quarterbacks judging the 1990 Ken Burn’s The Civil War through today’s political lenses!

Just to clarify about this book: it was written in the immediate aftermath of the series release and published in 1996. Which is what makes it something of a remarkable time capsule. The criticism is 25 years old, but if you read it without looking at the publication date you could believe it was written today.
 

Pat Answer

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Funny, I was just thinking of popping in my copy for a view this weekend (great deal on Amazon years ago - $20 for a complete new DVD set!). I believe I shall.
In my humble opinion, Ken Burns provided an absolutely fine overview of the American Civil War. "Everyone's a critic." I passed on the book when it came out and haven't changed my mind.

Honestly the attention span of the average American is so short that I don’t see how Burns could have done any better with his program! We are so critical as a society yet I see few if any others bringing quality presentations of similar quality. Do you?

I watched it when it first came out on television. You know there is gold in something that family members with little to no interest in history will sit through with you.
 

bdtex

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Ken Burn's Civil War: Historians Respond
edited by Robert Brent Toplin
Oxford University Press (1996)

Ken Burn's Civil War documentary miniseries debuted on PBS almost exactly 30 years ago. I must admit I haven't watched it since it's original run when I was not quite 9 years old. Nevertheless, coming across this slim volume at my local public library made me curious enough to give it a read.

This is a small book - less than 200 pages and not as wide or not as tall as a typical book either. There are nine essays. One by Ken Burns himself about the process of making the series and two by his collaborators on the project are obviously positive. One by the book's editor I would rate neutral. The other five are negative, mostly criticizing what Burns did or did not focus on in the course of 9 episodes totaling 11 hours. Not enough about women, blacks, or Reconstruction. Too much focus on the Virginia theater in particular and the military events (battles and generals). Too safe and conventional.

Some of the criticism seems especially misguided. Reconstruction could (and should) be the subject of its own 11 hour documentary. But the criticism that seemed almost absurd to me was that women disguised as men is mentioned "only in passing." Between the Union and Confederates, roughly 3 million men served in the war. The most generous estimate of disguised women soldiers is less than 1,000 for both sides combined. In other words, less than 0.03% and probably none as officers. Some fascinating stories I'm sure, but extremely trivial in the big picture.

The biggest takeaway I got from the book is the divide between the film Ken Burns made and the modern interpretation of history - what might be called social/cultural history. In brief, this mindset places the focus on a much broader spectrum of common men and women, contrasting to the old "great men" view of history. It's interesting to see how strong this school of thought was even in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps Burns' work marked the end of an interpretive era.

If Ken Burns is your gateway to the Civil War, by all means give this a read afterwards to broaden your horizons. But if you're a Civil War buff you're already familiar with the larger issues this book addresses, especially in 2020.
Thanks for the well written book review. I hadn't heard of the book quite frankly. I'm guessing I'm not alone. Hopefully,members here who have actually read the book will kick in to this thread. Hopefully, those who haven't read it won't ruin your work by twisting this thread off. There are other existing threads to take that discussion(s) to.
 

James N.

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For the series' second time around and one of PBS' interminable pledge drives, members of the reenactment group of which I was then the chairman, The North Texas Reenactment Society, donned our gear and manned the phones in the Dallas studio. As I remember, it lasted over four nights and for each I would wear a different "impression", from red-shirted Southern volunteer to Union soldier in a greatcoat.
 

David Knight

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I enjoyed the series when the BBC showed it in the 1990's and yes it is a whistle stop tour of the Civil War but that is all it could be. The Southern Bias is probably based on good sources for content and the South had some colourful characters to focus on. The criticism that it was not detailed enough is a typical comment from academia because they are specialists in their own field of interest, not the conflict as a whole. People want accessible history rather than turid tomes that are valuable to the enthusiast but a bore to most.

Ken Burns drew me in and the more I know it is in part due to this series.
 

Mango Hill

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I enjoyed the series when the BBC showed it in the 1990's and yes it is a whistle stop tour of the Civil War but that is all it could be. The Southern Bias is probably based on good sources for content and the South had some colourful characters to focus on. The criticism that it was not detailed enough is a typical comment from academia because they are specialists in their own field of interest, not the conflict as a whole. People want accessible history rather than turid tomes that are valuable to the enthusiast but a bore to most.

Ken Burns drew me in and the more I know it is in part due to this series.

My sentiments exactly. Haven't seen the series in years but now I must watch it again.
 

mofederal

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It has been a long time since I have seen Burns' Civil War. The criticisms I had after seeing it, are the ones I still have about it. Most of them involved some the writings they used in the telling of the story of the war. It turned me off of ever wanting to read more about their stories ever again. That being said the series as a whole was enjoyable and it was a story needed to be retold.
 
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