A Mistaken Form of Trust: Ken Burns’s The Civil War At Thirty

A Mistaken Form of Trust: Ken Burns’s The Civil War At Thirty

Confederate flags are coming down, statues are being toppled, Lady Antebellum has lost the “Antebellum,” and the Dixie Chicks have lost the “Dixie.” But the reckoning that’s been sweeping the United States in recent months has left one Civil War monument strangely untouched: the Ken Burns documentary. When it was first broadcast on PBS, thirty years ago this September, The Civil War was an unprecedented cultural event: a history documentary that not only won Emmys and Grammys, but was mentioned on Twin Peaks, parodied on Saturday Night Live, and immortalized in New Yorker cartoons. To this day, it’s enshrined as the definitive story of the American Civil War. There’s just one problem: the war depicted in these nine episodes never happened.

Ken Burns presents a Civil War caused not by slavery, but by a failure to compromise. A war in which the Confederacy fought for a noble cause, and whose heroes include not only Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, but Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest – the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1996, Robert Toplin published Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond, a collection of nine critical essays about the documentary. Scholars compared it to everything from Homer’s Iliad, to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and many historians signalled their dismay with Burns’s simplistic treatment of the war.[1] These debates, however, have had little effect on the popular consensus, and most viewers continue to accept Ken Burns’s version of the war uncritically. But The Civil War is long overdue for a reckoning – and a remake. In romanticizing the Confederacy, obscuring the role of slavery, and refusing to grapple with the war’s devastating racial repercussions, the much-loved documentary is complicit in a long tradition of distorting the meaning of the Civil War.

The trouble begins with the documentary’s star: Shelby Foote is a southern novelist with a down-home drawl, a gift for storytelling, and a very troubling version of the events of 1861 to 1865. Foote’s account of the Civil War has very little to do with slavery. He argues the war began “because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise,” and that southerners were merely fighting to defend themselves against the northern aggressor. Foote’s unabashed admiration for the men who led the Confederacy is clear: Robert E. Lee is a “warm, outgoing man” who “always had time for any private soldier’s complaint,” Confederacy president Jefferson Davis “an outgoing, friendly man; a great family man, loved his wife and children; an infinite store of compassion.”[2]

Foote speaks of the men who fought for the South as if they were not historical figures, but old friends – a method that made him a fan favorite upon the documentary’s release. It’s also what made him so dangerous as a historical source. This cozy brand of storytelling allows Foote to create deeply sympathetic portraits of men who fought to preserve slavery. In one of his most alarming assertions, Foote proclaims that “the war produced two authentic geniuses”: Abraham Lincoln, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.[3] The former slave-trader Forrest oversaw the infamous massacre at Fort Pillow, in which Confederate troops murdered an estimated 200 Black Union soldiers who were trying to surrender.[4] Forrest would go on to become the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a fact Foote neglects to mention when he thrills at the memory of once twirling the general’s sword over his head.

And Foote wasn’t done yet. In a 1999 interview with the Paris Review, he stated that he would certainly have fought for the southern cause had he been alive during the Civil War. “What’s more,” he added, “I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar.”[5] In an interview for the 1998 book, Confederates in the Attic, Foote told author Tony Horwitz that he was dismayed by “the behavior of blacks,” who “are fulfilling every dire prophecy the Ku Klux Klan made. It’s no longer safe to be on the streets in black neighborhoods. They are acting as if the utter lie about blacks being somewhere between ape and man were true.”[6] Everything that Ken Burns gets right in this documentary – the music, the imagery, the storytelling – is powerfully overshadowed by everything that Shelby Foote gets wrong.

Shelby Foote’s views on the war, and race, stand in sharp contrast to that of the documentary’s other principal source, an eminent Civil War historian who gets a mere fraction of Foote’s screen time. Barbara Fields, the first Black woman awarded tenure at Columbia University, clearly identifies slavery as the foremost cause of the war, and is emphatic about the war’s devastating racial legacy. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Fields says, “The Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought and, regrettably, it can still be lost.” As Keri Leigh Merritt notes in her essay, “Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary,” Barbara Fields is granted fewer than nine minutes of screen time. Shelby Foote gets forty-five.[7]

Foote’s presence points to a larger problem with the documentary: its embrace of the Lost Cause. This mythology appears throughout all nine episodes, beginning minutes into the first. The war, the viewer learns, “began as a bitter dispute over union and state’s rights.” Missing from this statement is the fact that the southern states seceded over a very particular state’s right – the right to own slaves. The documentary also buys into the classic Lost Cause tenet that the Confederacy was doomed to fail from the outset of the Civil War, never standing a chance against the vast industrial might of the North, but fighting nobly to the end.

Perhaps the film’s most troubling adherence to Lost Cause lore is its idolatry of Robert E. Lee. The Confederate general is introduced as “the courtly, unknowable aristocrat who disapproved of secession and slavery, yet went on to defend them both at the head of one of the greatest armies of all time.” Lee’s greatness, Burns suggests, was evident from his early days at the military academy West Point, where he did not earn a single demerit. “Classmates called him ‘The Marble Model’ – but liked him in spite of his perfection.”[8] The Robert E. Lee celebrated in this documentary is valiant, tragic, and brave. The real Robert E. Lee was something else entirely.

As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer writes in “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” Lee was not only a slave owner, but a ruthless one. He separated slave families and brutally beat those who disobeyed him.[9] Wesley Morris, an enslaved man who tried to escape from Lee’s plantation with his sister, recalled what happened when they were recaptured: “Not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh,” he recollected, “Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”[10] The image of Lee as a noble man who personally despised slavery – but fought for it out of loyalty to his beloved Virginia – is one of the most persistent myths of the Lost Cause. Yet instead of reckoning with any of this, Ken Burns introduces the courtly Marble Man of Perfection to new generations of history students.

The Lost Cause shares screen time with another troubling Civil War narrative: reunion. The Civil War memory historian David Blight notes that although reconciliation is a “noble and essential human impulse” after a convulsive Civil War, reunion came at a devastating cost, as civil and political freedom for Black Americans became “sacrificial offerings on the altar of reunion.”[11] But reunion is a theme Ken Burns is unable to resist. Poignant scenes of reconciliation tug at the heartstrings as the series draws to an end. The final episode takes viewers to the 50th and 75th Blue-Gray reunions in Gettysburg, PA, with photos and grainy film footage dating back to 1913 and 1938. Frail, elderly Union and Confederate soldiers embrace one another, laughing and shaking hands on the very battlefield where they had fought against each other a lifetime ago. As the historian Eric Foner notes, “Faced with a choice between historical illumination or nostalgia, Burns consistently opts for nostalgia.”[12] Foner’s critique points to a curious fact about the series: historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction have long been troubled by many aspects of Ken Burns’s brand of storytelling – a concern that has never quite reached the rapt mainstream audience, likely because The Civil War is a documentary.

The historian Robert Rosenstone writes that people are generally more trusting of documentaries than they are of feature films. But this is a “mistaken form of trust.” Rosenstone argues that, like feature films, documentaries also dramatize scenes and impose certain storytelling conventions – often constructing a narrative that begins with a conflict and ends with a resolution. Unlike the Hollywood film, however, the documentary implies that “what you are seeing onscreen is somehow a direct representation of what happened in the past.”[13] Professor of education Jeremy Stoddard refers to this as “The History Channel Effect,” and suggests that documentaries are “often treated with the same reverence given to primary historical sources.”[14]

And few documentaries are treated with the reverence lavished on this one. For three decades , teachers have used The Civil War as a teaching tool. Just last year, PBS launched Ken Burns in the Classroom, offering teaching resources and lesson plans as companion material for The Civil War and other Burns documentaries. But The Civil War has been teaching lessons for years. In 2017, former White House chief of staff John Kelly ignited controversy when he stated that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.” Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended him: “I do know that many historians, including Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’s famous Civil War documentary, agreed that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War.”[15] Ken Burns was swift to respond on twitter, getting it right thirty years too late: “Many factors contributed to the Civil War. One caused it: slavery.”[16]

The year 2020 has brought a profound reckoning with the Civil War’s legacy – and it is long past time that reckoning reached Ken Burns. His beloved documentary invites viewers to revel in the drama and emotion of the war without ever acknowledging its legacy of white supremacy. Echoing Keri Leigh Merritt and others, it’s time for a new Civil War documentary: one that honors Barbara Fields’s observation that the Civil War isn’t over – and can still be lost. Every Confederate monument can be toppled, but as long as Ken Burns’s The Civil War is seen as the definitive telling of the story, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest will remain on their pedestals.

[1] Robert Brent Toplin, Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[2] Ken Burns, The Civil War (PBS, 1990).

[3] Burns, The Civil War.

[4] DeNeen L. Brown, “The Civil War Massacre That Left Nearly 200 Black Soldiers ‘Murdered,” The Washington Post, October 28, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/10/28/civil-war-massacre-that-left-nearly-black-soldiers-murdered.

[5] Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, and William Kennedy. “Shelby Foote, The Art of Fiction No. 158.” The Paris Review, no. 151, Summer 1999.

[6] Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 152.

[7] Burns, The Civil War; Keri Leigh Merritt, “Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 23, 2019.

[8] Burns, The Civil War.

[9] Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” The Atlantic, June 4, 2017.

[10] Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.”

[11] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 139.

[12] Eric Foner, “Ken Burns and the Romance of Reunion,” in Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond, ed. Robert Brent Toplin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 112.

[13] Robert A. Rosenstone, History on Film/Film on History, 2nd ed. (New York: Pearson, 2012). 80.

[14] Jeremy D. Stoddard, “The History Channel Effect,” Phi Delta Kappan 91, no. 4 (2010), 80.

[15] Rebecca Savransky, “Ken Burns Says One Factor Caused the Civil War: ‘Slavery’,” The Hill, October 31, 2017.

[16] Savransky, “Ken Burns Says One Factor Caused the Civil War: ‘Slavery’.”


Ella Starkman-Hynes

Ella Starkman-Hynes is an independent author and graduate of McGill University. Her research focuses primarily on the depiction of the Civil War in popular culture, and she is currently working on a project examining northern memory of the war through twentieth-century literature. She will be starting her Master's in history at Yale in Fall 2021.

49 Replies to “A Mistaken Form of Trust: Ken Burns’s The Civil War At Thirty”

  1. Great piece, thank you. I confronted Burns’ production company during my research for my project about the First Minnesota’s charge at Gettysburg, which Burns never mentions. The reaction was predictable (linked in my byline). The damage Burns did to history of the war which you so well describe, Ms. Starkman-Hayes blurs American history as a whole, right down to the granular level of elevating to holy myth Little Round Top, the 20th Maine, and Chamberlain at the expense of never mentioning the First Minnesota’s charge the same day, perhaps the most pivotal single action of not just the battle, but the entire war. After I thought about it, I realized that Little Round Top being given the Ken Burns/Ted Turner marble myth treatment serves much the same obscuring purpose as all that you point out here (not least being Dan Sickles gets off the hook from history – another long story). Much work to do, and it’s nice to see others on that job.

    1. Doesn’t mention 151st PA (the school teachers regiment), the 140th PA, 124th NY, Smiths Battery, Willard’s “cowards of Harpers Ferry”, John Bigelow, and many others equally as heroic as the 20th ME. Joshua Chamberlain lived to tell his story, the other commanders did not. Chamberlain apparently was skilled at self promotion.
      What can we expect in a 40 minute summary of those three horrific days?

      1. Your comment is typical of the Lost Cause fog Gettysburg has fallen into for 157 years. First, they were not “three horrific days” they were the glorious defeat of slavers and traitors. Second, a list of regiments not mentioned is meaningless. The point of elevating the 20th ME over the First Minnesota is to leave Cemetery Ridge as the sole possession of Pickett’s Charge for the ages to come. What the First Minnesota did does not fall into some list of overlooked regiments – to claim this is to argue no spot or moment on that field was any more pivotal than any other. That of course is false.

        1. “Your comment is typical of the Lost Cause fog Gettysburg has fallen into for 157 years. First, they were not “three horrific days” they were the glorious defeat of slavers and traitors.”

          No matter who you’re fighting all war is horrific.

          1. I do not see how anyone who has experienced war could disagree with your observation, and I think the men of many regiments that fought at Gettysburg would have strongly disagreed with Mr. Russo’s statement that “a list of regiments not mentioned is meaningless.”
            Of the 275 men of the 16th Maine who were the rear guard, ordered to hold the ground at all costs as the Army of the Potomac fell back on the first day of the battle, only 38 could report for duty that evening. Granted, the 1st Minnesota had by far the greater percentage of casualties. However the 16th Maine, whose casualties numbers of 11 dead and 62 wounded were by no means insignificant, had the greater percentage of loss (over 86 percent) with 159 men being taken prisoner. I expect many of those prisoners suffered and some may have died in Confederate prison camps.
            As another example, I have to wonder how the 20th Maine could have held its position on Little Round Top on July 2 had it not been for the stand of the 4th Maine at Devil’s Den, engaging one, perhaps two, Confederate regiments that could otherwise have joined the assault on the Union line. The 4th Maine incurred 140 killed, wounded and captured that day.

          1. That’s right. The same goes for about 2 percent of southerners. Funny there’s nary a mention of the tariff in these discussions.

  2. While the Ken Burns documentary does have a number of flaws, I find this article highly biased. Episode I makes abundantly clear that slavery was the fundamental cause of the war. Shelby Foote’s statement about “compromise” doesn’t change this. This article takes issue with Confederates being portrayed as personally sympathetic. Well, Confederates were human beings too, not devils with horns sticking out of their heads. One mark of honest history is the ability to acknowledge complexity–for example, the fact that someone can fight for or otherwise support a bad cause, yet at the same time have a great deal about them that one can respect and/or admire. And the fact that the Confederacy was created to preserve slavery doesn’t necessarily mean that slavery was the reason why everyone who fought for it did so (some may find this a meaningless distinction, but I disagree).

    From the information presented about Forrest, it’s highly problematic at best to say he is depicted as a “hero”–as Gary Gallagher has pointed out, the Fort Pillow massacre is not minimized. I agree that Lee deserves a more complex portrayal than Burns presents (Gallagher has argued this as well, though for different reasons than this article does). And David Blight’s argument about reconciliation at the expense of African Americans has been seriously challenged in the years since he made it.

    By the way, the charge of the 1st Minnesota is mentioned in the companion book to the series, though only the (traditional, though they have been challenged) figures for the number of men from the regiment engaged on July 2nd and the percentage killed or wounded are mentioned in the series.

    1. Burns’ allusion to the First Minnesota’s charge (there is no mention of it specifically anywhere) is typical Lost Cause “both sides” lament at the horror of the casualties. That’s it. Burns does nothing to illuminate what the charge meant in context, but instead minimizes it as nothing more than another mournful recitation of the cost of the war. Typically, you do the same here in your comment.

      1. Firstly, I suggest you reread my post. I say that he doesn’t mention the charge itself in the series, but he does in the book, where it is given at least some context. Let’s face it–Burns gives a very Little Round Top-centric view of the second day of the battle. The 1st Minnesota could have been mentioned more, but so could other units and parts of the battle.

        Secondly. I’m not sure what you’re getting at with your “both sides” comment. All wars, by their very nature, have two sides. In the Civil War, Union soldiers didn’t shoot at themselves. What was Burns supposed to do, discuss casualties on both sides and then say: “But remember, don’t get sad about the Confederate casualties because the Confederacy was in the wrong”? Ridiculous.

        1. There you go again. “The 1st Minnesota could have been mentioned more, but so could other units and parts of the battle.” No, other units did not do what the First Minnesota did. If you compare what the First Minnesota did to what the 20th Maine did, it’s a laughable no contest. But, huzzah! We have a myth of the 20th Maine (which serves Dan Sickles extremely well – again – long story lol). In fact, no unit in the history of human military conflict has ever done what the First Minnesota did. So, therein lies the answer to your confusion as to what “both sides” means. You conflate it all, so that nothing is distinguishable from anything else, as Ms. Starkman Hayes amply proves that the entire documentary has done for 30 years.

          1. “..no unit in the history of human military conflict has ever done what the First Minnesota did.”

            With no disrespect to the 1st Minnesota, do you really have a knowledge, down to the unit level, of every war ever fought in human history? Laughable on its face.

          2. “..no unit in the history of human military conflict has ever done what the First Minnesota did.”

            I replied with a list of some military engagements starting with the Battle of Thermopylae and going forward well into the 20th century. The information is easily found online. I do not know why my comments were deleted.

  3. This article hurts – and it needs to hurt. In the late 1980s, I slowly began to confront and wrangle with my first education: 25 years of very personal Lost Cause indoctrination at home and at school. Through three degrees, all focused on U. S. History, it still hurts a little to read truth spoken to old powers so bluntly. Yes, a short article will always lack nuance, but for several generations of evangelical southerners, we need to hear this drumbeat over and over and over again.

  4. Thank you for posting what I have been getting criticism for saying now … for years. Burns’ piece is a feel-good, fluff-piece and ranks historically not much higher than a soap-opera. So glad to see that I’m not alone in my revulsion.

  5. Bravo! Burns’s other works are similarly terrible, but this is the one that set the mold, and still serves as most American’s principal source of information about the Civil War. I have linked my own anti-Burns screed to my byline.

  6. Very simple: history is constantly being re-written and corrected: updated. Just tell the truth and provide the data/citation/proof.

  7. There are many things wrong with Ken Burns series and the author here vaguely touches on a few of them. That notwithstanding, I believe the author is unduly harsh on Shelby Foote. I’m not a fan of his okie-doke style of story telling and I’m no southern apologist, but I do recognize that there were two sides in the Civil War and neither side were angels.

    The Civil War’s history has come down to us in two narratives. And both of those narratives contains truth, fiction and an almost cultic devotion by it’s adherents. One, the northern perspective, has turned Abraham Lincoln into a god, with even his poor choices and decisions turned into good. A cause that is for the betterment of mankind. And yet, many of the politicians who pursued this noble cause were scoundrels of the first order.

    The other, the southern, Lost Cause perspective, rightly says the south were fighting against enormous odds and an unstoppable North, but also puts a stamp of nobility on it. As if defending a slave system can ever be noble.

    The author above, in her short essay here, seems to have a shallow understanding of what is wrong with Ken Burns shallow portrayal of the Civil War. And to be honest, it comes off as a well written paper for a College Sophomore History class.

    The reality is, the Civil War has been hotly debated for 160 years and will be for another 160 years. It is far more complex than the author seems aware of. There were “good guys” on both sides. There were “bad guys” on both sides. And while the right side won the war, there were plenty of scoundrels who made it happen and do not deserve the lofty place history has given them.

    I’ve been studying the Civil War for almost 50 years and have come to conclusion that the only thing I can be sure of, is that the Civil War was one big train wreck. Everything else is still up for grabs.

  8. Ken brings up a valuable point. It is not simply a choice of viewing Confederates as either Lost Causers or traitorous scum bags. There is something in between. It seems a little silly to ding Foote for expressing the view that he would have joined the Confederate military. What matters is the accuracy of his history – or not. I recently re-watched most of the series and did not notice any errors on his part – or perhaps one or two small errors. But, he was effective at conveying personalities. Which I suppose was his role.

    The allegation that Lee was a “cruel” slave owner is a bit of a stretch. That conclusion is based on just one source, and a dubious source at that. The author ought to acknowledge the controversy involved in the Norris story. That seems to be the only basis for arguing that Foote’s history was inaccurate or mis-leading.

  9. Shelby Foote was needed to give perspective of the mindset of the south ans sone food takes. You don’t have to agree with him at all but you need to understand what the south’s mindset was which later manifested itself into the Lost Cause. Otherwise you just want a 1-1 sided lecture without and perspective. Burns gives yiu a 360 degree viewpoint and let’s you see it the way Southerners saw it.

    1. More false equivalency. JUST what the country needs: to coddle and encourage the Lost Cause proponents that are AGAIN asking for another blood-letting to support their phony secession and states rights shoe-shine. Humbug.

  10. Ken Burns civil war documentary, lays out what transpired factoring in so many different perspectives. (Which he does a phenomenal job, but like any great work of art, he leaves it open enough room for ones own thoughts) Yes ultimately the war was about slavery; it ridiculous simple saying that looking whilst looking back. It presents it from many perspectives of those that experienced the civil war when it happened. However are you implying that most Northern soldiers where fighting to abolish slavery? There was brutal racism in the north and then some etc etc etc….

    As to the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, Ken Burns did mention the losses they sustained. (After watching the documentary I researched the 1st Minnesota, which I am glad I did, as what can be presented in a short period of window in a documentary would always be lacking to just what the 1st Minnesota did. Which I agree, what they did should have been mentioned, but nothing is perfect.)

    Also Chamberlain had a way with words which helps captivate audiences.

    In this day and age does the ability for thought not exist????? If you notice the narrations echos what Shelby Foote says on factual statements, not everything he says. I enjoyed his perspective. Does he idealize the south; absolutely, but how oblivious can you be to miss that. History is always subjective, history has multiple perspectives. (Did Gettysburg over a clash for shoes, no…. Does the documentary take away from anything in stating that??

    If anything it’s a phenomenal documentary. What would you do differently to present it, while make it captivating enough to capture the attention of the audience? (Leave out the perspectives from that moment in time??)

    I hope in the future there are more documentary’s on the civil war. Would I watch a “academic scholar” drone on and on and on about his thoughts and perspectives; No.

    If anything there is an undertone in Ken Burns documentary; of how history can repeat itself….

  11. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain describing the surrender at Appomattox said it was honor answering honor. I guess the first person to show respect to the defeated Confederate s was one of the North’s greatest heroes

  12. The subject of the civil war and history surrounding it is so complex that it would be impossible for anyone to document it without criticizm. To me the only hero’s were the dead and wounded who voluteered for their country or were conscripted. They as in all wars are the true hero’s IMO. The criticism’s of the scholars only show’s their own predudice’s which in reality will continue to cause more wars in the future. The stubberness and self righteousness that we all as human beings cling to is our demise.

  13. I am re-watching The Civil War, and Shelby Foote’s adoration for the Confederate leaders and soldiers is galling in ways that I didn’t see 30 years ago. Frankly, I’m not surprised to hear that he said he would fight for the Confederacy if the war happened again in the same circumstances. I suppose Burns had to account for his potential Lost Cause Southern viewership …

  14. Odd. I watched the whole series at the time it came out and have seen the whole thing at least twice since then. I never got the impression that the war was about anything other than slavery. I never, ever got the impression that Nathan Bedford Forrest was admirable. Watching it, I felt for the first time that I could understand what happened in the war and why. I think I got the understanding from the documentary that it was inevitable that the war happened when it did because of the question of whether the new lands opening up to the west would be slave or free. I don’t recall Shelby Foote saying that the war began because we didn’t compromise; I will say that I heard an interview much later with the author of a great book called The Fall of the House of Dixie who said that slavery could have persisted as late as the 1920’s if Southern leaders hadn’t insisted on succession when Lincoln was elected–perhaps that is what Foote was referring to. One way or another, though, slavery had to be confronted. As wrenching as it was, I think we were fortunate to have Lincoln as President when it did. Even at 11 hours, not everything could be included. After watching it though, I felt like I had enough familiarity with the topic that I could ready other books and deepen my understanding about various aspects. People can try to re-do the doc, but I don’t think they can touch what makes it great.

  15. This article is somewhat reductionist. To some degree historians need to remain objective. To acknowledge that a historical figure was kind in some settings or that they were a tactical genius does not signal acceptance of their cause or agreement with their values it simply represents a more nuanced view of history. If we demonize the villains in history and venerate our heroes we miss two important lessons. One is that otherwise good and reasonable people willingly tolerate great evils and injustices and the second is that although our heroes are courageous and far sighted in one area are often remarkably blinkered and short sighted in others. Secondly the causes of historical events are complex and multifaceted. Slavery wasn’t suddenly invented in 1861 so there were obviously other factors which led to the North no longer supporting it and the South continuing to do so at that particular moment in history. The motivation of individual soldiers is even more complex. Some were ideologically motivated, others by a real or imagined grievance and others simply wanted to back the winner, many would have been poorly educated and barely aware of the issues at stake. Another layer of complexity is the role of Native Americans and the Westward expansion of the USA. Because these areas are studied separately we forget they were happening simultaneously. Many who courageously fought to defeat slavery went on to annihilate entire native American communities and literally steal their land. We need to acknowledge that whilst the North was, in the modern parlance, on the right side of history when it came to slavery, much of what what followed was neither good nor right.

    1. There is much to admire in your statement, but I’m left curious: are you suggesting that we should tolerate public monuments that memorialize traitors and seditionists who slaughtered more loyal Americans than in any war before or since ?

  16. Mathew and others present a nuanced, complicated view of the U.S. Civil War. All civil wars are complicated. While, peineite present s a simplistic, vengeance-is-mine view of the war.

  17. On the contrary: evil is always subtle, nuanced, and complicated. Truth is always clean and clear: “straight and clear as a ray of light.” (Thomas Paine). That’s why it’s called the simple truth. Traitors and murderers ought to be tried and and punished; then and now … no monuments.

  18. “… as long as Ken Burns’s The Civil War is seen as the definitive telling of the story, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest will remain on their pedestals.”
    Where they belong.
    Unless reconciliation and rehabilitation have no place in our society, any longer?
    If do, we may simply chain shut the gates of every prison in America and set them on fire with the inmates inside.
    Burns documentary fails in many particulars, but its single greatest lack is an absence of hatred.
    This specious op-ed piece reveals a bigoted loathing of Southern Americans by singling out Shelby Foote, himself roundly criticized by his Southern peers for his deliberate objectivity. One wonders if the only thing which will satisfy the author is if, after all the statues have been demolished and all the histories destroyed, the last things to be burned on the pyre of Historical Revisionism are Southern Americans, themselves.
    If this is what Yale is producing and calling an educated alumna, then woe to the future.

  19. All history is revisionist and it either takes us closer to the truth or, as in the case of your re-write of treason and murder, further away. Poor, poor “Southerners.” Ha ! Who’s the snowflake now ?

    1. Paineite, I’m curious why you keep using “murder” in your comments. All is fair in love and war. This was war. Both sides stepped up to the plate.

  20. Thank you for writing this. It was all “Lost Cause”. I’m glad I finally read up on the Civil War and discovered the truth. Can’t believe PBS has not done a remake. Hoping that Social Studies teachers have wised up and don’t show it.

  21. My concern was that slavery was not just in the South. I have an article of slavery in Michigan. This was a bloody war that should have been done what Britain did. Then 500,000 men/women would not die needlessly.

  22. I’m a big Civil War buff and just like to hear the stories of what people were like back then as compared to now. After reading this article I can really sense some animosity towards Ken Burns and Shelby Foote. From a documentary standpoint I don’t think it was neither Foote’s nor Burns’ intention to strictly make the film about whether or not the War was fought over slavery, rather than just purely an insight to what the War was like. Prior to making the film, Burns went through some really neat interviews with Foote on what a soldiers life was like, the differences in a Federal vs. Confederate soldier were, what lead up to the war, etc. For someone who likes learning about that, I think it was still a cool documentary. Yes, I am glad that we are more aware now of the benevolent causes of the War, but that still doesn’t make me hate the men who fought for the Confederacy.
    Purely as a war history enthusiast, I find Confederates more interesting. They were more elusive, they weren’t photographed as much as Federals, they were better on horseback, etc. The biggest thing I find interesting is that they stood against 4 to 1 odds and they still stood their ground which is admirable. This begs the question, why fight solely to keep slaves around then? I don’t think it was just about that. If the South had given up just the slaves but still wanted to succeed, then would Lincoln have let them?

  23. The Civil War didn’t begin over abolition. The dispute was over the SPREAD of slavery from its original states into new states and territories. This is antislavery, as opposed to abolitionism. Antislavery advocates promoted the principles and stood the line that provoked the South into treason, not abolitionists. Many antislavery advocates disliked abolitionists in varying degree; some despised them. Abolitionists were few, far between, and politically powerless. Antislavery advocates were legion and politically powerful. They founded a party that elected a president.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.