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.

12 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.

  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.

  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.

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