‘Johnny has Gone for a Soldier’ The Civil War by Ken Burns

Ken Burns

Article by Tom Moult. Edited by Tom Hercock. Research by Thom Absalom

Prior to the summer of the present year, my knowledge of the American Civil War was I must admit somewhat lacking. Fortunately this would change, as one evening my father was watching a documentary about the conflict, and his words ‘no matter how many times I watch this, I never get tired of it’ proved well founded. He happened to be watching one of the episodes from Ken Burns’ epic masterpiece, The Civil War. I was instantly gripped by the documentary, and can honestly say – after working my way through all of the episodes – it is the most moving and well-made historical documentary I have ever seen.  Keeping this month’s theme in mind therefore, Burns acclaimed series deserves a mention as a really significant point of interest for anyone studying or simply concerned with the American Civil War of 1861-65.

Running over many hours, and split into nine separate episodes addressing the evolving stages of the conflict, from the causes, to emancipation and an account of the battles fought, the series is incredibly detailed and comprehensive.

It was the contemporary photographs of Mathew Brady – the famous Civil War photographer – that encouraged Burns to create the documentary, and indeed the series is made up almost exclusively of images from the period, as well as newspaper cuttings and interviews with eminent historians of the conflict. Personal letters, from the correspondence of Presidents Lincoln and Davis, to U.S Grant and Robert E. Lee, to the common privates writing home to their wives provides a solid base of primary material.

Broadcast for the first time in 1990, the series proved a huge hit with American audiences. There are no smartly-dressed presenters wandering around former battle-sites and locations of relevance and interest, just as there are relatively few panoramic landscape shots of what the landscapes look like today. In many ways this is what makes the series so expressive. What makes it such a powerful piece of film is the heavy focus on the personal aspect of the war; through letters and photographs of the everyday Union and Confederate soldiers. Combined with a thorough analysis of the stages of the conflict, from a military point of view and the steps taken by the generals and commanders in the field as they try to constantly outmanoeuvre one another, the result is a really fine piece of historical documentation. The battles, for example, of Shiloh, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg are recounted with vivid use of photographs, letters and music.

Actors provide voiceovers for the moving and vivid letters that accompany these photographs, and renowned historians and writers of the subject such as Shelby Foote and Barbara Fields provide an academic standpoint. The former wrote the epic three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative and through his appearances in the documentary, provides formidable assessments and evaluations, as well as anecdotes that he seems endlessly capable of drawing on to demonstrate the level of research that went into making the series.

Music is another powerful force embraced by Burns, and the series is so eloquent and absorbing because of the almost exclusive use of contemporary music as a backdrop to the voiceovers of letters and photographs. Popular songs at the time, both military and domestic, including ‘Dixie’, ‘Lorena’, ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ and ‘Johnny has gone for a Soldier’ feature throughout and fit in so well across the entire series.

The acclaim with which The Civil War has become associated is reflected in the plethora of awards it has received, including Emmys, Grammys and countless other American filmmaking titles.  Viewing the series through the lens of a budding historian, one can see why it has been successful. The level of detail and research that has been utilised to create The Civil War is evident to anyone who watches it. Other directors and producers have their own way of converting historical fact into documentary for television (indeed, Ridley Scott’s upcoming ‘docu-drama’ entitled Gettysburg springs to mind), and there is certainly no shortage, not just on the Civil War, but on the subject of history in general. However, Ken Burn’s work, for me, remains the definitive historical documentary on the subject of the conflict; from David McCullough’s equally sombre and witty narration, to the actor’s voiceovers of key personalities, and the many hundreds of photographs that appear throughout, The Civil War is a genuinely stimulating account of a traumatic and violent period of American history.

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  • 40 million viewers watched the nine-part series during its initial run on the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), making it the most watched series to ever air on the Service.
  • Hostilities began on 12 April 1861 when Confederate forces attacked Union forces at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The war finished almost exactly four years later when Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to the commander of the Union forces, Ulysses S. Grant, at Appommattox Court House (VA) on 9 April 1865.
  • The war saw the introduction of rifled, repeating long-range muskets, such as the Springfield Model 1861 and Spencer Repeating Rifle. These new weapons were highly accurate over distances of 1000 yards. Many American army officers were trained with Napoleonic-era muskets, accurate over distances of just 100 yards. Long-range rifles and the employment of massed artillery led to the development of new tactics, such as the use of trenches and fortifications. Trenches were extensively used during the Siege of Petersburg (June 1864 – March 1865). These new tactics reached their pinnacle in the vast networks of trenches constructed across Western Europe during the First World War.
  • American military deaths numbered an estimated 620000 – the highest number of casualties in any American war ever.
  • On 22 September 1862, Union president Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of 1 January 1863 all slaves in the Confederate states would be free. By the end of the war, some 186000 black soldiers had joined the Union army.

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