(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“The Civil War,” wrote Robert Penn Warren, “is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history.” Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and his associates spent five years planning, researching, writing, and shooting what claims to be “the most comprehensive treatment of the Civil War ever committed to film.” They attempted to retell the story of the Civil War in the voices of the men and women—Northerners and Southerners—who actually lived through the war. Their eleven-hour historical documentary aired on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the fall of 1990 and was hailed as a stunning success. The Civil War: An Illustrated History is the companion book to the widely acclaimed PBS series.

The Civil War combines a narrative text by historian Geoffery C. Ward (an expanded version of the television-series script) with excerpts from the journals, diaries, and letters of the period, an extended interview with historian Shelby Foote, and essays by four other noted American historians—Barbara I Fields, Don E. Fehrenbacher; James M. McPherson, and C. Vann Woodward. Each of the five chapters chronicles a year of the war and concludes with an interpretive essay. The text is copiously illustrated with vintage photographs, illustrations, military maps, and newspaper excerpts.

In their introduction, the authors take great pains to stress that as historical documentarians, they have accepted a purpose that is not precisely the same as that of the historian. The historian both narrates the past and interprets it, while the historical documentarian tries to convey the substance and texture of that history through the use of documents that capture the words and images of the time. The result, they claim, is that the “historical documentary is often more immediate and more emotional than history because of its continual joy in making the past present through visual and verbal documents.” While the book incorporates much of the same material as the television series, it allows the reader the leisure of mulling over the text and letting the words and illustrations reinforce one another. The result is a comprehensive act of historical imagination—a text that allows the documents and voices of the past to speak for themselves. More than anything else, The Civil War is a skillfully woven narrative of individual voices: of Virginia farmer Wilmer McLean, who could truthfully say that the war began and ended in his front parlor; diarist Mary Chesnut of Charleston, South Carolina; lawyer George Templeton Strong of New York; abolitionist Frederick Douglass; nurse Clara Barton; poet Walt Whitman; privates Sam Watkins of Tennessee and Elisha Hunt Rhodes of Rhode Island, two ordinary soldiers who fought for four years and lived to tell about it; and the letters and diaries of many others. For the most part, the authors allow the documentary materials to speak for themselves in this most compelling of American stories, the conflict that reforged the nation. It was a struggle in which Americans slaughtered one another in unprecedented numbers, brother against brother, father against son, friend against friend—more than 600,000 were killed—over the central, inescapable issue of slavery.

Not only does The Civil War highlight the central issues and personalities, but it also allows those issues to come alive again through the voices and images of participants. A stern John Brown calls for armed insurrection to free the slaves; an equally defiant John Calhoun defends states’ rights; a resolute Frederick Douglass campaigns for emancipation of the slaves and black recruitment in the Union Army; a patient Abraham Lincoln tries to hold the Union together.

Behind the bitter rhetoric of abolition and secession lies the unresolved issue of slavery: a moral and constitutional paradox that lay at the heart of the American national experience. In 1860, more than four million Americans, one seventh of the population, were slaves. Slavery was “the sleeping serpent” waiting to be awakened:

One side loathed it, the other defended it, but each side fought out of deeply held principles. The South was willing to leave the Union to protect its constitutional rights, and the North was resolved that the Union would be held together, whatever the cost. The logic of the conflict led inexorably to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which gave the Union the moral justification to continue the war and prevented the diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy. Lincoln was determined that the Union would be preserved, but he came to realize that in order to preserve it he would have to free the slaves. He insisted at the beginning of the war that he was fighting secession, not slavery, but even before Gettysburg, he came...

(The entire section is 1952 words.)