How does Ken Burns’ depiction of African Americans in his PBS documentary “The Civil War” differ from those of other historians or works such as “Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction”?

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Comparing Ken Burns to other historians can be problematic because of his unique and innovative approach to the subject. Burns is a master filmmaker and first-rate historian. His work, which combines powerful photography and insightful quotes, evokes strong feelings in the viewer. Conventional historians produce books, while Burns recreates history on screen. Burns differs from other historians, then primarily in the method of delivery, rather than in content. His The Civil War, an eleven-part series, is a masterpiece, and it has been viewed in history classrooms throughout America.

Burns's film includes many perceptive quotes. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass is quoted: slavery gave him a feeling of "unutterable loathing." One Mississippi plantation owner said, "I'd rather be dead than be a nigger on one of these big plantations." The effect of these quotes is magnified by the melancholy music and haunting images that accompany them.

Burns explained the harsh reality of plantation life for slaves. Diseases were rampant. Fourteen-hour workdays were common. Marriage vows included the phrase, "until death or distance do you part." Slaves were often sold and moved—regardless of marital status.

The key point that Burns makes about slavery is that it caused the Civil War. The war was not about states' rights, nullification, or sectional differences, as some may claim. It was fundamentally about slavery.

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