More thoughts on The Civil War rebroadcast

As I continue to watch the rebroadcast of The Civil War on PBS, I find that the remastering has proven to make some of the imagery used by Burns quite crisp and clear, which was his goal. Though the content is not different, so far as I can tell, viewers that have never seen it before will be treated to looking at documents and photos as how Burns likely viewed them 25 years ago. That said, there is a bit of jumpiness with the image, but that likely relates to my cable signal, as it may be affected by solar activity (the aurora was visible near here the other night). Tuesday night’s broadcast featured episodes 2 and 3, which featured the Battles of Shiloh and Antietam respectively.

Shiloh has always had a special place in my historical heart, as men from my home county (Jersey County, Illinois) fought bravely there. A great accounting comes from Leander Stillwell’s memoir Story of a Common Soldier, which can be found online. Stillwell, who grew up near Otterville (about 10 miles from my parent’s house), enlisted in the 61st Illinois Infantry, serving in Company D at the time. Further, this battle, coupled with his earlier victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, elevated Ulysses S. Grant to a position of prominence, as he, unlike his Eastern counterparts at the time, was able to beat Confederate troops. Having visited the battlefield twice, it is a beautiful and poignant place, where you can almost still feel the fighting in the air.

The third episode featured Antietam, but also discussed the Seven Days battles and the elevation of Robert E. Lee to command of the Confederate forces that were renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. The debate over emancipation factored prominently as well. The political situation surrounding this issue was a dicey one for Lincoln, as he faced pressure from abolitionists seeking freedom for the slaves, while simultaneously fearing how the issue would affect the position of the border states, as well as the opinion of many in the Union, who were little concerned with the plight of the slaves.

Antietam represented an important moment in the war, as renowned historian James McPherson expounded upon in his book Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (2002). It was critical to Lincoln being able to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, while also influencing the course of the war on the international stage, as the European powers were observing the war from afar to make decisions regarding diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy, or even potential mediation of peace. The horror of the bloodiest day in the war was revealed to the viewer through the powerful images of “Bloody Lane” and the cornfield. Though strategically a draw, the battle was just what Lincoln needed.

The continuing theme between the two episodes was the general course of the war going against the Union, as while Grant was largely successful in the West, the Eastern Theater found Confederates usually carrying the day. However, Antietam proved to be pivotal, as while the Confederates were victorious in battle after it, the viewer comes away with a feeling that the war is beginning to turn away from the South, but that the outcome is still in doubt. Further, these episodes demonstrate the carnage of the war that shocked the nation, but was only a taste of things to come.

As the week progresses, viewers will see the adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation, victories in Pennsylvania and Mississippi, Grant taking command, and the fight being taken to Southern society in a way that placed the war at the crossroads between older Napoleonic warfare and our modern understanding of war, based upon the carnage of two World Wars, as elements of both conflicts were present. They will reflect upon what a Union victory and the abolition of slavery meant then and today. What the public takes away from this rebroadcast will be interesting to see in the next few weeks.

Reflecting on The Civil War after 25 years

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity in the Civil War blogging community about the rebroadcast, which is starting tonight, of Ken Burns’ monumental documentary The Civil War to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its debut on PBS. Many bloggers note the significant changes in our nation and the debate over how we remember the war that have occurred in the last 25 years. Consider that the direction of the historical study on the war has blossomed in many different ways since 1990. Further, no one in 1990 likely fathomed that we would have an African American president (regardless of your feelings on him and his administration). Needless to say, I hope many in the country will watch this and reflect.

I remember vaguely viewing segments of it when a little boy at Fort Hood, Texas, which was only a couple years after the piece debuted on television. It was still routinely broadcast on PBS then. I had an emerging interest in history at that time, the Civil War in particular. As I got older, watched Gettysburg at 10 and Glory at age 12, I eventually sought out this program and checked it out from my local library on VHS and watched it, enjoying it immensely. A few years ago, I finally purchased it on DVD and watch it occasionally to draw inspiration from different sections when needed.

Tonight’s broadcast features episode one, which focuses on the historical context and causes of the war. To hear of the violent acts and division in the nation at that time (Bleeding Kansas, the attack on Sen. Sumner, and John Brown’s Raid), causes me to reflect on recent violence and riots across the country. I will say that I doubt we’re heading towards conflict as in 1860, but that we must remember the lessons of the war and the horrors that it wrought, so that the “better angels of our nature” can prevail between those on opposite sides of the political fence.

While it is still about an hour and a half away, I always find a semblance of comfort and power in the words Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. He wrote:

Headquarters, Camp Clark
Washington, D.C., July 14, 1861

My Very Dear Wife:

Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines, that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle-field for any country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know, that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with care and sorrows, when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it, as their only sustenance, to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death, and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in this hazarding the happiness of those I loved, and I could not find one. A pure love of my country, and of the principles I have often advocated before the people, and “the name of honor, that I love more than I fear death,” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up, and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.

I know I have but few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot, I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care, and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers, I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

– Sullivan

(Text courtesy of National Park Service website)

I hope that sincerely hope that many will take time to watch this documentary, especially with children, and educate them on the significance of the conflict and what it means today in our current society.

Watch “Rebel” tonight at 10PM ET/9PM CT

I just viewed this production that is part of the PBS series Voces, which deals with Latino figures. Rebel tells the story of Loreta Velazquez, a Cuban-American, who served as a soldier in the Confederate Army, later to serve as a spy for the Union. Her story, largely forgotten for much of the post-war years is one of the more unique in the long list of women who served in the military on both sides in the Civil War.

Velazquez’s story begins with her childhood in Cuba, where she attempted to defy traditional gender stereotypes, much to the chagrin of her parents, including her doting father. Concerned for her future and seeking to mold her into a “proper” young woman, Loreta was sent to New Orleans in 1849, where she blended into the unique society of the city, being viewed as white instead of Hispanic, which was important in post-Mexican War America.

Further defying conventions, Velazquez eloped with an American Army officer, known as William, much to the disappointment of her family. She followed William to various military postings, until William left the Army upon secession, joining the Confederate Army. William later died in the war, while Loreta also joined, taking the name Henry T. Buford. After supposedly fighting at Bull Run, she took to spying for the Confederacy, then rejoined the Army, fighting at Fort Donelson and Shiloh. Later in the war, she served the Union cause as a spy.

After the war, she wrote her memoir The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velázquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T Buford, Confederate States Army, which is the source of controversy in the historiography on the war. Her account shattered the “Lost Cause” mythology surrounding Confederate soldiers, as she described them as boorish and ungentlemanly. Her writing raised the ire of Jubal Early, who was influential in the early historiography from the southern perspective on the war. Due to this controversy, her story was largely erased from the history and memory on the war.

Through Rebel, director Maria Agui Carter attempts to draw out the true story of Velazquez and her contribution to the larger understanding of the Civil War. Complete with a cast of academics crossing several fields and disciplines, gripping cinematography, and a unique story, Rebel is worth viewing on your local PBS station and will enlighten and entertain those interested in the Civil War, spies, women’s history, or Latino history.

Check out the site for the documentary here, and buy Velazquez’s book here.

The debate over the language of Lincoln

First off, it’s good to be back to blog with you all, as the last few weeks have been extremely hectic for me preparing for my doctoral comprehensive exams, which I am now through the written portion (cue Hallelujah Chorus). Thanks to intrepid fellow CWH blogger Walter Coffey for keeping up some interesting posts the last two months.

Now, I did find a little time to go see the Spielberg film Lincoln with my two friends and fellow reenactors Stuart Lawrence and Den Bolda. Den dressed in period civilian trappings, while I dressed as a soldier for the event (Hey, if folks can go to comic book movies, etc. dressed as the characters from those films, why not us?), which was fun, as one couple who were visiting relatives in the area, but were from Indiana took their picture with us.

My thoughts on the film are mixed. I felt that Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Honest Abe was pretty good, aside from being a departure from the classic Hal Holbrook rendition in North and South, or Gregory Peck in The Blue and the Gray (which were good also, but not necessarily as accurate). I also enjoyed Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stephens.

I would have liked to have seen a bit more on Lincoln’s conduct of the war as Commander-in-Chief, which did not have to mean another Civil War film full of battle scenes, but just more on the course of his presidency. I thought the debate over the 13th Amendment was interesting and one of my colleagues noted that he hoped it would get people into the documents surrounding the debate on that legislation. Den and I both enjoyed the costuming, as the material culture presented in the film was quite good. Overall, I thought the film presented a real conception of Lincoln, more human as opposed to being on such a pedestal.

That said, one other area that I thought was a bit off, and has apparently became a topic of debate between historians is the foul language that appears a few times. Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book Team of Rivals was an inspiration for the movie did not have much problem with the profanity used in the film. In contrast, James McPherson argued that Lincoln did not approve of such language and likely did not use it to the degree that was portrayed, especially the utterance of “f—” by W. N. Bilbo, one of the lobbyists for the 13th Amendment. Another who argued that Lincoln likely did not swear as much as was portrayed in the movie, but would not have had as much issue with swearing around him was University of Richmond president Edward Ayers.

Overall, I have to agree with both McPherson and Ayers on their assessment of Lincoln and colorful language. I wonder if Spielberg chose to keep such language to resonate with modern audiences, who are used to such things, and if that is so, what does it say about our society. Further, the movie would have been just as good without it, which would have allowed parents to take younger children to see the film. One wonders how many stayed away because of the language issue. It would have been interesting to see, were he still alive, what David Donald would have said about this issue.

While swearing has become increasingly pervasive in our culture, this does not mean it was so in earlier times. I think the work by Richard Bushman called The Refinement of America is particularly relevant. While focused on the eighteenth century, it also explored the nineteenth century, charting the desire of Americans to achieve elements of refined culture, which extended to personal behavior, including manners and decorum.

It is interesting that this has become a mini debate among respected scholars, but it is good, as it allows historians to interject their knowledge and insights on a given topic into the larger culture. Much like the earlier kerfuffle over how Day-Lewis vocalized Lincoln, the issue of swearing by Abe will be another in a series of appraisals on the film in the coming weeks. Such is the nature of the beast when movies based upon historical events and actors are produced. I encourage everyone to at least go and see Lincoln, but also pick up a good biography of him (I recommend Lincoln by the late David Donald).

Watch Death and the Civil War online

If you happened to miss the television showing of Death and the Civil War, you can watch it online via the PBS website, where you can also order it on DVD. You can also check out my review of the film as well.

Watch Death and the Civil War on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Please be aware that the video is only available until October 17.

Review of Death and the Civil War

I would like to take this opportunity to remind you all that American Experience on PBS will be airing a documentary by Ric Burns (younger brother of filmmaker Ken Burns) entitled Death and the Civil War on Tuesday, September 18 at 8:00PM Eastern Time. The airing is timely, as it will be just after the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history with the Battle of Antietam on September 17.

This film, based upon Drew Gilpin Faust’s landmark work This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), illustrated how the Civil War changed how Americans on both sides of the conflict perceived death. Prior to the war, influenced by the religious revival of the Second Great Awakening, people believed in the concept of a “good death”, which involved dying at home, surrounded by loved ones, at peace and ready to go, and possibly and offering of last words to friends and family. This death was rooted in Christian tradition emerging in the nation through the early 19th century, where a new belief in a corporeal heaven, gained wide acceptance by the eve of war. This belief held that the deceased will gain a renewed body upon entering heaven and will reunite with loved ones who passed on before them, as well as the surviving relatives and friends when they die, with all living in everlasting peace and harmony with God.

As the war’s cruel reality shattered notions of a short, relatively bloodless conflict, Americans faced a new concept of death, as hundreds, and soon thousands, of young men were slaughtered in their prime, unable to enjoy the tranquility and dignity of a “good death”. Soldiers soon adapted to this changing circumstance and created the same conditions, in a modified fashion, for their dying comrades. The men were surrounded by photographs of loved ones, their army friends, and were able, when possible, die in relative peace. The deceased’s comrades also took on the unenviable task of notifying loved ones of the demise of the soldier, as well as arranging for shipment of effects and, if able, the body.

This documentary did an outstanding job of analyzing the harsh situation facing the nation in the early years of the war, that stands in stark contrast to how our nation treats the war dead today. Before and during the early years of the war, the federal government did not bear responsibility for identifying, accounting for, and treating its war dead. The result was that many dead were not identified initially, being buried in graves marked “Unknown”. Further, the government had no way of effective notification of casualties, with relatives relying upon the casualty reports in local papers, which could be inaccurate, creating increased anxiety among people as to the fate of their loved one serving, whether they were dead or not. Death was exacerbated by the lack of an ambulance corps, preventing early evacuation of wounded, which caused many to linger on the battlefield, dying of their wounds, without the comfort of the “good death”.

The film revolved around several themes: dying, burial, emotions around death, memorializing, identifying, and slavery. Each of these themes was well treated. Slavery was quite interesting, as the African-American experience with death was quite different through the horrors of slavery, which created a higher mortality possibility for them than whites. They created their own concept of the “good death”, which involved dying in the struggle for freedom. What was interesting to consider was that the historians involved in the film argued that contraband camps, where escaped slaves were initially housed, represented one of the first American examples of refugee camps, where conditions were quite harsh and fostered a higher mortality.

Beyond the overall content of the documentary, there were several things that stood out for me in this piece. One was the early mention of the casualty figure of 750,000, which is based upon new research that appeared in the journal Civil War History (December 2011), that is still gaining acceptance in the scholarly community and will take years to gain full recognition. The use of the figure will go far in terms of generating wider acceptance of the new calculations of just how many died in the war.

In addition to the use of new casualty figures, the story of 19th century methods of embalming and the role photographers played in bringing the savagery of death on the battlefield to Americans’ homes. Further, commemorating the dead, both through establishing national cemeteries and creating Memorial Day (on both sides of the Mason-Dixon) was an important subject. It was quite interesting to consider that without the Civil War, we likely would not have the system of national cemeteries, let alone an accounting of our war dead, at least as we know it. The story of Charleston blacks burying deceased Union POW’s from the racetrack prison camp and leading a commemoration ceremony and parade with Union forces in early May 1865 represented one of the earliest occurrences of what we know as Memorial Day.

With an all-star cast of historians and commentators, including Drew Gilpin Faust, Vincent Brown, David W. Blight, and George Will among others, Ric Burns has crafted a masterful documentary in the vein of his brother’s The Civil War. It combines the use of photographs, filmed scenes, and stirring narration, including powerful and emotional examples from the primary sources of the war, the writings of the people experiencing the war themselves. While Faust’s book is an important read and I urge everyone to read it, Death and the Civil War is a must-see documentary that illustrates the transformative effect of the war on our nation in the midst of its 150th anniversary.