The Unintended Life and Times of War
There have been many documentaries about the Civil War, most of them dedicated to the political issues that underpinned it and to the military strategies that composed it. The best of those, of course, would be The Civil War by Ken Burns, and you wonder what, if anything, can be added to that groundbreaking work.
But with American Experience: Death and the Civil War, there obviously is. And it has a Burns attached to it, but this time, it's not Ken but his brother, Ric. Ric Burns is a veteran documentary filmmaker in his own right, and was a teammate on the landmark 1990 PBS documentary series that won director Ken wide acclaim.
Based on historian and Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust's book The Republic of Suffering, the two-hour documentary is a sweeping look at the result of modern warfare weaponry meeting outdated military tactics, which in effect laid the groundwork for a scale of slaughter never seen to that point in history. It airs Tuesday, September 18, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS. (Check local listings.)
Death and the Civil War has all the techniques we've come to expect in great documentary filmmaking, including letters by soldiers written as they were dying (read by actors including Robert Sean Leonard) to give a palpable sense of time and place.
Faust, interviewed for the documentary, lays out the troubling numbers; the 750,000 total dead for both sides during the war equalled two percent of the population at the time, and would equal seven million by the same percentage of the U.S. today. Half, over 300,000, were never identified. Twenty percent of young men of military age who fought for the South would not survive. Camp diseases took the greatest toll, causing two out of three deaths. In the Battle of Gettysburg alone — which took place over three days in July of 1863 — there were 51,000 casualties, 7,800 dead.
The numbers go on, as does the body count, in startling numbers and details. Battlefield after battlefield, the fallen are buried in makeshift graves, mass graves, or sometimes not buried at all, but left rotting in the fields where they fell.
Clearly there's no curling up with a documentary about the Civil War and its death toll. But this riveting retelling of events gives a new understanding of the widespread wreckage that marked this country at one time, and what grew out of that carnage — the growth of government into a modern agency that had to deal with the documentation of wounded and dead on a scale never before attempted; the standardization of emergency medical techniques, barbaric as they were; the beginning of a national cemetery movement.
These are things that are part of ordinary life today, but were demanded by the sheer numbers of wounded and dead coming off the Civil War fields.
Burns highlights these and other important developments during the war through some startlingly sharp photography that seems eerily downloaded from a digital camera onto a laptop in the field. They're that much of a departure from the grainy and spotted remnants we are so used to seeing.
Maybe most riveting are some distant shots of Lincoln in the crowd at Gettysburg dedicating the first National Cemetery before the war ended. (And they also serve to get us ready for the upcoming Steven Spielberg biopic, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis, due out this November. The recent clips released are haunting in tone and recreation.)
There is also a somber but fascinating segment about the lengthy post-war reinterment program completed in 1871, during which 334,000 Union soldiers were moved and re-buried into 74 national cemeteries. Like that migration, the documentary is an astonishing television journey.
Thomas Lynch, a poet and professional undertaker who is interviewed, says about the War, "It shakes a culture at its fundamental base, and we have to create new ways to think about it."
At its core, Death and the Civil War is simply that — a startling, new way to think about a four-year calamity of a scant 150 years ago, modern times, really, and it does so in the most direct and captivating way possible.