Friday, September 18, 2015

The Civil War: A film by Ken Burns-A review 25 years in the making

I was 10 at the time this originally aired and it would be a few years later when I turned 14 while on a school trip to Gettysburg in which I finally realized the importance of & became fascinated by The Civil War. I have waited 25 years to see this documentary series by Ken Burns and it was well worth the wait.

From day 1 (April 12th) year 1 (1861) Mr. Burns takes the viewer into the events that lead to and during this truly American war. Somehow he was able to move seamlessly from battle to battle. At times the events overlapped each other but he kept the viewer on track and without any confusion. Seeing the photos, hearing the voice overs as they quoted the actual words of a handful of those who were there is a remarkable thing to watch. To hear the events from these “voices” helped me learn about each experience and feel for all involved.


There was McClellan and Meade who commanded the Army of the Potomac (off and on) during the first three years of the war and we learned that there may have been times when they should have advance instead of retreat. There was Longstreet, Stuart, Pickett and Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s right hand guy who died of an illness at a field hospital after being shot, all Generals of Virginia, all good men by their own accords. By the final years of the war Sherman, Grant and Lee would face off on multiple crucial battles of the war. ---For me this wouldn’t be a Civil War lesson without Chamberlain
   who left his job as a professor at Bowdoin College to lead the men of The 20th Maine. I wondered how this documentary would "treat" the Battle of Gettysburg and it did not disappoint. I have loved Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain since I went on a class trip to see the movie Gettysburg and saw Jeff Daniels portrayal of him. I have been back to the battlefield 
 a couple more times  and each time is as captivating as the last. I agree with the guy who said in the episode (and I paraphrase) if I could go back to any time it would be to watch President Lincoln give The Gettysburg Address in person. I should add if the TARDIS ever appears in my backyard I know when The Doctor is taking me first. -- Ken Burns and the viewer follow these men and others including Sam Watkins, Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Mary Chestnut and President Lincoln and Davis as they lived, fought and died at Manassas, Antinum, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Petersburg, Cold Harbor, The Wilderness and too many more to name. On April 9th 1865 Grant and Lee met one last time in the home parlor of Wilmer McLean at Appomattox Court House VA where Lee would surrender his army after four long years of fighting. Voiced by Garrison Keillor we even got to hear from Walt Wittman and Morgan Freeman brought the words of Fredrick Douglas to life, by doing so I learned new things about each man. Each episode is narrated by writer/historian David McCullough. Other historians to help us along this trip through time are Barbara J. Fields, Ed Bearss and Stephen B. Oates. We also got to hear from writer Shelby Foote (November 17, 1916-June 27, 2005) who seemed truly passionate about the war and when he spoke and gave us the history behind the story I just took it all in.

 The best thing about watching now (2015) is that with everything online I can look up what I just learned about these people & read the letters that I heard on the documentary. Letters by men who I had not known about before. For example the first episode ended with a beautiful letter written by Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife, Sarah. A week later he was killed at Manassas. If you haven't yet you should "google" him and read it for yourself.


This may be odd to “say’ but I was on the edge of my seat for the entire week, every moment of each episode was important to learn and incredible to watch.

The Civil War was bloody, horrific and one of the worst time periods in of nation’s history. The Film by Ken Burns is sad, beautiful and a great piece of art.  Even 25 years later it’s worth another look at, I know I want to watch again. In the end I wish I could learn every story of every man, woman and child who lived in the time of The Civil War



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