Civil War: The Untold Story, a New Five-Part Series on PBS

By Gerald D. Swick
3/27/2014 • HistoryNet

Civil War: The Untold Story from Great Divide Pictures (How the West was Lost) is a five-part series that will air on many PBS stations this year. Exact air dates vary from station to station, but most will begin running the series at the beginning of April. Click here to see which PBS stations will be broadcasting this outstanding program and projected debut dates.

Any program that calls itself Civil War: The Untold Story immediately begs the question, Which untold story within such a broad subject? Chris Wheeler, who wrote, produced, and directed the series, answered that question in a June 2013 HistoryNet interview: the series revolves around the war in the Western Theater (the Appalachians to the Mississippi Valley); the role of African Americans in securing their own freedom; the political concerns of Abraham Lincoln; and the effect of the war on civilians in the South.

HistoryNet’s senior editor, Gerald Swick, recently viewed the five-part series, including a sneak preview of the fifth episode that was held in a restored 1937 movie theater in Franklin, Tennessee, a town that witnessed some of the bloodiest hours of the war. Similar previews are being held at select theaters in other states.

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Civil War: The Untold Story deserves a spot among the top documentaries on that war. Its cinematography is excellent. The use of CGI is limited, but the scene of Union gunboats steaming down the Tennessee River is both dramatic and beautiful.

Battle scenes are intense and do a good job of communicating the varied terrain on which individual battles were fought, from Fort Donelson to Vicksburg to Atlanta and beyond. The sections on Chattanooga and Kennesaw Mountain give viewers a very good idea of the steep slopes up which Union troops had to advance into Confederate fire. The shots from behind earthworks depict clearly why frontal attacks were suicidal and show the hazards soldiers faced daily from sharpshooters when two armies entrenched close to each other. The reenactments of hospital scenes and wounded on the battlefields give visual proof of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s statement, “War is cruelty and there is no use trying to reform it.” Some viewers may find the battle scenes and those of the aftermath unsettling.

Elizabeth McGovern
Elizabeth McGovern
Serving as counterpoint to this carnage is the soothing voice of the narrator, Elizabeth McGovern, known to millions of Downton Abbey fans as Cora, Countess of Grantham. The music that plays softly in the background is also gentle and beautiful.

The historians who serve as commentators do an excellent job of presenting information, much of which will surprise viewers. (For example, an anti-war Democrat who had been exiled from Ohio ran a campaign from Canada, seeking to become Ohio’s governor in the 1864 elections.)

The battle scenes are so engrossing that at times I found myself impatient to get on to the next fight whenever the series veered away to cover other aspects of the war. But the series covers those other aspects effectively as well. Situation maps clearly show the geographic challenges of defending or conquering such a large area. Little-known information is offered about slaves who freed themselves with their own two feet and tried to create communities in the “contraband camps” the Union armies were forced to set up when confronted unexpectedly with thousands of runaway slaves.

The overarching “untold” aspect of series is that it covers the Western Theater of Operations. One of the commentators, Amy Murrell Taylor, associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky, states, “You could argue (the war) was won in the West … To understand how the war affected people you must understand what happened in the West.”

Eric A. Jacobson, historian, Battle of Franklin Trust, points out that the Mississippi Valley was the most important economic route through America; Union leaders realized victory required taking the war beyond the Appalachians.

For most of the war’s four years, Union successes in the West were the only good news sustaining Northern morale. One of the most telling maps comes in the fourth episode, showing the location of the armies in Virginia in 1864, still fighting over the same ground they were contesting at the beginning of the war, while the Western Theater shows Union forces there had advanced hundreds of miles. Without the victories of the Western Theater, it is doubtful Lincoln could have kept sufficient support for the war.

This theme is a welcome change of pace from documentaries’ well-trod ground of the Virginia-Maryland-Pennsylvania theater of operations. Each of the major eastern battles is also mentioned within the chronology of the series in order to give context, but they are summarized quickly.


Confederates advance up Snodgrass Hill during the Battle of Chickamauga. Photo by Justin Koehler
Confederates advance up Snodgrass Hill during the Battle of Chickamauga. Photo by Justin Koehler
Among the battles depicted, Shiloh, in Tennessee, captures the fear of surprised, green Union soldiers fleeing in front of the Confederate tidal wave, and the commentators throw in details not usually mentioned.

Armies of both sides are shown creating the trench works that would surround Vicksburg. To help explain the importance of capturing Vicksburg, Mississippi, high on its bluffs above “the Father of Waters,” viewers are told Indiana’s governor warned Lincoln Indiana would vote to secede if the Mississippi River wasn’t reopened.

At Chickamauga, much of the confused, close-quarters fighting takes place in woods. In discussing the all-Scandinavian 15th Michigan Regiment, the program explains that about 25% of the Union army was comprised of immigrants. The United States was the last remaining democracy in the world at the time; all other experiments had failed or were brutally crushed. Europe was watching closely to see—to quote Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—“whether this nation or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, could long endure.”

The depiction of the Union attack near Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, shows all too well what soldiers of 1864 already knew: attacking prepared works, especially upslope, was a very, very bad idea.

Slavery, Contrabands and Black Soldiers
Early in the first episode, the subject of slavery and its role in splitting apart the nation is examined. The points made in the narration and among the commentators attempt to explain the Peculiar Institution in ways that help viewers to understand it from a mid-19th century perspective. Among the problems slavery presented for Northern states was that those states were “very white supremist,” and slavery brought blacks into America, for example. Jefferson Davis maintained slavery had become the basis of world commerce and civilization. The South’s desire to expand slavery into new territories, more so than its existence where it already was, fueled the pro- and anti-slavery divisions that tore the country apart. This segment was one of the best and most balanced discussions of the subject of slavery I’ve come across in Civil War documentaries. I wish it focused more on slavery and attitudes toward it among the western states (South and North), in keeping with its war in the West theme, however.

Runaway slaves during the war forced Lincoln and his commanders to answer questions that hadn’t been considered in the original mission to preserve the Union. General Benjamin Butler, hearing some runaways describe how they were forced to build defenses for the Confederacy, termed such runaways “contraband” and declared they did not have to be returned because they were part of the Confederate war effort. Later, Lincoln took that same view in his Emancipation Proclamation. Word of the proclamation spread rapidly among slaves, leading thousands to leave their bondage and seek protection behind Union lines.

Emma Stephenson, emancipated slave who volunteered as a nurse with Sherman's Army.
Emma Stephenson, emancipated slave who volunteered as a nurse with Sherman's Army.
What to do with such large numbers of people in need of shelter and food was another problem Northern leaders hadn’t contemplated, but the program shows that, around Corinth at least, the contrabands solved those problems for themselves—until their community was uprooted. The story of those who fled slavery isn’t always a happy one: the program tells about Ebenezer Creek in Georgia, where Sherman’s officers cut the pontoon bridges, stranding 5,000 black refugees. General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry soon arrived. Some of the refugees reportedly were shot; some drowned in the creek’s icy waters; the rest were returned to their masters.

Eventually manpower needs and political pressures opened the ranks of the U.S. military to segregated black regiments, known as Colored Troops or Regiments of African Descent. The program mentions some of their battles, with special focus on Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana and Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

Others served in other ways. The series tells the story of Emma Stephenson. Born a slave and liberated by advancing Union troops, she attached herself to Sherman’s army, serving as a nurse.

Except for some raids and a couple of major invasions of the North, the war was fought on Southern soil. Southern homes and businesses were burned, women and children came under artillery and rifle fire, livestock was seized to feed or equip armies of both sides. Within The Untold Story actors and actresses portray common people of the South whose letters and diaries survived to tell their stories.

A mother in Vicksburg huddles in a cave, shielding her child as dirt falls from the ceiling when shells explode outside. Union troops pillage a humble cabin, home to a widow and her children, stealing what they want and trashing the rest. A husband in the Confederate army sends letters to his wife expressing his love and longing for her.

Sins of Omission
As stated earlier, Civil War: The Untold Story is very well done. The acting is generally credible, the battle scenes believable, the stories of civilians, both white and black, are informative. Even history buffs who are well informed about the war in the Western Theater will learn some new things. And, as a friend who watched the first episode with me said, “They pulled out all the stops for the cinematography.”

My only complaints are sins of omission. In telling any historical story, decisions have to be made about what to keep in and what to leave out. In this case, the capture of both Nashville and New Orleans in 1862 merit only a few seconds’ mention, as does the Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro). Hoover’s Gap, Tennessee, is overlooked entirely, despite the fact it was the fight that convinced Lincoln’s War Department repeaters were more than just a tool for wasting ammunition; it also opened the door to maneuver Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army out of Tennessee in 1863. Viewers may quibble over whether these and a few other events merited more attention, but Civil War: The Untold Story is definitely worth watching—all five hours of it.

Sneak previews are being held at theaters in about two dozen communities. If one comes within driving distance of where you live, don’t miss the opportunity to see an episode on the big screen.

Click here to watch an out-take of Civil War The Untold Story on vemio.

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