American Experience: Death and the Civil War, written and directed by Ric Burns, PBS, 2012, 90 minutes, $24.99
This latest Burns brother offering (Ric, not Ken) from PBS is based on Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust’s acclaimed 2008 book This Republic of Suffering, a morbidly fascinating treatise on the massive scale of death during the Civil War, the impact it had at the time and the long-term changes it wrought in American society. Faust drew her title from Frederick Law Olmsted’s description of watching Union casualties arrive at hospital ships on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862. “In this republic of suffering,” Olmsted wrote, “individuals do not often become very strongly marked in one’s mind.” Faust’s book and Burns’ film remedy that oversight, leaving us with strong impressions of individuals who faced death with uncommon grace and composure.
The documentary opens on one such soldier, Private James R. Montgomery of the 17th Mississippi Infantry. Mortally wounded by a Union shell at the May 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Va., Montgomery sat down to compose a remarkable letter to his father, in which he shared thoughts of his imminent death. Images of the bloodstained parchment fill the screen as the narrator recites the young soldier’s achingly candid sentiments. “I write to you because I knew you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son,” Montgomery opened. He went on to assure his father that his grave would be marked, should he choose to visit. “May we meet in Heaven,” the letter closes. But as happened to so many other casualties of this “first mass war of the modern age,” Montgomery’s body would go missing, lost amid the sea of Confederate and Union dead sharing the same earth.
“Nearly 2 ½ percent of the population would die in the conflict,” the narrator affirms, “an estimated 750,000 people in all, more than in all other American wars combined.” An equivalent percentage of today’s U.S. population would correlate to 7 million people. The scope and impact of such suffering is immense.
Between personality profiles, Burns conveys the mounting death toll with his signature pan-and-scan images of battlefields and bodies, overlaying the sounds of combat and listing the place, date, total casualties and deaths for each clash. Borrowing from Faust’s narrative structure, the film presents neatly defined segments on dying, burying, naming, honoring, accounting and remembering. Faust’s impeccable research also informs the film, which blends images of period photos, letters and literature with a haunting soundtrack and insight from a panel of notable historians, including Faust herself. The result is a sobering look at the war that rent the nation asunder, bound it together again and forever changed the way we look at death. “Everybody dies,” historian Mark Schantz summarizes. “Our mortality is assured. But the way we grapple with that reality changes over time.”