How does the iconic PBS series measure up three decades on?

Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War has reached a larger audience and generated more interest in the subject than any book, theatrical film, or other influence in the past 50 years. First broadcast on PBS stations in 1990 and frequently re-aired ever since, it also appeared in a digitally restored 25th anniversary version with additional material of various kinds. Most viewers have responded positively to the series, though they often disagree about such things as Burns’ relative treatment of the Union and the Confederacy, the degree to which he highlighted slavery as a cause of secession, and whether he glorified war by emphasizing the bravery and devotion of common soldiers on both sides.

Academic historians have focused much of their criticism on whether Burns spent inordinate time on military campaigns and thereby obscured more important social, political, and cultural issues—especially those related to African Americans, slavery, and emancipation. In the chronological procession of battles and generals, many academics have argued, viewers probably missed the broader context within which the armies contended for supremacy. Agreeing with others who voiced unhappiness with Burns’ “conception of the Civil War as a history of war,” one scholar quoted with thinly disguised sarcasm the filmmaker’s statement that “‘only’ 40 percent of the eleven hours depicted battles.” More recently, another academic claimed, with obvious disapprobation, that Burns adopted a “general focus” for the series that relied on a perception of the conflict centered “almost solely on military history.”

I think Burns strikes a reasonable balance between military and nonmilitary coverage. In teaching my own lecture course on the Civil War at Penn State University and then the University of Virginia for more than 30 years, I allocated about 40 percent of my time to military affairs. It is important to remember that Burns’ subject was a mammoth war that unfolded over four years. Avoiding chronological narrative and muting the role of armies would render the experience of 1861-65 less intelligible to nonspecialists. In fact, any documentary about the Civil War that failed to place military events at least close to center stage would itself be open to charges of distortion.

How sound, however, is Burns’ treatment of military matters? Many parts of The Civil War betray a curious ignorance of modern scholarship. For example, the first episode stresses the North’s industrial capacity and vast pool of manpower and concludes that “the odds against a Southern victory were long.” True as far as it goes, this approach overlooks important Confederate advantages that evened the initial balance sheet. Burns’ appraisal of resources drapes a mantle of hopelessness over the Confederate resistance, echoing Lost Cause writers who attributed Confederate defeat to the enemy’s material strength and larger population.

Other passages reinforce the initial image of badly outnumbered Confederates, as when Burns describes Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on June 26, 1862, as a “tiny force” facing a juggernaut in George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. The ensuing Seven Days Battles assume the character of an underdog Rebel force vanquishing a much larger opponent—a conception at odds with the facts. By the end of June, Lee commanded approximately 90,000 soldiers in the largest army ever fielded by the Confederacy. Far from a mismatch, the Seven Days featured roughly equal antagonists fighting on Confederate home ground.

The most obvious shortcoming of Burns’ military coverage concerns geographical imbalance. His war is preeminently a struggle between the famous armies that operated in the Eastern Theater. As I have written in earlier Insight columns, I believe that events in the East, for a number of reasons, did overshadow those beyond the Appalachians. But other scholars dispute the primacy of the Eastern Theater—something largely absent from Burns’ series.

The Civil War reinforces the common misconception that Gettysburg towered over all other campaigns. Burns lavishes nearly 45 minutes on Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania versus fewer than 11 on the maneuvering and combat between December 1862 and July 1863 that settled Vicksburg’s fate. Treatment of other operations reflects the same bias. Lee’s march into Maryland and the Battle of Antietam receive 25 minutes, equivalent movements into Kentucky by Confederate forces under Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith only fleeting attention. Similarly, Burns allocates a 12-minute section to Lee’s battle at Fredericksburg in December 1862, while the clash at Murfreesboro, a much bloodier Western counterpart fought two and a half weeks later, winks past viewers in less than a minute.

The Trans-Mississippi Theater fares worst of all. Burns disregards Pea Ridge and Wilson’s Creek (except for mentioning casualties at the latter), battles that helped decide the fate of Missouri. Viewers also learn nothing about Nathaniel P. Banks’ Federal advance up the Red River in the spring of 1864, Confederate General Sterling Price’s raid into Missouri later that year, and other noteworthy, though not decisive, military events farther west of the Mississippi.

Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman rightly dominate Burns’ cast of generals, yet nowhere does the series take up questions about Lee’s generalship that have inspired vigorous debate over many decades. And the Union’s military effort in the West belongs almost exclusively to Grant and Sherman. John Frémont, Don Carlos Buell, and William Rosecrans all held important Western commands but play only the smallest of bit parts. The most obvious omission concerns Henry Halleck, whom Burns casts briefly as a jealous administrator hoping to push Grant aside after Shiloh. On the Confederate side, viewers might infer that Nathan Bedford Forrest—a favorite of talking head Shelby Foote—ranked as the most important officer in the West. His appearances in the series, quite remarkably, outnumber those of Braxton Bragg, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, P. G. T. Beauregard, and others who led Southern armies during major campaigns.

Also absent from the documentary is a well-developed sense of how profoundly military affairs affected, and were affected by, politics, the process of emancipation, and other aspects of the conflict. Too often, campaigns and battles seem to occur in isolation—something impossible in a contest between two democratic republics at war.

I applaud Burns for applying his narrative gifts to a monumental and potentially controversial subject. My disappointment stems from a sense of missed opportunity. The filmmaker chose to maneuver comfortably along well-trodden paths, serving up military campaigns and leaders in familiar interpretive garb and never really challenging his viewers.