Civil-War Sentimentalism

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

James M. Lundberg on Ken Burns and Shelby Foote:


Too often, Foote's grand pronouncements and anecdotes become substitutes for more serious consideration of difficult historical dynamics. In the first episode, "The Cause," Foote nearly negates Burns' careful 15-minute portrait of slavery's role in the coming of the war with a 15-second story of a "single, ragged Confederate who obviously didn't own any slaves." When asked by a group of Yankee soldiers why he was fighting, the Rebel replied, "I'm fighting because you're down here," which, according to a smirking Foote, "was a pretty satisfactory answer." In similar fashion throughout, 

Foote asks us to put aside the very troubled political meanings of the Confederate Lost Cause and join him in an appreciation of both its courtly leaders and its defiant rank-and-file soldiers. Foote's powerful and affecting presence in the film would be less problematic if he shared airtime more equally with other talking heads. However, as he gets the starring role and the literal last word of the film, Foote creates an irresolvable tension at its center. As much as we want to remember the Civil War as a war for freedom, emancipation, and the full realization of American ideals, there is Foote calling us into the mythical world of the Confederacy and the Old South in spite of all they stood for. 

Make no mistake, Burns' Civil War is a monumental achievement that has done incredible service in making this history appealing and accessible to wide audiences. I'm grateful to Burns for the full classrooms he's given me. But as we revisit the history of the war on its 150th anniversary I wonder if we might move beyond the version of story that goes so well with the "Ashokan Farewell." If Ken Burns created an endlessly compelling vision of heroism and reunion amidst the profound cultural divisions of the early 1990s, what kinds of stories about the war will we now tell ourselves as those very divisions persist, in spite of Ken Burns' best efforts?

I think the biggest failing of the movie, is that, as Cynic once said, it never comes across a cute quote that it doesn't like. This goes beyond actual quotes to an aesthetic of perfectly geometric story-telling. Thus you end up with Ken Burns endorsing the false claim offered in that Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/civil-war-sentimentalism/240082/