I don’t think this is the first time I’ve linked to an article about just how horribly Ken Burns’ The Civil War has aged, since he chose to make good ol’ Shelby “Nathan Bedford Forrest is my hero” Foote the star of the series. But it’s good to revisit this when we can.
One of the first historians to appear is a Black woman, Barbara Fields, saying, “If there was a single event that caused the war, it was the establishment of the United States, in independence with Great Britain, with slavery still a part of its heritage.”
In the next clip, she is contradicted by Foote’s “failure to compromise” claim.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with two interviewees disagreeing — one might even call that balanced, responsible journalism. But then Foote keeps talking. And talking. And chuckling at his own jokes, pausing to smoke his pipe before talking some more. All told, Foote is on screen for nearly 46 minutes; Fields only eight and a half. Balanced it is not.
“You really get the feeling that Burns, for all of his incredible gifts as a filmmaker, he really kind of fell in love with Shelby Foote,” said James M. Lundberg, a Civil War historian who teaches at Notre Dame, in a phone interview with The Washington Post.
Foote’s screen time is dripping with Lost Cause fables as thick as his accent. Stonewall Jackson looks out over a gruesome battlefield, eating a peach. A Confederate private, on duty alone at night, has a conversation with an owl. And Nathan Bedford Forrest — a slave trader who oversaw the massacre of hundreds of Black soldiers at Fort Pillow and founded the Ku Klux Klan — is as much a genius as Abraham Lincoln, physically attractive, “born to be a soldier the way John Keats was born to be a poet.”
Historian Keri Leigh Merritt, who called for a new Civil War documentary series in 2019, is stunned by the flowery compliments bestowed on Forrest. “There’s no such thing as a good slaveholder, but there were slaveholders who were not horrifically violent. He was horrifically violent,” Merritt said in a phone interview. “And that was well-known at the time. That was well-documented. Both Foote and Burns clearly knew that.”
The problem is that this is what happens when nonprofessional historians make historical documentaries.
“If he, Ken Burns, and his co-writers had been trained … they would have learned that the people they were relying on for much of this history were in fact white supremacist, pro-Confederate, pro-Lost Cause men. White men,” Merritt said. The academy is generally a few decades ahead of popular culture, Merritt explained, and it was entirely possible to make a more accurate film in 1990 had they relied on other scholarship, such as that of W.E.B. Du Bois, Kenneth M. Stampp and Eric Foner.
Instead, the series suffers from an inappropriate presentation of “both sides.” Again, showing both sides is often a sign of responsible journalism. But the problem with the Lost Cause narrative is not just that it isn’t “woke” by today’s standards. It is also not true.
The attempt to splice together real and pseudo histories of the war is perhaps best encapsulated by the narrator’s thesis: “What began as a bitter dispute between union and states’ rights ended as a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America.”
Well, no. Something close to the reverse is true: What began as a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America was afterward whitewashed into a dispute over states’ rights.
Burns had no way of knowing what would happen the past few decades, but another refrain in the series — that the conflict united us in a way that we could never conceive of splitting again — rings hollow in these bitterly partisan times.
Historical training actually does mean something. Your Ron Chernows and your David McCulloughs and your Ken Burnses actually do a huge disservice to their readers by putting out misinformed analyses of the past. It’s not that one can’t write histories without a PhD. But one does have to understand how historians work, what the historical debates are, and rely on existing real historians to provide the analytical base that you are building on. I mean. McCullough has openly claimed that he doesn’t even have a thesis when he starts writing. And now, Native historians are spending tons of energy cleaning up the mess from his latest and pretty close to white supremacist book.