Fall TV Preview: Ric Burns on a nation haunted by the Civil War

It’s a pretty autumn day on an Ohio farm, and the leaves are changing into red, yellow and deeper shades of green. Apples ripen; grapes hang on vines. It’s just rained, and the air is clear as a letter arrives from the farm family’s son, Pete, who’s been away at war. His brother calls to their father to come up from the fields to read it, and the boy’s mother hurries over too.

A glance shows the parents that the letter was not written by their son. It recounts the boy’s wounding, in a gunshot to the chest, with a reassurance that he “will soon be better.” Though they have no way of knowing it, by the time they’re finished reading the note, autumn leaves fluttering around them, their son is already dead.

The scene itself is fictional, sketched in Walt Whitman’s poem “Come Up From the Fields, Father,” but it describes a reality lived by tens of thousands of families, North and South, during the Civil War. Approximately 750,000 soldiers died in the war, more casualties than the United States experienced in the Revolutionary War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam and all other American wars combined: (With about 21/2 % of the population dead, that makes it the equivalent of 7 million in today’s terms.)

And these occurred in a traditional, heavily Protestant nation that had a firm set of rites and rituals for making sense of death, none of which included falling many miles from home, far from family, last words unrecorded. Roughly half the dead were never identified (and two-thirds of dead black soldiers), the bodies buried anonymously.

Historians have long known about the enormity of these numbers. But, says Ric Burns, the almost cherubic documentary filmmaker, Americans tended to look at the war in other terms.


“Brother against brother, eventual reconciliation, emancipation, seemed to dominate our sense of things,” he says, speaking passionately at a press gathering this summer in Beverly Hills. “Even white supremacists have a narrative. But you don’t metabolize it as an American Armageddon,” or as death striking “three-quarters of a million mostly young Americans, under circumstances nobody was prepared for — spiritually, medically, governmentally.”

We typically think of death as the end of something — our life on Earth, at least. But Burns’ grim, gripping documentary “Death and the Civil War,” which premieres on PBS on Sept.18, strongly suggests that the war’s great charnel house not only changed society’s view of war and death but helped create a new kind of nation as well.

The two-hour documentary does not diverge radically from what we expect from Ric Burns or his brother Ken, who worked together on the 1990 PBS documentary “The Civil War”: sepia-toned, pan-and-zoom photographs, copious narration and the reading of old letters, scholarly talking heads and acoustic music. Still, its point of view on this familiar period feels fresh.

Deaths’ meaning

Ric Burns was led to this territory by a powerful book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War” by historian Drew Gilpin Faust. It was Faust, the president of Harvard University, who took familiar casualty numbers — the estimates have since been revised upward, using census records — and found a way to coax out their meaning.

While reading letters and diaries for an earlier book, on Southern women during the war, Faust says by phone, “I kept being struck by how much they talked about death.”

And Faust realized that she needed to look at these deaths through 19th century eyes, to get a sense of their meaning. What did the death of a large proportion of the Southern white men of military age — now thought by some historians to be close to 1 in 3 — do to bedrock assumptions about the world? “What did it make them think,” she asks, “about the possibility of a benevolent God?”

The widespread killing and the lack of what the Victorians called a Good Death made people rethink the value of human life, the notion of citizenship and the social contract. The huge number of dead, and the need to identify, count and bury them led to a much greater centralization in a nation whose government had been, in years past, mostly implemented by the states.

“The bureaucracy that was necessary to deliver on the promise of the nation to its citizens was substantial,” Faust says. “Nobody would have imagined the government having that sort of scope or scale.” The Southern states had been trying to limit (and defy) the federal government’s growth; the war provoked by their secession inadvertently led to its massive expansion.

Documentary’s roots

When Faust’s 2008 book, a Pulitzer finalist that won the Bancroft Prize, fell into the hands of Mark Samels, who heads the PBS documentary series “American Experience,” things started to happen. He turned to Burns, who is well regarded for his “New York: A Documentary Film” and other work.

“This is phenomenal,” Burns says of the book. “It’s a subject hiding in plain sight. She stumbled on this massive, self-evident historical fact.”

And the shift in cultural values over those four short years fit the kind of thing Burns likes to tackle. “I think every project I’ve been drawn to involves something radically transformative — where something is altered entirely. It’s like Harry Dean Stanton, walking into the desert in ‘Paris, Texas.’ He’s a truly changed person.”

Although he knew some of the broad strokes — that the Battle of Antietam, for instance, with its 23,000 dead or wounded, was the single bloodiest day in American history — the framing gave him a new way of looking at the past and present.

Learning the human-scale details showed him what a shaping force mortality had been. He was struck, for instance, not just by the fact that 8,000 soldiers lay dead on the fields of Gettysburg after that July 1863 battle, but that months later, as the frost came, the town’s residents (vastly outnumbered by the deceased) still wore peppermint oil on their lips to disguise the horrible odor from those not fully buried.

The deaths could be difficult, as well, for the soldiers who survived. “You’ve just finished fighting the most horrific battle you can imagine,” Burns says. “And now, on an ad hoc basis, the commanding officers, still standing, say, ‘You, you and you — grab a shovel, throw some dirt over these guys, and if you can find out who they are, all the better.’”

War’s aftermath

The war’s chaos and confusion were so great that it wasn’t until afterward that a concerted effort could take place to count, name and properly bury the dead. It wasn’t easy — one team found, in the region between Vicksburg and Natchez, Miss., 40,000 bodies — in woods, river banks, backyards. Another team found a total of almost 115,000 bodies at various sites. Farmers elsewhere found dozens of bodies and fallen horses on their land.

In a sense, the commitment the soldiers had made to their nation — paying for their citizenship with their lives — was returned by a strengthened federal state, which created national cemeteries, a reliable ambulance corps and greater protection for soldiers that led, Burns argues, to the millions the government spends today searching for prisoners of war. Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address nodded in this direction.

“In some ways, the New Deal began on the fields of Gettysburg,” Burns says. “The government has a duty that is vastly enlarged. That if we were able to put down our lives for the government, it owed us something.”

But even after the war, death continued to exert itself on the American psyche, sometimes in corrosive ways. As the nation was doing its best to pull together, Southerners desecrated the graves of Union soldiers. Even more consequentially, the decision by the federal government to bury only Union dead resonated in the South for generations. In the 1890s, during a push for reconciliation, the federal government assisted in Confederate reburial. But that wound never fully healed.

“I don’t know how these things stay in the zeitgeist,” Burns says. “But these things are handed down, learned in communities — that either your government is your friend or it’s not. We live in a country with bifurcation at its heart.”

This sign of disrespect, laid over the unfathomable numbers of dead, changed the culture for everyone, especially the South with its staggering losses. Old men and freed blacks wandered through old battlefields, collecting bones for a dollar a bag. Legends of old Confederate soldiers — after wandering lost, for years, like Odysseus returning alive to their wives and families — spread through the countryside.

“We’ll try to, but never quite understand the psychic toll of that,” Burns says. “You take that many people out of a civilization, and you get a haunted society.”