VIENNA,Va., September 15, 2012 — If Public Broadcasting has a crown, the “American Experience” is surely the brightest jewel in that crown. Now comes its latest production Death and the Civil War, promising to be one of the best moments on TV’s “vast wasteland.”
It will air on Tuesday, September 18, from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. on local PBS stations. Directed and produced by Ric Burns, brother of acclaimed documentarian artist Ken Burns of The Civil War series, Burns is recognized in his own right for his work on Coney Island, The Donner Party, The Way West, amongst other standouts.
The timing was designed to fit in with the 150th Anniversary of the War and specifically to coincide with the commemoration of the Battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, said to be the single bloodiest day in history with the deaths in the astronomical figures.
To understand the premise of the film, one must travel backward in time to the Civil War itself, which began basically as a fairly bloodless one, but the soon rising totals of dead changed all that.
Imagine a time when there was no civil ambulance corps; when few funeral homes could accommodate war deaths; when battlefield hospitals were totally inadequate, not to mention doctors who had never treated a war wound.
Once the enormity of the problem began to come eerily home to Americans and what were eventually the heroic efforts on the part of individuals and groups to face this, the federal government soon recognized that it had to find a way to deal with the new problems.
Now carry it one step further: Before the Civil War, there were no national cemeteries in the country and no way of notifying next of kin and families of the deaths of loved ones. No relief organizations existed and there was no Veterans Administration to provide relief to those who came home, wounded but alive.
There were no federal hospitals and no federal provision for burying the dead. As “American Experience” succinctly states, “No Arlington Cemetery. No Memorial Day.”
As groups stepped into the breach, the old classifications remained. All 30,000 black soldiers were laid to rest in plots identified as “colored.” The war may have ended slavery, but their second-class, segregated status would continue for another 100 years in some respects.
Any funds advanced by the government to stricken families went only to those of Union dead. It was as though the Southern dead had truly ceased to exist and deserved nothing. It was a war in which only one side mattered, the winners.
History is replete with stories of the numerous women’s organizations, widows and other women, who came together and literally went to the battlefields and physically brought the bodies of their loved ones home for burial. And then dug the graves and buried them.
President Lincoln may have spoken of bringing the country together, of binding up old wounds, but the treatment by the Union government toward the Southerners made those words meaningless. Remembering the old Southern rallying cry of “Forget? Hell!”, one only has to think of the thousands of abandoned Confederate bodies to understand the degree of resurgence which overtook the South after the War.
The production features numerous experts in the subject field: Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard University; David W. Blight, a professor of American History at Yale; J. David Hacker an Associate Professor of History at Binghamton University, SUNY; Vincent Brown, a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard, and several others.
Since women played such an integral role in this post-war work, it is good that Drew Gilpin Faust at least is there to theoretically represent the distaff side, and she does hail from Virginia. This puts her in direct opposition to the majority, all of whom are distinctly Northern in background. Dr. Faust has always been able to hold her own, and we have no doubt she can do so in this context as she speaks about the War.
The series employs some of the elements of earlier Ken Burns series, utilizing the words of the dying men and the obligatory quote from Walt Whitman. The well-chosen music is not the usual pseudo-genuine folk music, but quietly soothing as befits the subject matter of death.
What could have been a daunting task has been ably handled by “American Experience,” and Ric Burns, covering a grisly and depressing subject matter, holds the audience’s interest rather than driving it away.
And as your grandmother might have said, “Have a hanky handy.”
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