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Re-mastered The Civil War is going live

civil war poster

Most of us who channel surf – you know who you are – have a list. On that list is what some have called Shawshank movies. Named for The Shawshank Redemption, a Shawshank movie is any video that is so good that if encountered during surfing, it must be viewed to the end.

The Civil War by Ken Burns is that sort of video event. So good that if encountered by any self-respecting social studies teacher, it must be watched until the final minute. Forty million people watched the nine-part series when it first aired on PBS in 1990 and the Ken Burns love helped spark a Civil War craze. Millions purchased VHS copies of the series and the spin-off book. The film also made a star of Ken Burns.

The Civil War will be rebroadcast over five consecutive nights this week. The broadcast, which coincides with the 25th anniversary of the series’ initial broadcast in September 1990, will present for the first time a newly restored, high-definition version. This is also the first time the film will be seen with the same fidelity and framing as the negative that Burns and his co-cinematographers Allen Moore and Buddy Squires shot more than 25 years ago.


Be sure to set aside several hours each evening this week. And, yes, you should set your DVR. But isn’t it best watched live?

PBS has always done a great job of supporting teachers who use their resources and they continue that practice with The Civil War. You can find a ton of resources at the their site:

But we need to watch and use the film with a clear sense of the fact that The Civil War, like any secondary history source, is unintentionally and intentionally biased. James M. Lundberg, author of Thanks a Lot, Ken Burns, reminds us of this fact:

Watching the film, you might easily forget that one side was not fighting for, but against the very things that Burns claims the war so gloriously achieved. Confederates, you might need reminding after seeing it, were fighting not for the unification of the nation, but for its dissolution. Moreover, they were fighting for their independence from the United States in the name of slavery and the racial hierarchy that underlay it. Perhaps most disingenuously, the film’s cursory treatment of Reconstruction obscures the fact that the Civil War did not exactly end in April of 1865 with a few handshakes and a mutual appreciation for a war well fought. Instead, the war’s most important outcome—emancipation—produced a terrible and violent reckoning with the legacy of slavery that continued well into the 20th century.

Like many, Lundberg also questions the overuse of Shelby Foote as the primary talking head.

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.

Keeping this in mind, use the film and its resources as just one piece of your instructional design.

Resources outside of the PBS universe:

Find out more about the re-mastering process:

More about the sound track:

You might also like the recent Ken Burns iOS app that focuses on all of his documentaries but would be perfect for using The Civil War.

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