Ruminations on Ken Burn’s “The Civil War”

27 years after its first airing, I have some thoughts

Last night, I was re-watching Ken Burns’s The Civil War on Netflix. I feel It holds up reasonably well after 27 years, even by today’s standards. What sticks out at me about the Civil War in Burns’s telling:

  1. For the South the war was about maintaining slavery. For the North it was about preserving the Union and not permitting secession. Neither side, in the beginning, had the interests of slaves in mind.
  2. When I studied reconstruction in school, it was almost exclusively about how white Northerners and white Southerners interacted and mended fences following war. The desires, hopes and equitable futures of black people were of little interest or fascination. The tone was as though black people were children and white people were the adults in the room. Former slaves certainly were not consulted much about what they’d like to see from a new America during reconstruction. Frederick Douglass is usually mentioned, but reconstruction, as taught, was primarily a white man’s affair with white men’s rules and agreements.
  3. While in school, I didn’t consider this. I’m white. I put myself in the shoes of white soldiers and leaders. When you cannot dream of yourself enslaved- because you would not have been- it’s easy to feel as though the moral dilemmas and military tactics of whites are of greatest importance during the war. It misses a significant facet.
  4. The rage that the North and South felt toward one another was even greater than that between liberals and conservatives today. When slavery ended, there was little support for former slaves. Rather, there was a southern attitude commensurate with being forced to change things that they did not want to change. “We freed them like you asked. Don’t blame us if they can’t succeed” remains a smug platitude that overlooks a whole set of circumstances. We are still fighting this war.

Why can’t I like General Lee anymore?

I feel that a person should not feel guilty about what fascinates them. If a person is naturally interested in Robert E. Lee and the cause of the South, and less interested in slavery and the plight of black people during the 19th century, those are their interests. Study away!

Be fascinated, but think holistically. The way we interpret history continuously changes. I’ve been raised with a white narrative of the Civil War. Black people are finally having 150 years of perspectives heard in the marketplace of ideas. That’s why many white people are defensive. Being angry and offended is part of being challenged by new and different information that we were not taught as children, or as part of the national myth. Information that contradicts what we have “always known” and always felt is difficult.

Once we finish arguing and being offended, new and different perspectives are quite fascinating. There is a lot to digest and think about. The national dialogue has opened up new ways of studying old subjects, like Robert E Lee. Studying history and preserving a myth are two separate things. We must be clear about what we are doing.

The amends made were among white people.

America has long been held together by the thought that the North and South made amends after the Civil War, and that both sides were empathetic and saw the other’s point of view even if they did not agree. And, perhaps this is true to some extent — white Southerners could understand white northerners wishing to preserve the Union; white northerners came to understand that white Southerners thought they were doing right by their families and communities. White people could assume that everybody intended the best and forgave their one-time enemies. So, there was peace… as long as the role of black people in American society wasn’t discussed as the primary factor for the war, or as something that required time, money, and action afterword. Instead, both sides were allowed to keep their heroes and traditions and ultimately their thinking. It did not hurt white Northerners to let white Southerners continue to be racist.

Simply, what’s missing entirely from the “forgive, understand and forget” narrative are black people. Forget them, and white men can shake hands. Insert them, and any peace becomes uncomfortable and capable of re-igniting the hostility. Imagine if the north pushed back hard on Jim Crow and segregation, or pushed for greater inclusivity at the time. There was turmoil and disgust a hundred years later, with the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

Anyway, that’s what I’m considering this evening, based on what I’m learning and forever limited by my knowledge of history.