Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review: Death And The Civil War

Death and the Civil War
American Experience,
PBS, 8.p.m. ET, Tuesday September 18, 2012

During secession debates in North Carolina secession supporter, Abraham W. Venable, declared he would “wipe up every drop of blood shed in the war with this handkerchief of mine.”  Shortly thereafter at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861 Confederate forces fired on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.  And the war came.

One hundred and fifty years later, the Civil War still remains as America’s bloodiest conflict.  When the war began hopes were high on both sides it would be a short and decisive, bloodless conflict.  No one could have ever imagined on the morning of April 13th that the war would rage on for four bloody years, and an estimated 620,000 American men in uniform, North and South would die in the conflict.  The Civil War would cost more American lives than all other American wars combined from the Revolution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The combined military and civilian casualties of the Civil War is estimated at approximately 750,000.  With a loss of nearly 2½ percent of its population, death at such an unparalleled rate dramatically changed the country, and its transformation is the subject of the latest episode of PBS’s award winning documentary series American Experience.

Death and the Civil War, by acclaimed filmmaker Ric Burns, premiers 8 p.m. Easter Time, Tuesday, September 18, 2012.  The film is based largely on Drew Gilpin Faust’s 2008 book This Republic of Suffering, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Among Burns’ credit is the 1990 Emmy Award winning, and critically acclaimed PBS documentary, The Civil War, which he co-produced with his brother, Ken.  Death and the Civil War uses many of the same story-telling techniques as its predecessor: close-ups and pan-and-scans of period photographs, with narration and music in the background, interspersed with interviews of historians setting all into context.  A new element has also been added to what is now termed the “Ken Burns effect,” which is the inclusion of personal effects, such as picture frames and furniture into the shots, which gives the documentary a warmer, more personalized feel to it.

Burns’ film follows the war through its early stages in 1861 when the casualties were low, but when the awful carnage and bloodletting on the Tennessee River during the Battle of Shiloh occur on April 6th & 7th of 1862, it is apparent that the United States Government was not prepared for the vast number of casualties by which the combination of Napoleonic tactics and modern weaponry would inflict upon the Union and Confederate armies.  There were no organized hospitals, no ambulance service, no method of identification, nothing put in place for the notification of families, no national cemeteries, no policy at all for the burial of servicemen killed in the line of duty.

As the human carnage mounted through Antietam and Gettysburg to the killing fields around Petersburg, the documentary highlights the efforts of Clara Barton, who went on to found the American Red Cross, and the U. S. Sanitary Commission, as well as private relief efforts of those in the south to care for the wounded and dying; as well as the establishment of the ambulance corps.  After the war, the establishment and the reburial of the union dead national cemeteries is covered, as well as the Confederate dead in local or private cemeteries.  Lastly the film traces the beginnings of Decoration Day, or what is today better known as Memorial Day.

Among the historians interviewed are Drew Gilpin Faust, David W. Blight, Vincent Brown, J. David Hacker and Mark S. Schantz; also interviewed are author Thomas Lynch, Admiral Mike Mullen and Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George F. Will.

Death and the Civil War is a haunting, sobering documentary.  Gorgeously photographed and accompanied with an elegiac soundtrack.  It is a must watch for students of the American Civil War and fans of its predecessor, The Civil War, to which it serves appropriately as its epilogue.

You may purchase the purchase the original soundtrack to  "Death and the Civil War" HERE.  CD $16.98, MP3 Album download $9.99 or single tracks at 99 cents each.

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