PBS film looks at war’s unimaginable toll
CIVIL WAR DOCUMENTARY INCLUDES LOCAL IMAGES AND STORIES
Filmmaker Ric Burns examines a nation haunted by the war, in powerful ‘American Experience’ movie
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
At 8 o’clock tonight, PBS’ “American Experience” premières a history documentary that confronts a central fact of the Civil War era: human loss on an unimaginable scale.
Much as Alexander Gardner’s photographs of unburied soldiers at Antietam made that toll vivid and real for visitors to Mathew Brady’s New York studio 150 years ago, “Death and the Civil War” brings home the most common shared experience of the conflict.
The documentary by filmmaker Ric Burns looks at how Americans then coped with the casualties—and how their suffering changed the nation in ways that still reverberate.
The war killed 2.5 percent of America’s population—750,000 soldiers, Blue and Gray, more men than were lost in all of its other wars combined—the equivalent of 7 million people in our country today. Yet the nation had no proper graveyards for those fallen, no communal way to honor their sacrifice, no sense of obligation to reclaim and bury their corpses.
But that’s the story writ large.
Burns starts his documentary with one small but unforgettable story from the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Narrator Oliver Pratt reads the last letter of Pvt. James Robert Montgomery, with Company A of the 11th Mississippi Infantry, written from the battlefield on May 10, 1864.
The viewer hears Montgomery’s words and sees his blood-spotted stationery, as the young soldier informs his father, Allen, that he has been mortally wounded.
“I know you would be delighted to receive this from your dying son,” Montgomery wrote before asking that his body be re-interred in his home state.
Montgomery’s grave was carefully marked, and a friend ensured that his last words made their way home to his family in Mississippi. But the private’s body was never found. It likely remains, somewhere, in Spotsylvania’s hallowed ground.
“That letter is astonishing,” Burns said in an interview. “Montgomery is making his own funeral arrangements, notifying his own next of kin improvising his own ‘good death.’
“He is assuring his father that he is at peace, trying to establish a connection with his moment of death that can’t take place in person. His father and family can’t surround his deathbed.”
The immense carnage of the Civil War, happening on distant fields far from family, deprived millions of that precious last instant, that understanding, that was so critical to 19th-century Americans and their faith.
“We felt it was very important to start the film with that experience, not an idea,” Burns said. “It goes from there to describe how Americans, individually and collectively, struggled with these overwhelming experiences—on a scale that was completely unprecedented.”
Unlike Montgomery’s father, most family members probably wouldn’t know anything about how their loved ones died, Burns said. Some 40 percent of the war’s dead are unknown, he noted.
Yet the Montgomery letter, Burns said, was the perfect way to begin the two-hour documentary, which features commentary by historians David Blight, Mark Schantz, David Hacker and Vincent Brown, poet–undertaker Thomas Lynch and journalist George F. Will.
The filmmaker also interviewed Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, author of “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” the 2008 best-selling book on which the film is based.
“Her work has two signal qualities—it is deeply sorrowful and makes you think,” said Burns, who praised his collaborator for her scholarship and sensitivity.
He and his team at Steeplechase Films were motivated to “honor those two striking features,” he said.
Burns said he dived into the project three years ago, soon after hearing about Faust’s book from PBS producer Mark Samels, who urged him to read it.
Burns had waited 20 years to tackle the topic again after “The Civil War,” the ground-breaking 1990 series he crafted with his brother Ken. Since then, he had examined diverse subjects—Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, Coney Island, the whaling industry. His eight-part series “New York: A Documentary Film” won a pair of Emmy Awards.
But after declining many offers to revisit the war, Burns said, he found Faust’s book to be irresistible. In trying to translate Faust’s words to the screen, Burns said, he was struck that kindness, in the worst of times, sometimes came alongside the 1860s’ savagery.
“I hope the film speaks to many things that are still alive,” he said, “that people can feel how close we are to the Civil War.”
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029
LOCAL SCENES FEATURED
“Death and the Civil War,” airing at 8 tonight on PBS, relies on archival images and letters to weave its tales of human dignity amid the horrors of battle. Scenes were filmed at many locations, including Petersburg, the Pentagon, and Hollywood Cemetery and the White House of the Confederacy, both in Richmond.
Viewers will see some familiar photos, but countless more that have never been screened before. Some of the most interesting ones were shot by photographers in the Fredericksburg area, where 100,000 fell in four major battles, making it the most blood-soaked place in the entire Civil War.
You’ll see Andrew J. Russell’s famous 1863 wet-plate image of a dead Confederate soldier lying on Sunken Road after the Second Battle of Fredericksburg. In another photo, African–Americans bury a row of dead soldiers in what are now the streets of Fredericksburg.
In a third, shot 150 years ago last month—well before President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation—a group of formerly enslaved people slaves flees across the Rappahannock River to an uncertain freedom. That event will be re-enacted this Saturday. See http://thequestforhistory.blogspot.com/