Following on from my previous post on Yugoslavia and Milosevic, another documentary we watched in 2018 was Ken Burns: The Civil War, focusing on the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865. Over 11 hours in duration, it is very very detailed, and not for the faint-hearted.
Using the power of photography as its base, the series graphically details each stage of the war, and really connects you to the stories of the politicians, soldiers and civilians involved in a conflict based on a man’s right to own slaves – or not.
And if you are wondering why it began in 1861, or the 12th of April 1861 to be precise, this date was only a few short months after the election of Abraham Lincoln on the 6th of November 1860. Lincoln ran on a platform “opposed [to] the expansion of slavery into the territories”, and with his election, the Southern States began to secede from the Union – the first being South Carolina on the 20th of December 1860. By the time of his inauguration on the 4th of March 1961, 7 states had already ceded, and less than 6 weeks later the first shots were fired.
Interestingly, Lincoln wasn’t opposed to slavery in its entirety at first, the full quote (shown partially above) should actually read as: “he opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories but did not favor the abolition of slavery in slave states”. Clearly, even a partial anti-slavery policy was enough for the Southern States to turn their back on the Union.
My key takeaway from the series was the ‘Lost Cause of the Confederacy’. This ideology teaches people that the war was not about slavery, but that it was about ‘states’ rights’. One could argue, however wrong, that such a nostalgic revisionist history of the war might help a group of people deal with the realities of being on the losing side of a war where between 620,000 and 750,000 people died, with much of the South’s infrastructure destroyed.
Oddly (you might think), this ideology didn’t gain much traction until the 1890s when the Civil War generation was starting to die out, and when the United Daughters of the Confederacy was formed. One of their keys aims was to erect monuments and memorials to Civil War generals, and their success with this, and other initiatives, helped to propagate the Lost Cause myth throughout the 20th century.
Learning about the Lost Cause helped me to understand recent events and protests about the use of confederate statues and flags in the Southern United States. One group views the objects as symbolic of oppression and the rise of white supremacy, the other group co-opts the objects into symbols of their ‘righteous fight’ against change, and their desire to recapture what once was.
If you would like learn more, and please do, the programme is currently available on Amazon Prime (it was on Netflix in 2018). And to whet your historical appetite, you can find the first episode on YouTube:
If historial fiction is more your bag, then I would thoroughly recommend Gettysburg. It is fantastic and harrowing and has a brilliant cast, and it is definitely not as jingoistic as the trailer suggests. Go watch: