Rivets the Attention of the United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The broadcast, over five consecutive nights, of Ken Burns’s eleven-hour documentary The Civil War drew the largest audience in the history of public television to a masterful meditation on national identity.

Summary of Event

For five consecutive nights in September, 1990, an estimated thirty-nine million Americans were mesmerized by a television documentary broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Public Broadcasting Service The project, culled from 150 hours of footage, was a marvel of filmmaking and a triumph of public broadcasting. It took director, coproducer, cowriter, and cocinematographer Ken Burns five years to make The Civil War, longer than it took the North and the South to begin and conclude the Civil War itself. Civil War, The (television documentary) Television programs;The Civil War[Civil War] Television;documentaries [kw]Civil War Rivets the Attention of the United States, The (Sept. 23-27, 1990) Civil War, The (television documentary) Television programs;The Civil War[Civil War] Television;documentaries [g]North America;Sept. 23-27, 1990: The Civil War Rivets the Attention of the United States[07880] [g]United States;Sept. 23-27, 1990: The Civil War Rivets the Attention of the United States[07880] [c]Radio and television;Sept. 23-27, 1990: The Civil War Rivets the Attention of the United States[07880] Burns, Ken Foote, Shelby Burns, Ric Ward, Geoffrey C. McCullough, David

Eleven hours is a sizable investment of time, but no viewer would wish the program one minute shorter. “Our Iliad has found its Homer,” wrote critic George F. Will Will, George F. of the thirty-six-year-old Burns. Although each had won considerable acclaim, Burns’s earlier forays into American history—Brooklyn Bridge (1982), The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984), Huey Long (1985), The Statue of Liberty (1986), Thomas Hart Benton (1988), and The Congress (1989)—seemed in retrospect but rehearsals for his magisterial survey of and meditation on the most traumatic episode in U.S. history.

More than a million photographs were taken during the Civil War, and rather than rely on specious reenactments, Burns constructed his film almost entirely out of photographs of the era, using not only familiar stills shot by photographer Mathew B. Brady Brady, Mathew B. but also thousands of other pictures assembled from archives and attics. Photography;U.S. Civil War Many, such as a shot of Abraham Lincoln’s Lincoln, Abraham second inaugural address that was enlarged to reveal the face of John Wilkes Booth Booth, John Wilkes in the crowd, astonished even those who thought they knew the period. All lifted the Civil War out of mythic abstraction and into a dense historical moment. Viewers of The Civil War observed actual human beings, as though they were gazing at a family album.

The images on the screen—which also included lithographs, newspaper headlines, and newsreel footage of military reunions—were accompanied by voice-over quotations from letters, diaries, and other written testimony. The journals of southern belle Mary Chesnut Chesnut, Mary and New York lawyer George Templeton Strong Strong, George Templeton provided dramatically different vantage points. Burns re-created history from the bottom up, and although he offered engaging, and at times unexpected, portraits of political and military leaders such as Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and William Tecumseh Sherman, he also followed the fortunes of more obscure figures—in particular, two foot soldiers, one in blue and one in gray. Excerpts from a diary enabled viewers to trace the trajectory of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Rhodes, Elisha Hunt who left Rhode Island as a private in 1861 and returned as a colonel in 1865. The memoirs of Sam Watkins, Watkins, Sam a volunteer in Company H of the First Tennessee, bore witness to every major campaign fought in the western theater.

Burns’s choices of voices were especially inspired—not only professional actors Sam Waterston, Waterston, Sam Julie Harris, Harris, Julie Jason Robards, Robards, Jason Morgan Freeman, Freeman, Morgan Derek Jacobi, Jacobi, Derek Jeremy Irons, Irons, Jeremy and Colleen Dewhurst, Dewhurst, Colleen but also such odd but effective speakers as Garrison Keillor, Keillor, Garrison Arthur Miller, Miller, Arthur Jody Powell, Powell, Jody Studs Terkel, Terkel, Studs Kurt Vonnegut, Vonnegut, Kurt and George Plimpton. Plimpton, George Historian David McCullough provided running narration in a steady, patient, Tiresias-like voice that suggested hard-earned wisdom and inconsolable grief. Historians Shelby Foote, Barbara Fields, Fields, Barbara Stephen Oates, Oates, Stephen C. Vann Woodward, Woodward, C. Vann and others spoke into the camera and out of knowledge and passion.

The Civil War was attentive to the battlefield strategies of commanders who were at times brilliant, audacious, timorous, and stupid. The program, however, was not merely chessboard military history; viewers mingled in the ranks at Antietam, the bloodiest encounter in American history, when twice as many lives were lost as on D day during World War II. The program explored the political collisions that led to continental catastrophe, acknowledging the complexities of the confrontation in the fact that Unionists from every southern state but South Carolina sent regiments to join the North and the fact that the Union cause was bitterly reviled throughout the North—in the New York draft riots of July, 1863, angry mobs attacked and murdered blacks and their sympathizers.

Slavery, even more than sectional pride and prerogatives, was, according to The Civil War, central to the conflict. If abolition was not the major objective of the Lincoln administration in 1861, when every seventh American was legal chattel, by 1865, when 10 percent of the Union Army was black, the war had become a struggle over the meaning of freedom. It became, according to Oates, “a testament for the liberation of the human spirit for all time.” Its legacy lingered in an incomplete agenda of social justice. This very uncivil war also, as Burns demonstrated, forever altered the role of women in American society.

A lonely cannon set against a radiant sunset was the program’s signature image, and period music, performed plaintively on solo fiddle or piano, accompanied the entire experience. For many of the three million soldiers who marched off to defend their cause, the Civil War was, in McCullough’s words, “the greatest adventure of their lives.” The war inspired acts of transcendent valor, but it also enabled unscrupulous entrepreneurs to enrich themselves through sales of shoddy goods. It was a field of honor but also an occasion for selfish gain; two days after Manassas, a battle that cost five thousand casualties, speculators bought up the real estate as a tourist attraction. The Civil War documented wanton atrocities committed by armies from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

Although its nine episodes followed a loose chronology from 1861 through 1865, The Civil War paused occasionally from the inexorable course of conflict to examine the textures of life in the mid-nineteenth century. Episode 7, for example, addressed such activities as espionage, prostitution, gambling, and profiteering. No viewer could help but gain from the rich experience. “Any understanding of this nation has to be based on an understanding of the Civil War,” declared Foote. “It defines us.” Not even eleven hours of programming is sufficient for a national definition, but The Civil War brought viewers closer to an understanding of American dreams and nightmares than any other television project, except perhaps the ambitious venture that Burns began to work on next: a history of baseball.


Episode 1 of The Civil War, which inaugurated the PBS fall season, received a rating of nine and an audience share of thirteen, according to the A. C. Nielsen survey of the thirteen largest American media markets—figures that were records for a PBS broadcast. Episode 2 surpassed even those numbers, and the entire series reached the kind of mass audience expected only of commercial networks. An investment of $2.8 million and five years was rewarded with popular and critical success. The Civil War, production of which was underwritten by General Motors, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, went on to win two Emmy Awards Emmy Awards and the affection of millions.

A book—The Civil War: An Illustrated History, by Geoffrey C. Ward with Ric Burns and Ken Burns—designed as a companion to the series sold close to a million copies for publisher Alfred A. Knopf, and videocassettes of all nine episodes likewise did brisk business. So, too, did a recording, Songs of the Civil War, of music featured in the film.

Union soldier Sullivan Ballou Ballou, Sullivan achieved belated, posthumous renown when the letter he wrote to his wife on the eve of the Battle of Bull Run was broadcast at the end of Episode 1; Ballou’s letter was reprinted, recorded, and widely quoted. Ken Burns, the series’ unprepossessing creator, became an unlikely celebrity and the recipient of eight honorary doctorates. Empire of the Air, a televised history of radio that Burns developed while working on his vast documentary about baseball, was eagerly anticipated and, when broadcast on PBS in early 1992, was well received.

The success of The Civil War demonstrated the continuing viability of the miniseries, a television form that had been languishing more than a decade after 1977’s Roots Roots (television miniseries) had proved so compelling that audiences sat watching night after night. Burns also attracted uncustomary, if temporary, attention to nonfiction film, a genre largely neglected by programmers and audiences. Nevertheless, PBS remained one of the few institutions hospitable to both the production and exhibition of a work with the magnitude and purpose of The Civil War. Even with his post-Civil War prominence, Burns continued to work with public broadcasting, where his productions were neither constrained by time and content nor diluted and diverted by commercial breaks.

If PBS was the electronic benefactor of The Civil War, the series was a timely boon to public television, a system that depends financially on contributions from viewers, corporate underwriters, foundation grants, and government allocations. Despite a feeble economy, donations to PBS affiliates increased by 8.4 percent in 1991, and much of the increase could reasonably be attributed to the popularity of The Civil War, both in its initial run and in subsequent rebroadcasts. Presentation of the film was a powerful tool for local affiliates during periodic membership drives. WETA, the PBS member station in Washington, D.C., reported that viewers pledged $500,000 during breaks in a rebroadcast of The Civil War—the largest sum ever raised by any one program.

As important as the contributions of the broadcast to the fiscal fitness of PBS was the credibility that The Civil War provided for the beleaguered network. Two decades after its 1970 founding, PBS was under attack by angry and influential political conservatives who questioned whether, after the proliferation of channels through cable technology, taxpayers needed to be subsidizing any television operation. Conservative critics, moreover, took particular exception to the left-wing political bias and subversion of mainstream American values that they insisted were characteristic of PBS. The attack on PBS was similar to that leveled against the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts as alleged patrons of cultural decadence. Congressional defenders of PBS’s mission pointed to The Civil War, a project admired across the political spectrum, as a powerful—and successful—argument for reauthorization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Corporation for Public Broadcasting Likewise, the fact that it had provided partial support for The Civil War was an important factor in the victorious battle to sustain the NEH.

The Civil War was initially broadcast while the United States was again preparing for military battle. In August, 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops had invaded Kuwait, and the United Nations Security Council, meeting in emergency session, had issued an ultimatum insisting on unconditional and complete withdrawal. As an inducement to comply, economic sanctions were imposed against Iraq, and, throughout the fall, while forces were massing in the Middle East, Americans debated the efficacy of the measures and when, or whether, the confrontation should be escalated into open warfare. Burns’s study of the causes and costs of organized carnage both reflected and helped shape the mood of America on the eve of the Persian Gulf War. Persian Gulf War (1991);prewar period

The U.S. Congress convened an extraordinary session to determine whether to authorize President George H. W. Bush to take military action against Iraq. During the televised debate, during which almost every member of the Senate and the House of Representatives spoke, The Civil War was frequently mentioned and quoted, both by those supporting a strike against Iraq and by those opposing one. The United States did go to war in January, 1991, and the memory of another conflict, as interpreted by Burns, was vivid in the minds of those who prosecuted and those who protested the current one. After the shooting stopped, Burns told a reporter that, when he met General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Schwarzkopf, H. Norman the commander of Operation Desert Storm, Operation Desert Storm the general had explained the influence The Civil War had exerted on him: “I watched the show every night while I was planning the campaign. It made me understand that the arrows on my maps were real human lives.”

Newspapers during the Civil War reported a curious phenomenon called “acoustic shadows”: Often, the harrowing din of conflict thundered in the ears of listeners many miles away, while in the immediate vicinity of battle an eerie silence reigned. The nation’s most traumatic ordeal, a bloody struggle that cost more than 600,000 lives—2 percent of the entire population—cast acoustic shadows over its weary survivors. Some 125 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, however, the echoes of it all, broadcast throughout the United States and as far away as Australia, were thunderous.

Although the question is itself evidence of passions lingering from the distant debacle, it is impossible to say whether The Civil War was pro-Union or pro-Confederacy. Burns’s documentary was, instead, profoundly respectful of the complexities of human entanglement. “Useless, useless” were John Wilkes Booth’s dying words. “The greatest mistake of my life,” declared Lee in later years, “was taking a military education.” Full of sound and fury, and rueful compassion, The Civil War provided a military, political, and cultural education that, until the next conflict, seemed to inoculate viewers against future senseless carnage. Civil War, The (television documentary) Television programs;The Civil War[Civil War] Television;documentaries

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Catton, Bruce. A Stillness at Appomattox. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954. A gracefully literary narrative of the Civil War in Virginia, with emphasis on the Army of the Potomac.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chesnut, Mary Boykin Miller. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. Edited by Comer Vann Woodward. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. A southern aristocrat, Chesnut kept a revealing diary of civilian life during the war and was frequently quoted in the PBS film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edgerton, Gary R. Ken Burns’s America. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Examines Burns’s work as a documentary filmmaker from 1982 to the end of the twentieth century. Discusses The Civil War and its impacts. Includes videography, bibliography, and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. 3 vols. New York: Random House, 1958-1974. A mammoth, magisterial account of the conflict by a principal participant in the PBS project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lincoln, Abraham. Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1989. A central figure in the conflict, Lincoln was also an author of considerable literary grace whose writings were quoted frequently in The Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. Contends that the Civil War produced revolutionary changes in American life and proceeds to examine how and why. Includes photographs and detailed maps, tables, and bibliographies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Page. Trial by Fire: A People’s History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. Emphasizes ordinary life over battle scenarios and preoccupation with leaders. Provides an accessible account of how the general population of the Union and the Confederacy experienced the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Geoffrey C., with Ric Burns and Ken Burns. The Civil War: An Illustrated History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Sumptuous companion volume to the PBS series is abundantly illustrated with photographs, drawings, maps, and newspaper excerpts. Narrative by Ward and essays by other historians attempt to convey the texture of the past.

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Categories: History