As we commence our sesquicentennial retrospection on the Civil War, it is worth remembering that much of the enthusiasm for the anniversary derives from Burns’ film, which first aired on public television just over 20 years ago. Over the course of nine parts and 11 hours, Burns’ camera peers into thousands of ghostly faces and pans across faded images of body-strewn battlefields guided by David McCullough’s stately baritone and Foote’s oracular drawl. All the while, the unmistakable, melancholy strains of the series’ theme, “Ashokan Farewell” ring out—at times, it seems, from the nation’s collective heartstrings. Running on consecutive nights at the height of network television’s new season in the fall of 1990 (when network television’s new season still mattered), the series became an unlikely hit. Some 40 million people chose to forego Cheers, Roseanne, The Wonder Years, and America’s Funniest Home Videos for a PBS documentary featuring nothing more than old photographs, footage of empty battle fields, and talking heads they likely had never heard of.
This Slate piece is somewhat uncharitable but it does serve to remind us to think critically about the war and how we perceive it. Burns’s film succeeds more often than not and despite its flaws the documentary holds up quite well two decades on. Moreover, much of the interest in the Civil War since the early 1990s is attributable to Burns and his work. Not such a bad thing.