PBS presents an American epic 'Civil War' recaptures pain and passion that defined a nation

September 20, 1990|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

IN KEN BURNS' wallet is a carefully folded piece of paper, th words of a letter that could have been penned last week from Saudi Arabia, 20 years ago from Vietnam, or almost 50 years ago from the coast of France.

My Very Dear Sarah,

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days -- perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

It was written on July 14, 1861, a week before the first major battle of the Civil War, by a Union soldier, Maj. Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island. Burns, a documentarian with an astonishing ability to bring to life events that took place before the movie camera was invented, received Ballou's words while doing research for the epic "The Civil War."

Burns, who has documented the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, as well as Thomas Hart Benton and the Shakers, spent more than five years working on "The Civil War." He began the project just after finishing the three-volume, 3,000-page history written by Shelby Foote, whom Burns interviewed and whose wise presence is felt throughout the nine parts that will be broadcast over five nights beginning Sunday at 8 p.m. on Maryland Public Broadcast, channels 22 and 67.

In making this 11-hour documentary, Burns examined perhaps 100,000 archival photographs as well as drawings and paintings, filmed 16,000 of them, then edited that footage into the 3,000 images that are seen in the film. The pictures are matched with authentic sound, contemporary music, interviews with historians, a narrative by David McCullough, and the words of the famous leaders, the common men and women, the orators and the diarists who lived and died during this titanic struggle. Many of their words are read by well-known actors and personalities.

Burns chose Sullivan Ballou's letter to close Sunday's initial two hours, "The Cause," which traces the history of the beginnings of the conflict, following it through Secession, the gathering of the armies and that first meeting near the town of Manassas, Va., along a small creek known as Bull Run.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am now engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the government, and how great a debt we owe those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing, perfectly willing, to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt . . .

This first episode seems to begin slowly, but that's largely due to the expectations brought to a film about war. You find yourself waiting for the spectacle, but that is not the modus operandi of "The Civil War." Burns staged no re-enactments, filmed no stirring battle scenes with --ing charges and booming cannons. Instead, there are the voices that, when modulated with Burns' subtle skills, speak softly but eloquently as if a century and a quarter has not passed.

Although he is not about revisionist history, in "The Civil War" Burns does try to fill in what he found to be a woefully undocumented piece of history, the contribution of blacks to the Union's military effort.

"The Cause" does not espouse some economic theory of why the war took place, but focuses on slavery as the fundamental issue, properly making the point that all other issues could be compromised, but this one could not because it spoke to an essential outlook on humanity. As with so many aspects of this war, the arguments over slavery resonate today in the debate over abortion, another issue that has proven similarly intractable. Undoubtedly to their consternation, pro-choice advocates will find themselves echoed by those from the slave states -- "If you don't want an abortion, or a slave, then don't have, or own, one."

Watching "The Cause" is like finding the source of a great river. Follow what seems like a trickle and you will eventually be plunged into a swift stream, finally swept up in a narrative with a pull and flow that is mighty and irresistible. "The Civil War" becomes one of the best and most important pieces of film ever to grace the television medium.

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mightly cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistably on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood around us . . .

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