Telling History vs. Making Art: “Story is a central component of ‘history'”

Part eight in a series

The ability to evoke emotion easily stands out as The Civil War’s greatest strength: From its opening shot of a canon silhouetted against a fire-orange sky and the use of the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote and the haunting Appalachian violin of Jay Unger’s “Ashoken Farewell,” Burns strives first and foremost to set an emotional tone.

Even historian Leon Litwack, in all his criticism of the film as a piece of history, seemed taken with it as a piece of art:

Skillfully crafted, technically innovative, evocative and emotionally seductive, the television series made effective use of letters, diaries and journals, archival photographs, paintings, broadsides, newsreel footage, eyewitness accounts, and an often mesmerizing musical score.[1]

The best example of his use of such primary-source material is the stirring narration of a letter by Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, killed during the Battle of First Manassas. A week before the battle, he wrote home to his wife, and Burns quotes the letter over top historical photos and beautiful modern battlefield landscapes to close out the first episode. It is exquisite art. What most people don’t realize is that Burns trimmed the letter by almost fifty percent—from 868 words down to 451—in order to maximize its poignancy on screen.[2] Burns edited the letter because, as an artist, he needed to control the pace and dramatic impact of his film. Such editing, though, doesn’t mean Burns’ art compromises his history. Historians, too, quote selectively from primary sources when constructing narratives and arguments; Burns is using the same technique to the same end.

Burns’ most common primary source materials are the hundreds of photographs he shows. Here, Toplin lauds Burns’s “extraordinary filmmaking achievement in dealing with unequal source materials.”[3] Photos for the Union side of the story were much more abundant than for the Southern side of the story because, after the first year of the war, “photographic activity in the South dropped dramatically”—yet Burns crafted a balanced story from what he had to work with.[4]

The molasses-smooth authority of narrator David McCullough (who has himself taken flack for being too popular as a historian) shines throughout, punctuated by interview clips from a variety of experts, including historian Barbara Fields, who argued eloquently about the war’s higher purpose of emancipation, and the yarn-spinning Southern gentleman Shelby Foote (whom Burns subsequently called “an American treasure”).[5]

Not that every swing Burns took was a home run. His choice to encumber Ed Bearrs with a suitcoat and tie and confine him to a chair is widely seen among my NPS colleagues as a huge disservice to Ed. As the NPS’s former chief historian, he’s widely regarded throughout the agency as one of the best battlefield interpreters in the business because of his forceful style and animated storytelling. He still leads frequent bus tours, which sell out. The Burns documentary did nothing to capture his charisma.[6]

The film also contains a few factual errors. “The most spectacular must be the fact that we managed to get wrong both the date of Lincoln’s assassination and his age at the time of his death,” admits Ward. “Both errors are mine alone…. And, unbelievably, through repeated screenings for our distinguished advisers and for ourselves, no one involved seems ever to have noticed either error.”[7] For such sins of commission, Ward says they deserved to be chastened.[8]

But for sins of interpretation—especially after the five-year collaborative process the many drafts of the script went through with panels of historians—Burns deserves some slack. Because his film was so public and so successful, criticism creates an impression of controversy when, in fact, any historian could face questions about his/her interpretation.

“[B]ecause of our medium, with all its inherent strengths and weaknesses, because of the almost Aristotelian demands of structure and pacing, our film, not theirs, looked this way,” Burns finally said.[9] The result is a sublime intersection of history and art that uses the strengths of both to tell a story so big it is, indeed, incommunicable. “[S]tory,” Burns has said, “is a central part of the word ‘history.’”[10] His Civil War is a true story beautifully told.

Next: Fictions told until they are believed to be true

[1] Litwack, 126.

[2] For the full text of the letter: <>; for the edited version from The Civil War: <>

[3] Toplin, 34.

[4] Toplin, 34-5.

[5] Burns’ description of Foote appears as a cover blurb on the back of Chapman’s book.

[6] This seems as good a place as any to mention my own personal beef with The Civil War, which I otherwise like very much. Burns makes Stonewall Jackson out to look like a half-mad lemon-sucking zealot—which is only partially true. He was also the model “Christian soldier” (the interpretation favored by the film Gods and Generals), military genius (the interpretation favored by the Lost Cause), a family man, and a quirky person in general—all carefully constructed personas that Wallace Hettle explores in his book Inventing Stonewall Jackson: A Civil War Hero in History and Memory.

[7] Ward, 143.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Burns, 172.

[10] Quoted in Chapman, pg. 259.

2 Responses to Telling History vs. Making Art: “Story is a central component of ‘history'”

  1. The series was well done. I think Ed Bearrs and Shelby Foote stole the show. I still use Ashoken Farewell as my ringtone.

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