The Civil War and the Power of Film

My favorite film is the documentary The Civil War, directed by Ken Burns. This nine-part masterpiece follows the United States through the morass of political, economic, social, and military forces that erupted in the middle of the 19th century into the bloodiest war ever fought by Americans. Using diverse cinematic elements, the film weaves a seamless tapestry of events and manages to capture the essence of a conflict—and an era—whose reverberations are even now being felt in American culture.

In directing the film, Ken Burns seems guided by the literary aesthetic first enunciated by Horace in the 1st century BC: that the “spirited chronicler” should entertain as he instructs. Burns exploits the strengths of a medium Horace never dreamed of—film—to entertain the viewer as he chronicles the bloody course of the war. Taut writing, underscored by eclectic period music, makes the past come to life and lends the viewer the perspective of the people who lived the war.

Of course, Burns’ lucid writing helps to illuminate the complex and divisive issues that clouded the ante-bellum landscape. But his simple literary, visual and aural devices—a letter home from a soldier, a collage of stills taken after the Battle of Antietam, a simple melody from a period folk song—these entrance the viewer as no history lesson ever could. The emotional power of Burns’ simple juxtapositions is nowhere more keenly felt than in his setting of Major Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife Sarah shortly before Manassas. As a plaintive violin begins a haunting melody, we see Daguerreotypes of ordinary couples appear one by one, and we hear Major Ballou struggle aloud with his conflicting loyalties to his wife and his country:

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

And as the photographs of couples segue one into the next, the violin is joined by a viola, then a cello, then a bass viol. But the melodic crescendo is completely overshadowed by Sullivan Ballou’s poignant declaration of love for his wife:

. . . But O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and the darkest nights . . . always, always . . . and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again. . .

When the narrator tells us that Sullivan Ballou was killed at the first battle of Bull Run, we weep. Ken Burns has shown us the sorrow that Sarah felt, the sorrow of an era. And he has shown us the awesome power of the medium of film.