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With The Civil War, Ken Burns Reinvented the Television History Documentary and Captivated Millions of Americans. Here's How He Did It.

Ken Burns’s The Civil War Turns 25.

By Peter Tonguette | HUMANITIES, September/October 2015 | Volume 36, Number 5

Consider the millions who fought on behalf of, or in opposition to, their country. Consider the millions who existed without freedom, due to the horror of slavery, and then attained it, thanks to the trials of battle. Consider the multitudes of others—politicians, abolitionists, journalists, onlookers, and citizens—in 1861, who saw what later happened. It is hard to conceive of a limit to the number of stories that could be told by those who survived the Civil War, and about those whose lives were taken in its wake.

When, in the 1980s, filmmaker Ken Burns decided to make a documentary about the Civil War, he faced a challenge wrought by the sands of time: About 120 years following the war’s end, how to put across the stories of its countless participants? In a very real sense, there was no one left to talk to. The last survivor who fought in the conflict—as viewers of the documentary’s first episode would learn—died in 1959.

In September of 1990, when The Civil War was ready to premiere on PBS, the Burns project, with its nine parts, sounded to some like the cinematic equivalent of an especially long entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

What would be filling its running time? Lacking witnesses who could be interviewed and filmed (as in, say, Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize), the project would surely be dominated by recitations of facts and figures, and a deluge of dates. Perhaps there would also be some animated maps. All of the above was essential, of course, but none of it had the makings of a gripping documentary. And, in hindsight, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the release of a boatload of bold, dynamic documentaries, with Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line and Michael Moore’s Roger & Me leading the way. By comparison, how could The Civil War register as anything but a relic?

When he was first asked by Burns to write the script, Geoffrey C. Ward had his own reservations. “I thought, there’s no way to do this,” Ward says. “And you’re going to have endless close-up details of horses’ nostrils flaring, and it was going to be hokey and full of staged stuff. Well, that isn’t, of course, what he had in mind.”

And on September 23, 1990—the first of five nights the documentary aired—just shy of fourteen million viewers (according to a figure reported in the New York Times) found out for themselves precisely what Burns had in mind.

The Civil War was, to be sure, a history lesson writ large—its eleven and a half hours contained within them an exhaustive overview not only of the war itself—of the Battle of Antietam, of the Emancipation Proclamation—but of the state of the country in which it was fought. Historians, including Barbara J. Fields and Ed Bearss, made indispensable on-camera contributions of insight and knowledge, and maps, tracking Grant’s and Lee’s armies, were indeed tastefully animated. At all times, the proceedings were led by narrator David McCullough, who read the script written by Ward (with contributions by Ken Burns and his brother, Ric Burns).

But it was the collage-like quality of The Civil War that stayed with viewers: the gathering of an incredible number of stories, one set beside the other. Think of the expectant edginess of newly elected President Abraham Lincoln as he ventured from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. Think of the premonitory melancholy of Jefferson Davis as he received word that he was to lead the Confederacy. Think of the monumentally vacillating character of the Union’s General George B. McClellan. And on and on. In aggregate, they made up a kind of crazy quilt reflecting the extraordinary range of lives—Union and Confederate, free and enslaved—whose fates were tethered to the war.

“After the Second World War, narrative fell out of fashion, and it was replaced by Freudian interpretation, later by a Marxist economic determinist interpretation, later by symbolism and deconstruction and semiotics, and later postmodernism and queer studies,” says Ken Burns. “They’re all legitimate ways in, but strangely enough, the tortoise in this story that crosses the finish line long before the exhausted hare is narrative.”

He adds, “If you tell a complete narrative, you can engage all of those perspectives at once and do so in a very fresh and very clean and very inspirational way.”

In spinning his web of narratives, Burns marshaled techniques he deployed in such films as Brooklyn Bridge (1981) and The Statue of Liberty (1985), both of which were nominated for Academy Awards, but neither of which came within a country mile of the scope and sheer length of The Civil War—even in its initial five-hour outline (one hour for each year of the war, Burns reckoned). In those documentaries, Burns took advantage of a novel mixed-media format, with generous samplings of still photographs (probed by a camera that zoomed and panned, like a roving eye or a reader with a magnifying glass) as well as both narration and newly recorded recitations of historical figures’ utterances. His other credits included The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984) and Huey Long (1985).

But would such means work for The Civil War? Some had doubts.

“One funder who has stayed with me through thick and thin had suggested that perhaps still photographs and third-person narration, complemented by a chorus of first-person voices, would sustain over an hour or an hour and a half,” Burns says. “But they certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to something that was in our original conception five one-hours, and morphed into the eleven and a half hours that the finished film is.”

But Burns understood that this undertaking required a leap in ambition from the documentaries he had been working on—the subjects of which, ironically, often dovetailed with the Civil War. “Whether it was Huey Long and the southern experience in Louisiana fifty years later, sixty years later,” recalls Ric Burns, who was already a collaborator of his brother’s and became a cowriter and coproducer on The Civil War. “Whether it was the Shakers, whose downfall came really after the Civil War. The Brooklyn Bridge was built by a renascent Union, which was now going to assert itself.”

The overlaps left Ken Burns with a desire to take on the Civil War. “All of those other films . . . all had, in some way, shape, or form, the Civil War as a determining factor in their narrative,” Burns says. “I just felt compelled that I had to treat it.” Burns was also reading Michael Shaara’s novel focusing on the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, on the advice of David McCullough (narrator of Brooklyn Bridge and other documentaries).

“I finished it on Christmas Day 1984,” Burns says. “I happened to be visiting my father in Michigan, with my two-year-old daughter and my wife. I turned to him and said, ‘Dad, I know what my next project is going to be,’ even though Huey Long and The Statue of Liberty remained unfinished. He said, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘The Civil War.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, that’s interesting—what part?’”

Burns explained that his aim was to cover the war’s entirety, but his father’s response remained skeptical. “He just sort of walked out of the room, shaking his head, as if he was saying, ‘My idiot son,’” Burns says. “It always reminded me of the daunting nature of this task as we proceeded over the five and a half years it took to complete it.”

Fundraising began in 1984, with NEH being among the earliest supporters, and filming commenced in 1986. By then, says Ric Burns, “we had preliminary scripts in hand. While interviews were conducted and research continued, live filming went on and the scripts were revised and expanded, to include the growing number of interviews that had been filmed. Editing began in late 1987. Rewriting and additional filming continued as the editing process went on through 1989.”

“Scripts are being written simultaneous with the actual filming, both of live material and of archival material at that time, as well as ongoing interviews,” recalls cinematographer Buddy Squires, a frequent collaborator of Burns. “And then the editing process is its own thing, so our job in the field is really to build the visual vocabulary that can then be handed off to the editors to weave into the story that’s being guided by the script.”

The elements—the spoken and the seen—were akin to pieces in a puzzle. “You get all the best visuals you possibly can. You write the best script you possibly can,” Ric Burns says. “Then you sit down, and with the best visuals you were able to collect, sit down with the best script you were able to write, go to the first scene and say, ‘What do we look at now?’”

The first piece gathered for the puzzle was Shelby Foote.

One evening around dinnertime, Burns received a phone call from novelist Robert Penn Warren, who had been interviewed for Huey Long. “He said in his wonderful Kentucky accent, ‘Thinkin’ about the Civil War. Thinkin’ about, if you’re gonna do it right, you have to interview Shelby Foote right away,’” Burns remembers. “And that was enough for these wet-behind-the-ears novices to say, ‘Okay.’ So the very first frame of film exposed for the Civil War series—roll one through eight—was the first interview with Shelby Foote.”

A native of Greenville, Mississippi, and a descendant of a Confederate soldier, Foote made contemplating the Civil War the better part of his life’s work. Over a span of sixteen years, Random House published the three volumes that came to make up his The Civil War: A Narrative, and when the filmmakers made the trek to his home in Memphis to talk to him for the first time, they encountered a man who had intently pondered, as Burns put it, such things as “what Shiloh looked like as the peach blossoms were in bloom in April of ’62.”

“It provided us with an enormous framework, an enormous confidence, an enormous intimacy to the war itself,” Burns explains. “This would not be a thirty-thousand-foot view—we knew that going in—but he helped to remind us.”

What compelled was not just what Foote said, but how he said it—the way, for example, he quietly looked off into the distance, with the slightest of shakes of the head, after finishing the following haunting thought: “You must remember that casualties in Civil War battles were so far beyond anything we can imagine now. If we had 10 percent casualties in a battle today, it would be looked on as a bloodbath. They had 30 percent in several battles. And one after another, you see.” In New York magazine, critic John Leonard wryly observed that, for Foote, “everything during the war seems to have happened that very afternoon, on his porch.”

“Whoever said that talking heads were boring has forgotten the fact that the human face is, for all human beings, the single most fascinating thing,” says Ric Burns, adding that with “the crook of an eyebrow,” Foote was able to transmit “more about Ulysses S. Grant’s ability to concentrate under duress than anything anybody could possibly say.”

In many ways, silent communication—even when someone is talking, as in Foote’s case—was the stock-in-trade of The Civil War. In addition to the careful inclusion of fresh shots taken at Civil War locales, the film was a veritable clearinghouse of images from the war—a soldier placing his hands over a makeshift fire, say, or President Lincoln, a distant figure amidst a sea of people, reading the address occasioned by his second inaugural—sometimes selected to back up a particular battle or episode, and other times chosen, seemingly, for their intrinsic value as views into a terrible, vanished past. “Every episode,” wrote critic Walter Goodman in the New York Times, “takes us deep into the old photographs of young men in blue or gray uniforms, in formal poses or horsing around; they become moving pictures.” For George F. Will, writing in his column the week the series debuted, a single photograph furnished the answer to questions concerning the cause and significance of the Civil War. “You see a 19th-century photograph, black-and-white of course, of a black man’s back,” Will wrote. “It is hideously covered with scars left by a lash. Burns’ camera does not dwell; the narrative does not even mention what we have briefly seen. Burns knows how to blend passion and delicacy: reticence can be its own emphasis.”

The image conveyed nonverbally the crucial idea expressed by Barbara J. Fields: that there was a moral imperative at work in the Civil War. “It could have been a very ugly, filthy war, with no redeeming characteristics at all,” Fields said in the film. “And it was the battle for emancipation, and the people who pushed it forward—the slaves, the free black people, the abolitionists, and a lot of ordinary citizens—it was they who ennobled what otherwise would have been meaningless carnage into something higher.”

With a camera, two umbrella lights, and an easel in tow, the producers visited upwards of 160 archives in search of photographs. “I know there are estimated to be a million extant photographs from the Civil War—we must have seen 900,000,” says Ric Burns, and the filmmakers were happy to let happenstance dictate what they found. For example, at what is now the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, volumes of Civil War photographs were scrutinized, and there was no particular order to their contents. “You just sit there and you work your way through that,” Ric Burns says, adding, “If you’d had an index, . . . you would miss 90 percent of what got included in The Civil War. It’s the way my mother always told me to go out and find snakes: ‘You’ll never find snakes if you look for them.’”

It was not enough to simply reproduce the photographs, though. Burns, who had studied under the documentary photographer Jerome Liebling, imaginatively rephotographed them, traversing their contours to pick out faces or details, or to create frames within frames. “As Ken has said many times,” Squires says, “we really treated those old photographs as if they were contemporary scenes and we had just found ourselves standing in that room or out on that battlefield or in some relationship with those people.”

Sometimes, the angle taken on a photograph would harmonize especially well with the narration: After listening to the singing of “John Brown’s Body,” Julia Ward Howe is said to be awake at night writing lines for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “Now,” the narration went, “in the dark, she got up and scribbled out the words with a pencil stub.” A portrait of Howe is shown, the camera panning up to her face; the camera move, edging toward her face, is a kind of visual “eureka.” “She sold her poem to the Atlantic Monthly for four dollars,” the typically pithy narration continued. “It became the anthem of the Union.”

“If you tilt down from an innocent young boy’s face to find that he’s packing two pistols, you’ve told a story in the revealing of that moment,” Burns says. “If everything is merely illustration, there is no point to making movies.”

Yet what would The Civil War be without its voices? To start with, there was David McCullough’s narration, with its firm, even tenor that is authoritative without ever being attention-hogging. “There’s something incredibly warm and knowledgeable and profoundly American about the way he narrates,” Ward says, adding, “In some ways, I wish he had narrated everything I’ve ever written.” There can be no doubt that McCullough was attuned to Ward’s words, evidenced in the traces of irony in his voice when he spoke, for example, of the fleeting triumph of the Confederacy’s naval vessel, the Merrimack: “For one day,” he said, “the Confederate navy ruled the sea.”

But McCullough was one player among many: A cacophony of present-day speakers were enlisted to vivify the words of personages from the past. Sam Waterston became Lincoln; Jason Robards, Grant; Julie Harris, Mary Chesnut. As Union general Benjamin Butler, Studs Terkel sounded inimitably himself—a rascally, devilish personality. More often, though, the actors’ tones were subtle, even reverent, as when Morgan Freeman read lines written by Frederick Douglass in 1846 (“In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky, her grand old woods, her fertile fields, her beautiful rivers, her mighty lakes, and star-crowned mountains. But my rapture is soon checked . . . when I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slaveholding . . . and wrong.”) and identified their author with resplendent quietness. “Frederick Douglass,” Freeman said, in a whisper.

“It’s like voices spoken in or near your ear at midnight in the dark,” says Ric Burns of the tone the actors were encouraged to speak in. “If you’ve ever been on a porch some place, on a very, very quiet summer night, and someone’s telling you something very, very urgent and meaningful to them, but are talking really softly because you’re right there, that’s what you want.”

Those heard in the documentary may have frequently spoken softly, but on its debut, it had the boom of a thunderclap.

On September 18, 1990, NEH held a film preview for an audience that included members of Congress and Cabinet secretaries, reported the New York Times. “What the Iliad was for the Greeks, the Civil War is for Americans,” said NEH chair Lynne V. Cheney.

The project had already made a considerable impression with leaders. In his autobiography, My American Journey, Colin Powell—then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H. W. Bush—wrote of receiving tapes of the documentary sent by Burns after meeting him following a lecture at the White House. “My family was so moved by the tapes Ken sent that I told the President how we had been glued to the television set for hours,” Powell wrote. “He asked to see them. I sent the tapes to the White House, and he and Barbara were so impressed that it took me forever to get them back.”

“President Bush invited me and my family and my brother to the White House, to the Oval Office, just after the broadcast,” Burns says, and he was struck by the bipartisan quality of the documentary’s appeal. History, he believes, is a “table around which we can agree to cohere.”

Nineteen ninety must have seemed eons away from the years between 1861 and 1865. It was a time, in fact, of apparent tranquility. “Significant changes—by no means enough—had taken place in the civil rights culture of America,” Ric Burns says. “The Vietnam War was now well over. . . . The nightmare that had shadowed all of our youths, the Cold War, had just ended.”

Into this atmosphere of confidence and calm came The Civil Warthe story of a country in violent contention with itself to deliver freedom to all of its people. “Just when the moment people thought they were escaping history, turned out William Faulkner was absolutely right,” Ric Burns says. “The past isn’t past at all.”

Thirty-nine million viewers watched The Civil War during its first week, and the critics effused. “He spent five years on The Civil War, in the archives and among the thesis mongers,” wrote John Leonard, referring to Burns. “And there’s never been anything quite like it before on television, so much death and eloquence.” Walter Goodman wrote that the series showed Burns to be “the most accomplished documentary maker of his generation.”

“I think all Americans have some sense that the Civil War was the most momentous event in our history, and we had our greatest president,” Ward says. “It has an initially happy ending. The American experiment is allowed to go on, and we are one nation, not two, and four million Americans were freed.”

But for all of its big-picture themes, The Civil War endures for the shock of recognition discernible in stories such as Sullivan Ballou’s. The Union officer authored a letter in which he counseled his wife, Sarah, on how to carry on after his death, not knowing that he would soon perish (though not distressed by such a fate, such was his “love of country”). “But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be with you; in the brightest days and the darkest nights. . . .” Ballou wrote, his words read as The Civil War’s famous musical theme—Ashokan Farewell—is cued up and portraits of the couple are seen.

The sentiments contained in the letter are not far from the impulses behind Burns’s endless toiling on the Civil War and, later, in his films on baseball and jazz and the Roosevelts.

“My mom died when I was little, and a psychologist once said to me . . . look what I did for a living: I wake the dead,” Burns says.

About the Author

Peter Tonguette has written about the arts for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Columbus Dispatch, Weekly Standard, and many other publications.

Funding Information

Between 1986 and 1990, The Civil War documentary received $1.35 million in NEH grants. The Vietnam War, the subject of a ten-part documentary by Ken Burns, received $1 million in NEH support and is slated for airing in 2017. NEH has funded at least 446 projects relating to the Civil War and Civil War era, committing upward of $35 million to increasing public understanding of this defining event. Among the many projects included in that funding are Death and the Civil War, an American Experience film, and The Valley of the Shadow, a digital archive of a Northern community and a Southern one from the time of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry to Reconstruction. Workshops and institutes for school teachers and college faculty on topics such as abolition and the Underground Railroad, cotton culture in the South, the visual culture of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln have also been supported by NEH.