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Ric Burns Reflects on 'Death and the Civil War'

31 Aug, 2012 By: John Latchem

Before the United States fell into the chasm of Civil War, there were no national cemeteries in America and no holidays to honor the fallen. Yet, that would all change as a result of the four-year conflict, among the countless ways the nation would be forever transformed.

This oft-overlooked facet of the war is explored in a two-hour segment of PBS’s “American Experience” documentary series called Death and the Civil War, arriving on DVD Sept. 18 at $24.99 from PBS Distribution.

Death and the Civil War was directed by Ric Burns, who produced the landmark 1990 The Civil War miniseries directed by his brother, Ken. The new documentary, based on the book This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust, examines the root causes behind the staggering death toll of the Civil War — about 750,000 people — and how the government sought to remedy the fact that it was utterly unprepared to deal with that scale of dead bodies.

“There have been 60,000 books published about the Civil War, but she took the essential fact that there were 750,000 dead Americans and made us understand how little we grasp that experience,” Burns said.

To put the number into perspective, the Civil War dead represented 2.5% of the U.S. population at the time, which translates to more than 7 million people today.

Though Burns was quite familiar with the Civil War due to producing the miniseries, he credits author Faust for the bulk of the research this time around.

“When we did The Civil War, I saw maybe 90% of about 1 million photos we gathered,” Burns said. “To be back there and see those archives again was profoundly moving.”

Burns has also directed documentaries on Eugene O’Neill, Andy Warhol and the Donner Party for “American Experience.” With Death, Burns relished the chance to revisit the Civil War and sees the film as an addendum to the earlier documentary he made with his brother.

“The Civil War is monumentally fascinating as a subject, and any one of these people or these battles or any aspect of it can suck you in,” Burns said. “We had a different agenda — to come at the same war and see it as an experience that wasn’t about the battlefield tactics.”

Most historians agree that the massive casualty figures of the Civil War were caused by the use of traditional battlefield formations that quickly grew outdated against new weapons technology.

“In the Mexican-American War, the last war before this one, there were a total of 2,200 battle deaths,” Burns said. “At the first Battle of Bull Run, there were 900 deaths. That’s why it was such a wake-up call.”

To draw an even starker contrast, Burns cites a period in 1864 when the Union side lost close to 65,000 people in six weeks.

“There were no systems for dealing with death at that scale,” Burns said. “No mechanisms for burial. No one imagined casualties of that magnitude. What I find so moving is that again and again individuals decided to do something about it. In times of great transformations in society, suddenly human beings are thrust into service, and how do we invent something to address these problems?”

The Civil War saw the beginnings of ambulance services to extract the wounded from battlefields so they didn’t have to languish for hours slowly dying, and the beginnings of the American Red Cross. Its founder, Clara Barton, started providing first aid supplies and assistance in an attempt to ease suffering.

Most of the casualties occurred in the final two years of the war, with the Battle of Antietam in late 1862 representing the single bloodiest day in American history, and the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 bringing the most total casualties of any battle.

The death toll at Gettysburg was so overwhelming, Burns said, that when President Abraham Lincoln arrived later that year to dedicate the first national cemetery for war dead, caskets were still stacked up around open graves.

However, Burns said that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a pivotal moment in U.S. history, marking a newfound commitment on behalf of the federal government to honor those who sacrificed their lives for the Union. In the past, soldiers were attached to state militias, so battle deaths were generally considered the responsibility of local authorities.

“With that speech, Lincoln was saying we couldn’t hallow this ground any more than these honored dead,” Burns said. “The only way to honor them was to make sure they didn’t die in vain. It really was the death of the first republic and a coalescing of a new idea of what the body politic was.”

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