The Civil War: An Illustrated History (1990)
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf, New York
Genre: American History/Documentary Series Tie-In
Written By: Geoffrey C. Ward with Ric Burns and Ken Burns
The most important programming public television offers, even in the 2020s, is a diverse range of historical documentaries that are never aired on the other broadcast networks.
In the age of The Bachelor, American Idol, and The Masked Singer, it’s not very easy to find well-written non-fiction television fare such as PBS’ 1990 epic, The Civil War. With its then-innovative mix of photos and paintings, a wonderful script by Geoffrey Ward with Ken and Ric Burns, voiceovers by famous actors like Morgan Freeman, Sam Waterston and George Plimpton, a haunting musical score (which featured Fiddle Fever’s now-famous “Ashokan Farewell”) and a very effective narration by writer/historian David McCullough (author of The Path Between the Seas).
Not only did PBS release the series on home video, but Knopf published a “companion volume” or book tie-in.
The Civil War: An Illustrated History, written by historian Geoffrey C. Ward with Ken Burns and Ric Burns, is the companion volume to the outstanding 1990 documentary series from the Public Broadcasting System. Lavishly illustrated with paintings, photographs and maps, this book tells the dramatic and tragic story of America’s bloodiest conflict.
Like the television series from which this project was derived, its narrative is both informative and awe-inspiring. Its prose is lovingly crafted, and one can almost hear series narrator McCullough’s voice when reading from any of its five chapters.
“By the summer of 1861, Wilmer McLean had had enough,” write the authors in the introduction, The Crossroads of Our Being. “Two great armies were converging on his farm, and what would be the first major battle of the Civil War — Bull Run, or Manassas as the Confederates called it — would soon rage across the aging Virginian’s farm, a Union shell going so far as to tear through his summer kitchen. Now McLean moved his family away from Manassas, far south and west of Richmond — out of harm’s way, he prayed — to a dusty crossroads town called Appomattox Court House. And it was there in his living room three and a half years later that Lee surrendered to Grant, and Wilmer McLean could rightfully say, ‘The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.’ ”
Although the hardcover edition is a coffee table sized volume, it is not a terribly long or exhaustive work. There are only five chapters, each one dedicated to a year of the war and followed by an essay by an eminent historian. My personal favorite is the essay “Men at War” by Shelby Foote, whose award winning three volume history of the Civil War is considered by many to be among the best on the subject. More interview than essay, “Men at War” attempts to explain why Civil War battles were so bloody.
“It was brutal stuff,” Foote explains, “and the reason for the high casualties is really quite simple: the weapons were way ahead of the tactics.” Foote also discusses the primitive medical techniques of the time and has this to say about Lee at Gettysburg: “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Lee.” On the issue of who won the war, Foote says, “I can tell you who lost it — the South lost the war. But I’m not sure anybody won that war. It’s a tragedy.”
Other essay writers include Barbara J. Fields, James M. McPherson, Don E. Fehrenbacher and C. Vann Woodward.
Because it is a companion volume to a television documentary, The Civil War: An Illustrated History features many of the photographs and paintings showcased in Burns’ film, and there are many maps to help readers get their bearings around the various battlefields.
The Civil War: An Illustrated History follows the structure of Ken Burns’ documentary, and most of the individuals portrayed in the PBS series (ranging from Presidents Lincoln and Davis to Union soldier Elisha Hunt Rhodes — who rose from private to colonel during the war — and Confederate soldier-turned-author Sam Watkins) are wonderfully described in the text.
While definitely not a substitute for the film on which it’s based, The Civil War: An Illustrated History is a fine book and a good one-volume introduction to the worst internal crisis the American people ever faced.