The Emmy Award-winning mini series by celebrated director Ken Burns (Baseball, Jazz) was originally aired in 1990. Now 20 years later a commemorative edition of the mini series is being re-released. The American Civil War was probably the important historical event that country ever went through. Starting with the abolitionist movement right up until the surrender by the South Burns covers each part, battle and event of the war meticulously. The story is told using the words of the soldiers themselves as Burns uses their letters and diaries for the narration. The letters and diaries are rounded out by interviews with well-known historians and photos from the era.
Episode 1: The Cause:
Any understanding of the U.S. as a nation should be based on the Civil War. In 1861 most of the nation’s 31 million people lived on farms or small towns. By the time the nations was founded slavery was dying in the North. In the South 4 million men, women and children were slaves.
The Civil War began as a dispute over Union and state rights. Abolition movements grew. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were at the forefront. Southerners worried about the political and economic power of the North. As each new state was added to the Union it threatened to upset the delicate balance.
In 1846 in Springfield, Illinois a young Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress. A new party is founded: the Republicans. They take the moderate Lincoln as their leader. In November 1860 Lincoln won the Presidency.
The South Carolina legislature called for secession. In 1860 they did just that then Florida, Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, Missouri, and Louisiana. General Jefferson Davis was named President of the Confederate. Lincoln promised not to interfere with slavery but forbid any state’s right to secede.
April 12, 1861 the Civil War began. General Beauregard ordered his gunners to fire upon Fort Sumter where a Union army was. 34 hours later a white flag appeared. No casualties. General Sherman predicted it would be a long war. North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky then seceded.
July 1861 battles were taking place all over the U.S. The first great battle of the Civil War happened in Bullrun, Virginia in 1861. It was a victory for the South.
Episode 2: A Very Bloody Affair:
The Battle of Shiloh showed both sides that this was going to be a battle of conquest. Led by General Grant the Union force won the Battle of Shiloh.
In it’s second year the war was being fought over freedom. Frederick Douglass urged the President to free the slaves. Lincoln insisted it wasn’t a war against slavery, but for the Union.
Episode 3: Forever Free:
By July 1862 the war was changing. By summer Lincoln realized the tactic of emancipation was his best chance at victory. The slaves and free blacks raised the war to something more than senseless slaughter. Lincoln then, against everything he had promised, announced emancipation. In September 1863 Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation.
Episode 4: Simply Murder:
Many soldiers died over the winter of 1863 from disease and the Union seemed close to fumbling all it had accomplished. In February 1863 Lincoln pushed a Conscription Act through Parliament. Many Northerners did not want the war to be made about emancipation. Anti-war feelings rose in the North.
Episode 5: The Universe of Battle:
By late May 1863 the South’s luck began to change. In the South the war had ruined the economy but the fighting spirit was strong.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania became the biggest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. 28,000 Confederates and 23,000 Unionists died. The Confederacy could not afford such losses. The South invasion of the North ended.
Blacks were now allowed to enlist and began fighting in the war.
Episode 6: The Valley of the Shadow of Death:
1864 was the 4th year of the Civil War. The Union side tightened its hold but there was still no end in sight. It was also the first time a nation tried to hold an election during a civil war. Abraham Lincoln’s chances for re-election looked dim.
Ulysses S. Grant was the leader of the Union army and General Robert E. Lee was a general in the Confederate army. Lee and Grant were destined to meet each other on the battlefield.
The Battle of the Wilderness began in the spring of 1864. It was a useless battle with great losses suffered and no result. Fighting went on for 30 days straight. Both armies burrowed in for a siege. It lasted for 10 months of trench warfare. The country longed for peace.
General William Tecumseh Sherman was a great friend of Grant’s. Grant entrusted Sherman with the task of taking Atlanta.
Episode 8: War is All Hell:
In 1865 the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery was ratified.
Sherman was intent on bringing the war to the South. Atlanta was set aflame and raised. Sherman’s army destroyed everything in its path.By the beginning of 1865 the Confederacy was dying and its government was coming apart. In a move of desperation the Confederate government authorized the use of black slaves as soldiers.
March 4, 1865, Lincoln was inaugurated for his second term as President. Lee only had 25,000 soldiers at this point and was outnumbered 5-to-1 with no hope of getting supplies. Lee sent Grant a letter of surrender.
The war was over and the Confederates were part of the Union. A formal surrender came 3 days later.
Episode 9: The Better Angels of Our Nature:
April 10, 1865 Lee and his army surrendered. Union prisoners were released and headed back north. Scattered fighting still went on in Texas, Alabama and Louisiana.
Lincoln and his wife went to the theatre to see American Cousin. John Wilkes Booth slipped into the President’s box. He shot the President then leapt onto the stage, breaking his leg. A surgeon in audience called the shot mortal. The doctors could do nothing. April 15, 1865 at 7:22 a.m. Lincoln died at the age of 56. Andrew Johnson was elected the new American President.
The Civil War and the Constitution made the United States a nation. More than 3 million people fought in the Civil War and over 600,00 died. That equals 2% of the total population and as many fatalities as in all other U.S. wars.
Special Features: Behind the Scenes: The Civil War Reconstruction, Interviews, Ken Burns: Making History, A Conversation with Ken Burns, Battlefield Maps, Civil War Challenge – 1861, Civil War Biographies, Civil War Challenge – 1864, PSC Online, Civil War Challenge – 1862, Civil War Challenges – 1863