Burns’ “Gettysburg” episode deserves its iconic status

Last summer, the Civil War publisher Savas Beatie held its annual meetup in Gettysburg. This is about as high-octane a Civil War crowd as you will find: publisher Ted Savas and much of his staff, more than a dozen of the leading Civil War writers in the country, and a crowd of people who would find the opportunity to spend a few days at Gettysburg with Civil War writers and publishers to be their idea of a good time.

During the conference, a question came up: “What got you interested in the Civil War?”  The generational split in answers was evident. The geezers in the crowd said they became interested during the Civil War Centennial, usually after reading something by Bruce Catton or a “Landmark” book. But for the slightly younger crowd, the Gateway Drug was nearly universal: They came to the Civil War through Ken Burns’s 9-episode PBS film series, “The Civil War.”

There is no denying the lasting cultural significance of the film. “The Civil War” is the top-rated PBS show of all time. And it has won more than 40 awards, including Emmys and Grammys.

Introducing the film as the prime attraction of this weekend’s Ken Burns film festival, Majestic Theater Founding Executive Director Jeffrey Gabel noted that people from 28 states (“from Connecticut to California and from Idaho to Alabama”) had purchased tickets.

For all its prominence, the Burns series has been largely immune from the Civil War reckoning that has affected many Civil War sites and people. Yet there have been criticisms, particularly regarding Episode 5 which centers on Gettysburg, beginning with the battle and concluding with Lincoln’s speech.

Foremost perhaps is the exaggerated importance Burns assigns to Joshua Chamberlain and the fight for Little Round Top – a frustration, seemingly, to licensed guides and park rangers, who argue that, yes, what Joshua Chamberlain did was brave and smart, but he didn’t save the Union on July 2, 1863.

Burns’ ubiquitous influence of Shelby Foote in the series has also been criticized, with his soothing voice promoting the “two sides, fighting honorably for the cause they believed in” mythology.

And there are factual errors, including the repetition of the frequently debunked story that the Confederates came to Gettysburg looking for shoes.

But as I watched the episode roll by in the Majestic Theater this weekend, I was again caught up in the remarkable sweep of Burns’s story — and the errors mattered hardly at all to me.

In a lengthy post-film interview with Gabel and Gettysburg native Jake Boritt, Burns asserted that the film, first broadcast in 1990, was ahead of its time, with its focus on the experiences of common soldiers and people behind the lines as well a strong focus on slavery as a cause of the war. The film also highlighted how Lee’s troops were kidnapping free blacks and taking them South, a fact the National Park Service didn’t get around to observing until 2022.

Burns gave a lengthy description of his interview with Daisy Turner, the 104-year-old daughter of a black Civil War soldier who appears in the film and gives a searing reading of a poem about the death of a soldier.

Burns described his meeting with Turner: “She’s almost deaf and almost blind and we’re having to shout. And some days you realize you’re just not going to get it today. So we’re saying our thank you’s and our farewells and she shouts ‘so do you want to hear the poem about the death of a soldier?’

And a few minutes later we are listening to her incredible recitation and I’m thinking, ‘I’m listening to a 104-year-old woman who was born to a former slave and she’s reciting a poem she memorized more than 90 years ago. You don’t get many moments like this.’”

The film continues after Gettysburg through the rest of the year: Vicksburg and the entire campaign around Chattanooga and builds toward the climax of Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address, which Burns characterized as “practically the Declaration of Independence 2.0.”

The film reminded me again, and as it always does, that it’s an icon of American filmmaking.

Featured image: Burns (Left) and Boritt [Leon Reed]

+ posts

Leon Reed, freelance reporter, is a former US Senate staff member, defense consultant, and history teacher. He is a seven year resident of Gettysburg, where he writes military history and explores the park and the Adams County countryside. He is the publisher at Little Falls Books, chaired the Adams County 2020 Census Complete Count Committee and is on the board of SCCAP and the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. He and his wife, Lois, have 3 children, 3 cats, and 5 grandchildren.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x