Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Does Ken Burns's *The Civil War* Have a "Lost Cause Narrative?"

Shelby Foote
I have seen Ken Burns's The Civil War  multiple times.  I often showed clips of it when I taught a course on Civil War and Reconstruction.  I was glad to see that PBS will broadcast the documentary on September 7 to honor the 25th anniversary of its release.

Much of The Civil War holds up well twenty-five years later, but, as Kevin Levin argues at Civil War Memory,  "a clear Lost Cause narrative is discernible."  Here is a taste of his very interesting and insightful post:

To be fair, the series does place slavery at the center of the narrative at different points, especially in early episodes leading to the war. Talking heads such as Barbara Fields devote substantial time explaining the unraveling of slavery midway through the war as well as Lincoln’s own rocky road toward emancipation. Even with all the attention that slavery and emancipation receive throughout the series a clear Lost Cause narrative is discernible. It is given voice by none other than Shelby Foote, who dominates the series as the most vocal talking head.
In fact, Foote spoke 7,653 words compared to the second highest speaker, who spoke 1,112 words. Foote’s choice of words is worth exploring. As a total percentage of words spoken by talking heads, Foote’s commentary reached 73.5. It is important to remember that this does not include what was edited out of the final script. Remarkably, in all of the words spoken by Foote he referenced slavery in one form or another only three times. Never once did Foote reference slavery as having anything to do with secession/the cause of the war or as a motivating factor for Confederate soldiers at any point during the war.
Read the whole post here.  What do you think.  Does The Civil War have a "split personality?"