on April 29, 2014
Inevitably, any documentary about the American Civil War must stand comparison to the great, landmark series produced by Ken Burns, first broadcast in 1990. Burns' masterpiece spawned many imitators, most of which were trying to cash in on the popularity of the war as a subject for documentary. Most of them were not very good.
Now, enough time has passed that further films, such as CIVIL WAR THE UNTOLD STORY, are a most welcome addition to the Civil War documentary canon. And when the film (in five parts) is as well-made as this one, offering a fresh perspective on the conflict to boot, comparison to Burns' film is a moot point. Nonetheless, CIVIL WAR THE UNTOLD STORY complements Burns' film and, if comparison must be made, then Chris Wheeler's ambitious, scholarly, sure-handed and informative new creation holds its own in very impressive fashion.
Wheeler has managed to assemble an outstanding array of interview subjects, a particular stand out being Professor Allen Guelzo, who has been at the forefront of Civil War-era scholarship for two decades. It is one of the great achievements of this film that the commentators are as memorable and personable as Shelby Foote and Ed Bearss, two of the more recognizable and colourful historians from the Ken Burns series. What really distinguishes this outstanding film however--apart from the fresh perspective focusing on the western theatre of the war--is the tasteful and cinematically effective use of re-enactors for the plentiful battle scenes. This is often the kiss of death for many documentaries, as re-enactors are notoriously bad actors, generally speaking. In this case, however, the wannabe soldiers are left to do what they do best: re-enact. Filmed with an eye for composition and drama that nearly rivals Ronald Maxwell's great achievement in GETTYSBURG, that monumental achievement produced by Ted Turner in the early nineties, the reconstructed battle scenes are the heart of Wheeler's film. He appropriately credits the efforts of the hundreds of re-enactors in the credit roll of each episode.
Battle scenes are further augmented by the occasional use of 3-D graphics, which outline battle strategies and troop movements. Used with discretion, these bits are never distracting (as they are in some documentaries) but rather they enlighten and help the viewer understand what is going on.
Elizabeth McGovern's narration is another plus. Initially the use of a female voice seemed like an odd choice, but as the series went on, her understated, subtle delivery proved most effective.
Ultimately, what makes CIVIL WAR THE UNTOLD STORY a great film series in its own right is the fact that it manages to capture the sheer epic tragedy of this most famous of American armed conflicts. This is no easy achievement with such familiar material. Through a combination of personal stories (some partially re-enacted), effective recreations of key battles, and a narrative that both understates but does not shy away from shameful facts such as the treatment of slaves and the terrible loss of life on the battlefield, a very human story of a nation divided against itself emerges that is both deeply compelling and head-shaking.
That any country, democracy or otherwise, should descend into such madness in the first place is the tragic epicentre of this story. And yet how could it have been avoided? The series makes clear that slavery was at the heart of this divisiveness. The denigration of one race by another is an evil that the American Civil War made clear to the world, even if the northern states at the time were not so sympathetic to blacks as sometimes is assumed. The point is, the issue could only be resolved on the battlefield. This threat to democracy led monarchs around the world at the time to opine that democracy simply could not work. Towards the end of this at times gut-wrenching series, Professor Guelzo responds to this assertion by stating that the war showed that democracy is transcendent and worth dying for.
Today it is hard, on the one hand, to imagine such an occurrence as civil war happening in a country like the United States. And yet with partisan politics dividing the country like never before, is it really that far from reality? CIVIL WAR THE UNTOLD STORY is timely and truthful.
How did American democracy survive the Civil War conflict? A nation born of war had to save itself by war. This DVD series is an intellectual documentary scrutinizing the sociology, economics, and politics of the Civil War era and its outcome. Primary focus is the western front. Presentations are heavy with realistic/believable dramatizations, diary quotes, archival photos, maps, and expert scholar discourse. It includes a more-than-typical look at the plight and role of African American slaves.
Narrator Elizabeth McGovern (YES! of Downton Abbey)
A recommended well done series created for the American Civil War sesquicentennial.
SDH SUBTITLES for all 5 chapters, each 55 min.
~~1~~ BLOODY SHILOH: Grant, Feb '62, TN Shiloh Meth. Chruch, a pivotal point in war history. Conf. Gen. Johnson's 43,000 surprise the Union troops Apr 6. What does this brutal confrontation mean for the USA today? Some very graphic battle scenes (reenactments.)
~~2~~ A BEACON of HOPE: Continuation of Shiloh episode 1. Grant's Apr 7 counterattack at Shiloh ends battle with 24,000 casualties. 4 million Southern slaves saw the war as potential liberty. Were they free as "contrabands" on the Union side of the front? Fort Monroe turned the tide of slavery. Antietam slaughter preceded Emancipation Proclamation & Corinth.
~~3~~ RIVER of DEATH: Jan '63 turned into a war to save the union AND slavery end. Lee controlled VA but Grant looked to capture the West prize-Mississippi River. Vicksburg stood in the path. Offsetting the western battle was Gettysburg. South's morale severely wounded at the time of Chickamouga.
~~4~~ DEATH KNELL of the CONFEDERACY: Chickamauga goes eventually to the South at the cost of 34,000 soldiers. Grant began leading Union forces. Missionary Ridge dubbed "the death knell of the Confederacy."
~~5~~ WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE: Lack of success by Sherman & Grant in June '64 threatened the Nov election. Lincoln needed a 2nd term. Democrats pushed for a negotiated peace with the South. Atlanta's fall boosted the Union and Lincoln. Shermon's sea march -a psychological attack on the Southern citizens.
Democracy wins. Bigotry survives to fight more American battles.
~~Bonus~~ 14 min of 1913 film BW/silent of Vicksburg siege anniversary- amazing
on April 22, 2014
I know many of you Civil War buffs may be wondering how there could be anything about the Civil War that hasn't been told before, but this series, unlike a lot of others I have seen, focuses on the battles of the "west" which the producers claim actually led to the ultimate Union victory.
Now as someone from Oregon, I hardly think of Tennesssee as "the west" but it was, as far as the scope of the Civil War was concerned. This series closely examines the battles of Shiloh, Stone's River, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Chickamauga as well as Sherman's infamous march across Georgia that wasn't as one sided as many other programs have led us to believe.
These conflicts were particularly interesting to me because back in 1993 when my husband and I were helping my daughter move to the east coast, we visited almost all of the national military parks where these battles occurred on our way home, although we visited the sites in reverse, starting our journey at Fort Sumpter then traveling south to Savannah before finally swinging east to the site of the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville. Then we drove on to Atlanta then Chatanooga, stopping at the Chickamauga National Battlefield, probably the largest military park on our trip. Pressing on we drove to Stone's River then Franklin and finally visited our last Civil War cemetery at Shiloh. The visitor's centers had excellent presentations about the battles, particularly at Chickamauga where the Park Service had just installed a new multimedia theater-in-the-round-type exhibit. So receiving a review copy of this DVD set was like reliving that unforgettable trip!
The series begins with a discussion of the economic history of slavery. I didn't realize that slavery was on the decline in the late 18th century until Eli Witney invented the cotton gin. I remembered how, as a girl, I studied famous inventors like Eli Witney and his cotton gin. Back in the 50s, though, school teachers did not point to the cotton gin as one of the primary reasons for the outbreak of the Civil War.
The documentary explains that, although the cotton gin was a labor-saving device, it made the cotton cleaning process so efficient that it made the growth of cotton far more profitable than almost any other crop. Cotton exports jumped from 500,000 pounds in 1793 to 93 million pounds in 1810. Cotton became as important to the U.S. economy as oil is today.
So, there was a land rush to develop more and more acres into cotton fields. This corresponded to the increasing acquisition of land during the "manifest destiny" period of U.S. growth. But, politically, there were sharp differences in opinion about whether newly admitted states would then have to legally sanction slavery viewed by some as necessary for cotton development.
The program was quite candid in pointing out that northerners, with the exception of a few passionate abolitionists, had no real objections to slavery as a labor strategy. Researchers stated simply that white northeners didn't appreciate the racial pollution slavery introduced. Apparently, successful black individuals in the north, like Solomon Northup portrayed in "12 years a slave", were an extremely rare exception.
I had never heard about the so-called Hottentot Venus, a rather large African woman named Saartje Baartman, who was sold into slavery. She was exhibited by showmen in London and Paris because of large fatty deposits on her buttocks. After her death in 1815, famous French anatomist Georges Cuvier, performed an autopsy on her body, claiming it clearly showed that Africans were more closely related to such primates as orangutans and monkeys, than humans. These types of studies not only reinforced attitudes of racial superiority in the north but the opinion that slavery actually served to civilize such unfortunate individuals in the south.
I was also surprised to learn that four slave states actually stayed with the Union throughout the Civil War. Slavery was still legally recognized by the federal government and the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to the states in rebellion as a war measure intended to cripple the Confederacy.
The other military goal accomplished by the Emancipation Proclamation was that it successfully prevented the involvement of foreign nations in the struggle. Britain and France actually considered supporting the Confederacy, since they imported most of the American cotton crop that was sold for export. But, many Europeans opposed slavery as an institution so Lincoln's directive along with a significant Union victory at Antietam successfully influenced foreign powers to maintain a "hands off" policy.
The series then shifts to an examination of military objectives of the Civil War.
From a military standpoint, reclamation of the important economic highway of the Mississippi River was paramount to defeating the Confederacy. Yet, it appeared to me that Confederate leaders seemed to think there was more importance in victory at the high profile battles along the eastern seaboard (the Civil War version of winning hearts and minds) than in protecting the vital commerce artery of the Mississippi River in the west. The most famous Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were assigned to those eastern theaters of war, while the battle for control of the Mississippi was relegated to Generals Albert Sidney Johnston, Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood, names much less familiar to people like me that have not studied the Civil War as intensely as I have battles of the ancient world.
I use the word relegated as if Johnston, Bragg and Hood were lesser commanders but that was not necessarily the case. Johnston was an experienced combat veteran, fighting and directing engagements in the Texas War of Independence, the Mexican-American War, the Utah War and the American Civil War. Johnston was actually considered to be the finest general officer in the Confederacy by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But this did not prevent Davis from distributing most of the Confederate resources to the eastern front.
Johnston had to supply his troops by conducting raids and engaging in maneuvers that made it appear that he had larger forces than he actually did. My additional research revealed that this was compounded by the assignment of support staff that were either incompetent or frequently intoxicated.
Despite all of these obstacles, Johnston still managed to pull off a massive surprise attack against Ulysses S. Grant on the first day at the battle of Shiloh, despite being delayed for three days by adverse weather. Grant just couldn't imagine Johnston would leave his well fortified position at Corinth to confront Grant in the field. The surprise maneuver almost worked, with Confederates overcoming bitter Union opposition at the "Peach Orchard" and the "Hornet's Nest". But, Johnston, charging back and forth ahead of the advancing Confederate line, was shot behind the right knee, possibly by one of his own soldiers . The bullet cut a major artery and Johnston, seemingly unaware of the seriousness of the wound, bled to death. The three days lost to bad weather would also prove fatal.
By the second day, Grant, with control of the vital Tennessee River, received reinforcements bringing total Union troops to 45,000 men to the Confederates' remaining viable troops estimated at only about 20,000. To make matters worse, Confederate General Beauregard, unaware of the Union reinforcements, pressed Grant, only to be driven back. Later counterattacks were eventually repulsed as well. So, Confederate forces finally had to fall back to the heavily defended railroad center at Corinth.
It makes you wonder if Grant had faced the more formidable Johnston on the second day and the battle had occurred on schedule, if the outcome would have been different.
Later in the series as the researchers discussed the campaigns of Sherman in Atlanta, I was surprised to learn about the Confederate successes at Kennesaw Mountain and the more aggressive resistance in Atlanta after command was given to General John Bell Hood. As my husband and I did not visit any Civil War museums in Atlanta, I only remember Hood as a Confederate general who had suffered severe casualties at the battle of Franklin (where we did stop) in an action sometimes known as the "Pickett's Charge of the West".
The other Confederate general I enjoyed learning more about was Braxton Bragg. When I first saw a picture of him at the Chickamauga National Battlefield Visitors' Center, I thought he looked a lot like John Brown with his bushy brows and rather wild look in his eyes. But this surly officer orchestrated what has been called the greatest Confederate victory in the Western Theater, defeating Union General William S. Rosecrans at the battle of Chicamauga.
As for other political issues of the Civil War, I had never read about George McClellan's run against Abraham Lincoln for president or that if Sherman had not taken Atlanta at the time he did, Lincoln may have lost to powerful and vocal northern supporters in favor of a truce that would have ended in two separate nations. So I found all of this background information fascinating.
As for the production quality of the DVD set, I thought the reenactment sequences were very well done with very life-like special battle effects and the cinematography was excellent. Elizabeth McGovern's narration was articulate and quite empathetic. I much preferred her voice to the rather harsh newsbroadcaster voiceovers I have heard in other presentations.
on May 1, 2014
Most everything you or read about the civil war centers on the campaigns in the eastern theatre of operation. These disks finally give a clear and concise view of the importance of the Western campaigns. You see the mistakes made by both sides and the evaluations of these campaigns tends to put the entire war into sharper focus.
on March 9, 2015
I so enjoyed this documentary on the Civil War when it ran on my PBS station that I bought the DVD set for future viewings and to share with friends. It focuses on the major battles of the western front -- Shiloh, Vicksburg, Corinth, Stones River, Perryville, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, etc. -- and shows how critical the western battles were to the outcome of the war. The clear writing and chronological progression made the 5 hour-long episodes flow very well. The story is told at a level basic enough that young viewers and those new to the Civil War can follow it. Yet there is enough action and interesting perspective that Civil War buffs should enjoy it as well.
Many other pluses: The participation of hundreds of soldier reenactors, whether nervously waiting to fight, engaging in battle, or resting or mourning afterward, gave a real "You are there" feeling to the dramatic events. These guys are not professional actors but they sure took their work seriously and put their hearts into the fight. The cinematography of battle sites along with the actual battle scenes was awesome. The computer graphics that showed the positions of troops during battles were helpful. They were easy to follow and made me understand the movements and tactics better. I also liked the many personal anecdotes that were included, showing how people, from humble privates to generals to wives at home to slaves, all got caught up in the life-changing events. Some of the personal dramas are acted out, giving the series a kind of docudrama feeling. Included in the usual comments by historians are US park rangers who oversee the historic battle sites. They are very well-informed and skilled at sharing battlefield stories. Finally, I enjoyed the narration by actress Elizabeth McGovern. She seemed an odd choice for a war documentary, but her voice was consistently clear, strong and engaging. I guess sometimes it's good to have our expectations upended!
I highly recommend this series. It's outstanding all around. Congrats to Nashville Public TV and Great Divide Pictures for producing such a quality series.
on September 8, 2014
This is just about as well-presented as something from Ken Burns. Though the "big battles" in the East are normally the subject matter for documentaries about the Civil War, this concentrates on the battles in the West that doomed the South and made Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan household names. If you have any interest in the war between the States, take the time to enjoy this.
on September 2, 2014
This presents the war on the western front. Lee and the troops in the east are usually the focus. This gives a step by step downfall of the Confederacy in the western theater of operation and the eventual collapse of the South's Second War for Independence.
on March 9, 2015
A must-have for any Civil War enthusiast. This tells the usually ignored story of the war in the western theater in great detail and features some stunning battle recreations and cinematography. There are five one-hour segments on the two disc set. Highly recommend it!
on February 15, 2015
This is a documentary history of the Civil War in the west, focusing on the major battles there.
First of all, this idea that the war in the West is an "untold story" is absurd. Yes, the war in the east received far more attention for most of the 100 years after the war, but since the mid- to late-1900s, the war in the west has received abundant attention. In fact, I don't think there has been any unturned stone of the Civil War, so there probably are NO untold stories of the Civil War.
Secondly, there is a mix of reenactment and other footage that makes this enjoyable to watch. Quite different from the Ken Burn's approach. This probably has more appeal to younger viewers. It does a good job of relaying the events, though I wish it tied them all together a bit better. Several key events of the war in the West are left out. Of course, you can't cover everything, but I felt that this series could have been much better. I'm surprised it has not been more popular than it is, but maybe these are some of the reasons why. Also, while the narration is excellent, it seems weird to have female narration of Civil War battles. Super minor, but it just sounds strange while watching it.
I recommend this series, but it could have been better.
on November 25, 2014
Though not as thorough as Ken Burn's Civil War, this is the story of the mostly Western Campaign that is not taught and has a tendency to marginalized somewhat compared to what most people learned or remember about what they learned in school about America's Civil War. This dvd package is a must for any Civil War or American History enthusiast.