U.S. Compilation Documentary

The Civil War premiered on the Public Broadcasting Service over five consecutive evenings (23 to 27 September 1990) amassing the largest audience for any series in public television history. Over 39 million Americans tuned into at least one episode of the telecast, and viewership averaged more than 14 million viewers each evening. Subsequent research indicated that nearly half the viewers would not have even been watching television at all if it had not been for The Civil War.

The widespread positive reaction to The Civil War was generally lavish and unprecedented. Film and television critics from across the country were equally attentive and admiring. Newsweek reported "a documentary masterpiece"; Time "eloquen[t]...a pensive epic"; and U.S. News & World Report "the best Civil War film ever made." David Thomson in American Film declared that The Civil War "is a film Walt Whitman might have dreamed." And political pundit, George Will, wrote: "Our Iliad has found its Homer...if better use has ever been made of television, I have not seen it." Between 1990 and 1992, accolades for Ken Burns and the series took on institutional proportions. He won "Producer of the Year" from the Producers Guild of America; two Emmys (for "Outstanding Information Series" and "Outstanding Writing Achievement"); a Peabody; a DuPont-Columbia Award; a Golden Globe; a D.W. Griffith Award; two Grammys; a People's Choice Award for " Best Television Mini-Series"; and eight honorary doctorates from various of American colleges and universities, along with literally dozens of other recognitions.

The Civil War also became a phenomenon of popular culture. The series was mentioned on episodes of Twin Peaks, thirtysomething, and Saturday Night Live during the 1990-1991 television season. Ken Burns appeared on The Tonight Show; and he was selected by the editors of People magazine as one of their "25 most intriguing people of 1990." The series, moreover, developed into a marketing sensation. The companion volume, published by Knopf, The Civil War: An Illustrated History, became a runaway bestseller; as did the nine episode videotaped version from Time-Life, and the Warner soundtrack, featuring the bittersweet anthem, "Ashokan Farewell," by Jay Ungar.

Several interlocking factors evidently contributed to this extraordinary level of interest, including its accompanying promotional campaign, the momentum of scheduling Sunday through Thursday, the synergetic merchandising of its ancillary products, and of course the quality of production itself. Most significantly, though, the series examined America's great civil conflict from a distinct perspective. A new generation of historians had already begun addressing the war from the so-called "bottom-up" point of view, underscoring the role of African-Americans, women, immigrants, workers, farmers, and common soldiers in the conflict. This fresh emphasis on social and cultural history had revitalized the Civil War as a subject, adding a more inclusive and human dimension to the traditional preoccupations with "great men," transcendent ideals, and battle strategies and statistics. The time was again propitious for creating a filmed version of the war between the states which included the accessibility of the newer approach. In Ken Burns' own words, "I don't think the story of the Civil War can be told too often. I think it surely ought to be retold for every generation."

Much of the success of Ken Burns' The Civil War must be attributed to the ways in which his account makes this nineteenth century conflict immediate and comprehensible in the 1990s. The great questions of race and continuing discrimination, of the changing roles of women and men in society, of big government versus local control, and of the individual struggle for meaning and conviction in modern life, all form essential parts of Burns' version of the war. In his own words, "I realized the power that the war still exerted over us."

To define and present that power on television Burns employed 24 prominent historians as consultants on the project. He melded together approximately 300 expert commentaries and another 900 first-person quotations from Civil War era letters, diaries, and memoirs. Exerpts from these source materials were read by a wide assortment of distinguished performers, such as Sam Waterston, Jason Robards, Julie Harris, and Morgan Freeman, among many others.

Often these remarkable voices would be attached to specific historical characters--foot soldiers from both armies, wives or mothers left behind, slaves who escaped to fight on behalf of their own freedom. One of Burns' extraordinary techniques was to follow some of these individuals through long periods of time, using their own words to chronicle the devastating sense of battle weariness, the loneliness of divided families, and both the pain and joy of specific moments in personal histories.

Just as significantly, he attached pictures to these words. Using a vast collection of archival photographs, some rarely seen, the primary visual production techniques was the slow movement of the camera over the surfaces of still photographs. Audiences were allowed to move in for close-ups of faces and eyes, to survey spaces captured in more panoramic photos, and to see some individuals at different stages of their war experiences. The visual component of The Civil War also compared historical photographs of places with contemporary filmed shots of the same locations. The "reality" of bluffs over Vicksburg, a Chancellorsville battlefield, or Appamattox Courthouse was established by these multiple pictorial representations.

All these visual and aural techniques combined in a special sort of opportunity for the audience. The series invited one into a meditation more than an analysis, an intimate personal consideration of massive conflict, social upheaval, and cultural devastation.

Ken Burns, a hands-on and versatile producer, was personally involved in researching, fund raising, co-writing, shooting, directing, editing, scoring, and even promoting The Civil War. The series, a production of Burns' Florentine Films in association with WETA-TV in Washington, also boasted contributions by many of the filmmaker's usual collaborators, including his brother and co-producer, Ric Burns, writer Geoffrey C. Ward, and narrator David McCullough. Writer, historian, and master raconteur, Shelby Foote, emerged as the onscreen star of The Civil War, peppering the series with entertaining anecdotes during 89 separate appearances.


The Civil War
Photo courtesy of Florentine Films

The Civil War took an estimated five years to complete and cost nearly $3.5 million, garnered largely from support by General Motors, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. By any standard that has gone before, The Civil War is a masterful historical documentary.

Burns now laughs about the apprehension he felt on the evening The Civil War premiered on prime-time television and changed his life forever. He remembers thinking long and hard about the remarks of several reviewers who predicted that the series would be "eaten alive," going head-to-head with network programming. He recalls being "completely unprepared for what was going to happen" next, as the series averaged a 9.0 rating, an exceptional performance for public television. Ken Burns admits, "I was flabbergasted! I still sort of pinch myself about it. It's one of those rare instances in which something helped stitch the country together, however briefly, and the fact that I had a part in that is just tremendously satisfying."

-Gary Edgerton

Ken Burns, Ric Burns, Stephen Ives, Julie Dunfey, Mike Hill


September 23-September 27, 1990


Burns, K. "In Search of the Painful, Essential Images of War." The New York Times, 27 January 1991.

Censer, J.T. "Videobites: Ken Burns' The Civil War in the Classroom." American Quarterly (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 1992.

"The Civil War: Ken Burns Charts a Nation's Birth." American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1990.

DuBois, E. "The Civil War." American Historical Review (Washington, D.C.), 1991.

Duncan, D. "A Cinematic Storyteller." The Boston Globe Magazine, 19 March 1989.

Edgerton, G. "Ken Burns--A Conversation with Public Television's Resident Historian." Journal of American Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), 1995.

_______________. "Ken Burns' America: Style, Authorship, and Cultural Memory." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), 1993.

_______________. "Ken Burns' American Dream--Histories-for-TV from Walpole, New Hampshire." Television Quarterly (New York), 1994.

_______________. "Ken Burns' Rebirth of a Nation: Television, Narrative, and Popular History." Film & History 1992.

Henderson, B. "The Civil War: 'Did It Not Seem Real?'" Film Quarterly (London), 1991.

Koeniger, A.C. "Ken Burns' The Civil War: Triumph or Travesty?" The Journal of Military History (Lexington, Virginia), April 1991.

Milius, J. "Reliving the War Between Brothers." The New York Times, 16 September 1990.

Powers, R. "Glory, Glory." GQ (New York), September 1990.

Purcell, H. "America's Civil Wars." History Today (London), May 1991.

Summers, M.W. "The Civil War." The Journal of American History (Bloomington, Indiana), December 1990.

Thomson, D. "History Composed with Film." Film Comment (New York), September/October 1990.

Toplin, Robert Brent, editor. Ken Burns' The Civil War: Historians Respond. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Weisberger, B. "The Great Arrogance of the Present is to Forget the Intelligence of the Past." American Heritage (New York), September/October 1990.


See also Burns, Ken; Documentary