The Civil War (1990) PBS. A Film by Ken Burns

The Cause (1861)

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Video Description

Episode 1: THE CAUSE (1861)

Beginning with a searing indictment of slavery, this first episode dramatically evokes the causes of the war, from the Cotton Kingdom of the South to the northern abolitionists who opposed it. Here are the burning questions of Union and States’ rights, John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the firing on Fort Sumter and the jubilant rush to arms on both sides. Along the way the series’ major figures are introduced: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and a host of lesser-known but equally vivid characters. The episode comes to a climax with the disastrous Union defeat at Manassas, Virginia, where both sides now learn it is to be a very long war.


Anecdote about Wilmer McLean who "could rightfully say, 'the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.'"

1.1 Chapter 1 - THE CIVIL WAR Series Title

Introduction to the war and to the important characters in the series.

1.2 Chapter 2 - The Cause

America in 1861 – most of the nation's 31 million people live peaceably on farms and in small towns.

1.3 Chapter 3 - All Night Forever

The brutal reality of slavery and its importance to the Southern cotton economy; the invention of the cotton gin.

1.4 Chapter 4 - Are We Free?

The abolitionist movement: William Lloyd Garrison starts publishing The Liberator in 1831. Rise of Harriet Tubman, Wendell Phillips, and Frederick Douglass. Growing rift between North and South over slavery. Death of Elija P. Lovejoy, white abolitionist. Introduction to John Brown.

1.5 Chapter 5 - A House Divided

Events leading up to secession: Uncle Tom's Cabin published in 1850; Supreme Court's Dred Scott Decision; political conflict over entry of new states in the Union. In 1858 Lincoln writes, "a house divided against itself cannot stand."

1.6 Chapter 6 - The Meteor

John Brown raids the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859, and is captured by Colonel Robert E. Lee. The Southern militia now becomes a viable instrument; it is the beginning of the Confederate army.

1.7 Chapter 7 - Secessionitis

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln is elected President. The South is horrified. Introduction to George Templeton Strong, New York lawyer, and diarist. Seven Southern states secede in the time between Lincoln's election and inauguration. The Confederacy inaugurates Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis as President. Introduction to Mary Chesnut, wife of a prominent Southern planter and diarist.

1.8 Chapter 8 - 4:30 a.m. April 12, 1861

Southern artillery attack a battalion of Northern troops inside Fort Sumter, off the coast of South Carolina in the first battle of the Civil War. When Union forces surrender, the South is jubilant. Walt Whitman writes, "all the past we leave behind with Sumter."

1.9 Chapter 9 - Traitors and Patriots

Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteers -- Davis asks for 100,000. Introductions to: Northern soldier (and diarist) Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Southern soldier (and diarist) Sam Watkins. U.S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee.

1.10 Chapter 10 - Gun Men

The first Union troops arrive in Washington. Wherever the Union army goes in the South, slavery crumbles. Slaves fleeing their plantations for the Union lines are considered "contraband" of war and are not returned to their former owners.

1.11 Chapter 11 - Manassas

When the Union army marches into Virginia, Confederate troops engage them at the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas. The battle, thanks in part to "Stonewall" Jackson, is a Southern victory with an unprecedented 5,000 casualties. Union troops limp back to Washington.

1.12 Chapter 12 - A Thousand Mile Front

General George McClellan takes command of the Union army with an elaborate plan to destroy the Confederacy, but does nothing. U.S. Grant is assigned to desk duty; William T. Sherman resigns, close to suicide.

1.13 Chapter 13 - Honorable Manhood

Sullivan Ballou, a Northern soldier, writes a letter home to his wife before the Battle of Bull Run.

Documentary Description

The Civil War is an acclaimed documentary film created by Ken Burns about the American Civil War. It was first broadcast on PBS on five consecutive nights from Sunday, September 23 to Thursday, September 27, 1990. Forty million viewers watched it during its initial broadcast, making it the most watched program ever to air on PBS, to this day remaining one of the most popular shows broadcast by PBS. It is considered to be Ken Burns's magnum opus.

The documentary is 11 hours in length, consists of nine episodes and makes extensive use of more than 16,000 archival photographs, paintings, and newspaper images from the time of the war. These are intermixed with contemporary cinematography.


* Episode 1: The Cause (1861)

* Episode 2: A Very Bloody Affair (1862)

* Episode 3: Forever Free (1862)

* Episode 4: Simply Murder (1863)

* Episode 5: The Universe of Battle (1863)

* Episode 6: Valley of the Shadow of Death (1864)

* Episode 7: Most Hallowed Ground (1864)

* Episode 8: War Is All Hell (1865)

* Episode 9: The Better Angels of Our Nature (1865)


By Ken Burns

Ken Burns Nearly 20 years ago, on Christmas Day, 1984, I finished reading a book that literally changed my life – a wonderful, historical novel called The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. It told the story of the most important battle in our nation's history: Gettysburg.

I remember closing that book and telling my father, "Now I know the subject for my next documentary. It's going to be the Civil War."

"What part of the Civil War?" he asked.

"All of it," I answered.

My father just shook his head, and left the room – like many others I would meet in the early days of the project, convinced that this story was obviously much too big to be captured in one film.

Nearly six years later, when the documentary was finally finished, I realized that we had taken longer to make a film about the Civil War than it took the nation to fight it in the first place.

But the long and painstaking process had permitted me to refine a filmmaking style that we had been evolving for more than 10 years: the careful use of archival photographs, live modern cinematography, music, narration, and a chorus of first-person voices that together did more than merely recount a historical story. It was something that also became a kind of "emotional archaeology," trying to unearth the very heart of the American experience; listening to the ghosts and echoes of an almost inexpressibly wise past.

The Civil War was the greatest event in American history – where paradoxically, in order to become one, we had to tear ourselves in two.

In making this documentary, co-produced with my brother Ric, we wanted to tell the story of the bloodiest war in American history through the voices of the men and women who actually lived through it. And, to the greatest extent possible, we wanted to show the war and the people who experienced it through a medium that was still in its infancy in the 1860s – photography.

A photograph of citizens scanning the casualty lists to learn which of their sons, fathers, and husbands would be coming home – and which would not – speaks volumes about the grief and horror that washed over our country, becoming part of domestic routine without ever quite being domesticated.

And yet, what better way to "see" a soldier's life than through the simple, unvarnished sentences of Private Elisha Hunt Rhodes's diary; what better way to "feel" the combination of anxiety and determination before a battle than through the moving words of Sullivan Ballou's letter home to his wife, Sarah?

These "verbal and visual documents" of the past convey meaning and emotions and stories on their own, if they're allowed to speak for themselves. They can make the past, present. They can breathe life into history. They can illuminate the dramatic sweep and the minute details of important American moments – make them more memorable, more understandable than a recitation of dry facts, dates, and names.

We visited more than 80 museums and libraries, where we filmed some 16,000 photographs, paintings, and newspapers of the period. With the help of an extraordinary group of scholars and consultants, we also examined countless written accounts -- diaries, letters, reminiscences -- to glean a stockpile of quotations to accompany our stockpile of images.

I am fortunate to work with a team of talented colleagues – writers, producers, editors, cinematographers, musicians, and actors – who I believe are the best in the nation at taking this raw material and transforming it into what we hope is an unforgettable experience.

But our greatest debt is to the past itself, to those people who recorded their own moment in history with their own pictures and in their own words.

It is their story we tell. And it is their story we try to honor by remembering it as accurately – and as vividly – as possible.

When The Civil War first appeared on PBS in the fall of 1990, no one – myself included – was at all prepared for the overwhelming national response that followed.

The number of visitors at Civil War battlefields skyrocketed. Sales of all books about the war went up. "Ashokan Farewell," the hauntingly beautiful theme song written and performed by Jay Ungar, began to be played at people's weddings and funerals.

Johnny Carson talked about the series in his monologue on "The Tonight Show." Shelby Foote became a national celebrity – even got proposals of marriage through the mail. Different people gave different reasons for all this.

At the time, the United States was on the verge of a war in the Persian Gulf, and some commentators believed Americans were therefore especially interested in the story of our nation's bloodiest conflict.

Others said that, in an era which the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has described as "too much pluribus, and not enough unum," the film was a timely reminder of the frightful cost our ancestors had paid to make this nation a truly United States.

Whatever the reasons, for myself, I was merely grateful that a documentary film which my colleagues and I had worked so hard to produce could begin the kind of national conversation I have always believed television ought to be able to ignite.

And it strengthened my commitment to making historical documentaries for public television – to continue an investigation of the past to see what it can tell us about who we were and what we have become.

In many ways, each film I have made asks one deceptively simple question: "Who are we Americans as a people?" Each film offers another opportunity to pursue this question, and while never answering it fully, nevertheless deepens the question with each succeeding project.



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