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

Valley of The Shadow of Death (1864)

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Video Description


Episode six begins with a biographical comparison of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee and then chronicles the extraordinary series of battles that pitted the two generals against each other from the wilderness to Petersburg in Virginia. In 30 days, the two armies lose more men than both sides have lost in three years of war. With Grant and Lee finally deadlocked at Petersburg, we visit the ghastly hospitals north and south and follow General Sherman’s Atlanta campaign through the mountains of north Georgia. As the horrendous casualty lists increase, Lincoln’s chances for re-election begin to dim, and with them the possibility of Union victory.


Walt Whitman worries about the coming battles, the "awful loads ... of bloody, pale, and wounded young men."

6.1 Chapter 1 - THE CIVIL WAR Series Title

There is no real end in sight for the war. And, as William Tecumseh Sherman says, "the worst of the war is not yet begun."

6.2 Chapter 2 - 1864: Valley of the Shadow of Death

Letter from Spotswood Rice, escaped slave and Union soldier, to his enslaved children.

6.3 Chapter 3 - Grant

Ulysses S. Grant's background: Born in 1822 to a tanner in Ohio. Graduates from West Point. Marries the daughter of a Kentucky slave-holder. Fights in the Mexican War. Unsuccessfully tries farming, real estate, and works as a clerk for his father. Re-enters the Army when the war begins.

6.4 Chapter 4 - Lee

Lee's background: Born in 1807 to a very prominent Virginia family and raised by his mother. He is nicknamed "the marble model" at West Point and graduates in 1829 without a single demerit. Marries Mary Custis, George Washington's granddaughter. Serves in the prestigious Army Corps of Engineers during the Mexican War. The captor of John Brown at Harpers Ferry, Lee is the most promising soldier in the nation at the start of the war.

6.5 Chapter 5 - In the Wilderness

Grant plans a four-pronged assault on the Confederacy: Sherman will move on Atlanta, Sigel will advance up the Shenandoah Valley, Butler will work his way up the James River, and Meade will head south to Richmond. Lee and Grant clash for the first time at The Wilderness, near Chancellors Ville, Virginia, "in many ways the most terrible battle of the war." Grant loses 17,000 men. But the next day, instead of retreating, he gives orders to march. Now the war will wage non-stop for 30 days.

6.6 Chapter 6 - Move By the Right Flank

Lee and Grant fight continuously as Grant's flanking maneuvers force Lee south towards Richmond. At the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant makes his worst mistake, sending 7,000 troops to be slaughtered by entrenched Rebel troops. In one month, the Union loses 50,000 men. But Grant tricks Lee and makes it to Petersburg, just south of Richmond. The siege of Petersburg begins - it will last ten months.

6.7 Chapter 7 - Now, Fix Me

Both sides organize hundreds of hospitals to care for the wounded. Walt Whitman volunteers in hospital wards in Washington. Dorothea Dix is in charge of all the nurses for the Union army and serves all four years without pay.

6.8 Chapter 8 - The Remedy

William Tecumseh Sherman moves south from Chattanooga to wards Atlanta. Lincoln's chances for re-election hinge on Sherman's campaign. Sherman's advance is a masterpiece of planning and Joseph E. Johnston cannot slow his advance. He makes one mistake at Kennesaw Mountain he loses 3,000 men in a series of doomed frontal assaults. Then, Sherman also stalls outside of Atlanta.

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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