I’ve been a fan of the American Experience series for quite some time now. I love the way PBS takes significant events in American History and covers them in surprising detail for a television show. Experts, typically those who have written books on a subject or have spent considerable portions of their lives studying the events, are brought in to provide nuanced explanations, nuanced as far as an hour or two will allow anyway. Death and the Civil War, PBS’ latest episode in the American Experience series set to debut on most PBS stations tonight at 8/7 Central, is no different in this regard. Fittingly, the film debuts on the 150th anniversary of the day after Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American History. No one place in America at any given moment in time has ever been more filled with the sights and stench of death than along the banks of Antietam Creek on September 18, 1862.
Based heavily on Drew Gilpin Faust’s recent best seller This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, and written/directed by Ric Burns, the brother of legendary documentarian Ken Burns, the film explores how Victorian era Americans became exposed to, dealt with, and rationalized death on a scale never seen before or since in this country. The seven sections of the film include Dying, Burying, Naming, Honoring, Believing and Doubting, Accounting, and Remembering.
In this era, Americans believed in the idea of a “good death”, surrounded by family and the ability to make a statement on your readiness to meet your maker contentedly. This proved to be impossible for hundreds of thousands, felled instantly by bullets or dying suddenly of disease. Each new major battle seemed to be bloodier than the last. Imagine the shock upon hearing of Shiloh, a battle in which more men were killed than in all previous American wars combined; or Antietam, where more men fell in one day than on any other day in our country’s history; or the Overland Campaign, where death came fast and furious for an entire unrelenting month from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor.
All of this death proved impossible for the infrastructure of both armies and governments to handle, though efforts throughout the war by individuals and organizations improved the ability to handle massive numbers of wounded men and dead bodies. Another side effect was that many men, estimate at half of the 750,000 people who lost their lives during the war, never had their bodies identified, still sleeping in nameless graves today, if they were lucky. The less fortunate suffered horrific fates, being burned alive or eaten by hogs, among others.
This episode is an excellent one in what is truly one of the best shows on TV. Recent episodes on George Armstrong Custer and the Dinosaur bone collectors Cope and Marsh of the late 19th Century are personal favorites. The show seemed to focus mostly on the Eastern Theater after awhile, though I suppose two hours leaves little time to be truly overarching in coverage. Death and the Civil War definitely resembles to some extent Ken Burns’ epic documentary The Civil War, unsurprising considering the two films were made by brothers. It is my fervent hope that this episode accomplishes for the Civil War what any American Experience episode should do: bring to life an important event in our past and present it in an interesting and educational way to modern day Americans. My wife, by no means a Civil War buff, sat transfixed for the entire two hours. I encourage anyone reading this to share this film tonight with your loved ones and friends. You just may spark one or several new lifelong interests if you do.