Nearly 30 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, and 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 that 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 that 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 whom 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.