Ken Burns’ Documentary

Ken Burns’ excellent Civil War documentary has now become the object of subject of some criticism. Folks say it white-washed the Confederacy and in general painted the Confederates in too positive a light. One 2020 post on the Journal of the Civil War Era blog says:

“In romanticizing the Confederacy, obscuring the role of slavery, and refusing to grapple with the war’s devastating racial repercussions, the much-loved documentary is complicit in a long tradition of distorting the meaning of the Civil War.”

What does the author mean by romanticizing? Well one complaint concerns descriptions by Shelby Foote praising Robert E. Lee as a warm, outgoing man who always had time for any private soldier’s complaints and Jefferson Davis as an outgoing, friendly man, “a great family man, loved his wife and children, an infinite store of compassion.” See the JCWE blog post here.

The author, Ella Starkman-Hynes, seems concerned by Mr. Foote’s “down-home drawl” and his folksy ways. Mr. Foote exhibits admiration for some of the Confederate leaders. Mr. Foote presents a sympathetic portrayal of some Confederates. Worst of all, says the author, Foote said he would have joined the Confederate army if he had lived at the time. Mr. Foote was a descendant of a Confederate officer and a native of Mississippi.

In short, Ms. Starkman-Hynes objects to presenting Confederate soldiers and leaders with a human side. It is almost silly, if it did not also reveal an odd view of folks who sought to defend their soil from invaders. One comment does criticize this blog post. But, other critical comments to the post which came later have been deleted.

Robert E. Lee

But, worse for the sake of accurate history, it fails to explain some of its controversial sources. It points to the 2017 Atlantic piece about Robert E. Lee which asserts Lee whipped his own slaves. In truth, that source, Wesley Norris, a former slave, was rejected by most Lee historians. It was Elizabeth Pryor who in 2007 pointed to Norris’ allegations and corroborated them to some degree. But, she did not and cannot corroborate the central piece of Norris’ allegations, that Lee had three escaped slaves whipped or that Lee whipped them himself. Ms. Pryor won a Lincoln prize worth $50,000 for her Lee biography. But, a prize does not corroborate Norris’ allegations either.

Most historians rejected the Norris allegations, because they are based largely on reports from abolitionist newspapers. Abolitionist newspapers were not reliable sources. Too, that story just contravenes what is well known about Lee. The former general avoided confrontation. Other slaves who escaped and were re-captured, Lee leased them out. He did not whip them or have them whipped. He leased them to other white men. In some ways, leasing out enslaved Americans was quite harsh in its own right. Leasing them to some other white person effectively removed the slaves form their home. But, that act of leasing out difficult slaves was more true to Lee’s personality. Most historians just find Norris’ 1866 story unlikely. But, the author of the JCWE blog post never mentions any of this controversy. Ms. Starkman-Hynes accepts the central assertion of the Atlantic article at face value.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

The author accuses Nathan Bedford Forrest of “overseeing” the massacre at Ft. Pillow. The massacre at Ft. Pillow was indeed a war crime. But, the evidence of Forrest’s involvement is ambiguous. There is evidence that Forrest knew about or perhaps even ordered the massacre. There is evidence that he did not and that he actually stopped the massacre. This blog post seems to have accepted one set of facts over another without explaining the controversy. The documentary does explain the massacre clearly. So, Ms. Starkman-Hynes’ concern is not clear. She seems offended that Foote describes Forrest as an unschooled military genius. Which he was. For a discussion of the evidence regarding Forrest’s possible involvement in the massacre, see History net here.

Too, Ms. Starkman-Hynes might have devoted some space to the problem posed by Ft. Pillow before the massacre. Nothing excuses a war crime. But, prior to Forrest’s attack, the fort served as refuge for Union soldiers and Union sympathizers who were committing raids on the nearby Southern farms and homes. The Negro soldiers (to use the contemporary term) generally knew where the homes of Confederate soldiers were and where the women and undefended homes were.

And, have to add, the wording is just problematic. The blog post accuses Forrest of “overseeing” the massacre. “Oversee” is not a well-defined term. It could include almost any action on the part of the general. Technically, I “oversee” the plumber when he comes to my house. I always check on him and ask questions. But, that does not make me responsible for the fixed toilet. The blog post appears to accuse Forrest of complicity. It does so with no discussion of the contrary evidence.

I tried to point out these modest points about Forrest and Lee, but my comment was deleted like many others.

Blue Gray Reunions

The blog post even criticizes Ken Burns’ use of reunion videos. The documentary shows footage from the 1913 and 1938 reunions which were held at Gettysburg. I wrote about those reunions here and here.

The reunion videos are sweet. They show ancient blue and gray veterans shaking hands and embracing. As I mention in my prior posts, the reunions were not all handshakes and hugs. There was a knife fight and angry objections to the Confederate flag. But, the JCWE blog argues that the reunions somehow replaced or prevented political freedom for black citizens during this time period. The post does not explain how reunions inhibited civil rights. But, even if they did, that does not mean the reunions hold no value for modern audiences. Reconciliation is hard work. Those old veterans did that hard work. Our country was better for it.

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