The Civil War (documentary)

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The Civil War is a 9 episode series created by Ken Burns, about The American Civil War, produced by PBS in 1990. The episodes were narrated by David McCullough

Episode 1: The Cause[edit]

  • We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top. In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire.
    • Oliver Wendell Holmes (Opening Lines)
      We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top. In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire.
  • By the summer of 1861, Wilmer McLean had had enough. Two great armies were converging on his farm and what would be the first major battle of the Civil War, Bull Run, or Manassas as the Confederates called it, would soon rage across the aging Virginian's farm: a Union shell going so far as to explode in the summer kitchen. Now McLean moved his family away from Manassas, far south and west of Richmond, out of harm's way, he prayed, to a dusty little crossroad's called Appomattox Court House. And it was there in his living room, three-and-a-half years later, that Lee surrendered to Grant. Wilmer McLean could rightfully say, "The War began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor."
    • Narrator
  • The Civil War was fought in over ten thousand places, from Valverde, New Mexico and Tullahoma, Tennessee, to St. Albans, Vermont and Fernandina on the Florida Coast. More than three million Americans fought in it. And over six hundred thousand, two percent of the population, died in it.
    • Narrator
  • What began as a bitter dispute over Union and State's Rights, ended as a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America.
    • Narrator
  • "No day ever dawns for the slave," a freed black man wrote, "nor is it looked for. For the slave it is all night - all night forever." One white Mississippian was more blunt: "I'd rather be dead," he said, "than be a nigger on one of these big plantations."
    • Narrator
  • A slave entered the world in a one-room, dirt-floored shack. Drafty in winter, reeking in summer, slave cabins bred pneumonia, typhus, cholera, lockjaw, and tuberculosis. A child who survived to be sent to the fields at 12 was likely to have worms, rotten teeth, dysentery and malaria. Fewer than four in a hundred lived to be 60.
    • Narrator
  • In your hands, my dissatisfied countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
    • President Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address, 4 March 1861.
  • Let me tell you what is coming. ‘‘‘After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern Independence. But I doubt it. The North is determined to preserve the Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche.
  • I tell you that if I were on by death bed tomorrow and the President of the United States should tell me that a great battle was to be fought for the liberty or slavery of the country, and asked my judgment as to the ability of a commander, I would say with my dying breath, let it be Robert E. Lee!
  • Little did I conceive of the greatness of the defeat, the magnitude of the disaster which has been entailed on the United States. So short lived has been the American Union that men who saw it rise may live to see it fall.
  • December 31, poor old 1861 just going. It has been a gloomy year of trouble and disaster. I should be glad to see its going were it not that 1862 is likely to be no better.

Episode 2: A Very Bloody Affair[edit]

  • It was almost inconceivable that anything that horrendous could happen. [..] If we had ten percent casualties in a battle today it would be looked on as a blood bath. They had thirty percent, in several battles, and one after another.
  • I always shot at Privates. It was they who did the shooting and killing and if I could kill or wound me a Private, well my chances were so much the better. I always looked on Officers as harmless personages.
  • Secretary of State William H. Seward hoped to replace Lincoln. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase wanted to replace Seward. Mary Todd told her husband to get rid of both of them.
    • Narrator
  • From the moment those two ships opened fire that Sunday morning, every other navy on earth was obsolete.
    • Narrator
  • Shiloh had the same number of casualties as Waterloo, and yet when it was fought there were another twenty Waterloos to follow; and Grant shortly before Shiloh said 'I consider this war practically over and they're ready to give up', and the day after Shiloh he said 'I saw this was going to have to be a war of conquest if they were going to win'. ‘‘‘Shiloh did that, and it sobered the nation up something awful with the realization that they had a very bloody affair on their hands.
    • Shelby Foote
  • The minie ball could kill at half a mile and was accurate at 250 yards, five times as far as any other one man weapon. The age of the bayonet charge was over, though most officers did not yet know it when the war began. And some had still not yet learned it when the war was over.
    • Narrator

Episode 3: Forever Free[edit]

It had been the bloodiest day in American history. The Union lost 2,108 dead, another 10,293 wounded or missing, double the number of casualties of D-Day, 82 years later. Lee lost fewer men, 10,318 casualties. But that was a quarter of his army
  • in this army, one hole in the seat of the britches indicates a Captain. Two holes, a Lieutenant. And the seat of the pants all out, indicates that the individual is a private.
    • Sam Watkins
  • In just one week, Lee had completely unnerved the Union general, and demonstrated for the first time the strengths that would make him a legend. Surprise, audacity, and an eerie ability to read his opponents mind. In just seven days, McClellan had been totally out-generalled.
    • Narrator
  • He could not let himself be made a fool, the Union be made a fool, by standing up for principles that could not be vindicated on the battlefield.
    • Babara Fields on Lincoln's decision to wait for a victory before announcing the Emancipation Proclamation
  • Sunday, a Soldier of Company A died and was buried. Everything went on as if nothing had happened. Death is so common that little sentiment is wasted. It is not like death at home.
  • They were the dirtiest men I ever saw. A most ragged lean and hungry set of wolves. Yet there was a dash about them that the northern men lacked.
We were now the missionaries of a great work of redemption, the armed liberators of millions. The war was ignoble, the object was higher
  • It had been the bloodiest day in American history. The Union lost 2,108 dead, another 10,293 wounded or missing, double the number of casualties of D-Day, 82 years later. Lee lost fewer men, 10,318 casualties. But that was a quarter of his army.
    • Narrator
  • You do have a big problem when you have units that are from states and counties and even towns. And one of those regiments can get in a tight spot in a particular battle, like in the cornfield at Sharpsburg. ‘‘‘And the news may be that there are no more young men in that town. They're all dead.
    • Shelby Foote
  • The dead of the battlefield come up to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the lists in the morning with paper at breakfast, but dismiss this recollection with a coffee. Mr. Matthew Brady has done something to bring to us the terrible reality and carelessness of the war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them at our doorstep, he has done something very like it.
    • Review of Matthew Brady's Gallery 'The Dead of Antietam' in New York City
  • It was no longer a question of the Union as it was, that was to be reestablished. It was the Union as it should be, that is to say, washed clean from its original sin. We were no longer merely the Soldiers of a political controversy, we were now the missionaries of a great work of redemption, the armed liberators of millions. The war was ignoble, the object was higher.

Episode 4: Simply Murder[edit]

  • They still thought that to mass their fire they had to mass their men. So they lined up and marched up toward an entrenched line and got blown away.
    • Shelby Foote
  • More credit for valor is given to Confederate Soldiers. They were supposed to have more élan and dash. Actually, I know of no braver men in either army than the Union troops at Fredericksburg, which is a serious defeat. But to keep charging that wall at the foot of Marye's Heights after all the failures they been in, and they were all failures, is a singular instance of valor.
    • Shelby Foote
  • January 24, near Falmouth. Daylight showed a strange scene. Men, horses, artillery, pontoons, and wagons are stuck in the mud. Rebels put up a sign, says 'Burnside's stuck in the mud'. We can fight rebels, but not in the mud.
    • Elisha Hunt Rhodes
  • It was no uncommon occurrence for a man to find the surface of his pot of coffee swimming with weevils after breaking up hardtack in it. But they were easily skimmed off and left no distinctive flavor behind.
    • Union Soldier
  • 'I make no terms', Davis once said, 'I make no compromise.' He refused to unbend in public, or to curry favor with the press. Privately, he commuted nearly every death sentence for desertion that reached his desk, explaining that "The poorest use of a Soldier was to shoot him."
    • Narrator
  • Davis may well have been the only Southerner who understood Southern Nationality, who understood what sacrifices had to be made if the Confederacy was ever going to gel as a nation. He kept saying, "I need the kind of powers that Lincoln got. I need the kind of resources that he got in the draft laws. I need to be able to suspend the writ of habeas corpus like he did." He would have said, "We can’t live by the dogmas of the quiet past any longer." He didn’t say that, but he acted that out. He said, "I have to be given the kinds—this Confederate government needs the kind of national authority—national power that the Union had in order to win." And they didn’t get it because States’ Rights helped kill the Confederacy.
    • Stephen B. Oates
  • General, I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac...I have heard in such a way as to believe it of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of this that I’ve given you command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up as dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.
    • President Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Major General Joseph Hooker on 26 January 1863
  • Winfield Scott, Henry Halleck, Irving McDowell. George McClellan, John Pope, George McClellan again. Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker. Lincoln could not find the General he needed. He now knew that to win the war, the Southern armies had to be crushed. He had the men, but he needed a General with the will to use them.
    • Narrator

Episode 5: The Universe of Battle[edit]

  • More than once during the Civil War, newspapers reported a strange phenomenon. From only a few miles away, a battle sometimes made no sound, despite the flash and smoke of cannon and the fact that more-distant observers could hear it clearly. These eerie silences were called acoustic shadows.
    • Narrator
  • In the summer of 1863 a Union warship hunting a Confederate commerce raider off Yokahama attacked a Japanese fleet for harassing the colony of Westerners there. The United States won its first naval battle against the Empire of Japan. But the Confederates got away.
    • Narrator
      If we had ten percent casualties in a battle today it would be looked on as a blood bath. They had thirty percent, in several battles, and one after another.
  • Stand firm you boys from Maine. For not once in a century are men permitted to bear such responsibilities for freedom and justice, for God and humanity, as are now placed upon you.
  • William Faulkner, in Intruder in the Dust, says that for every Southern boy, it’s always in his reach to imagine it being 1:00 on an early July day in 1863. The guns are laid. The troops are lined up. The flags are already out of their cases and ready to be unfurled. But it hasn’t happened yet. And he can go back to the time before the war was going to be lost. And he can always have that moment for himself.
    • Shelby Foote
  • The streets grew quiet when news of Gettysburg reached Clarksville, Tennessee. The 14th Tennessee regiment had left town two years before with 960 men. When the Battle of Gettysburg began, only 365 remained. ‘‘‘By the end of the first day there were 60 men left. By the end of the battle, there were only 3.
    • Narrator
  • If this war developed some of the most brutal, bestial, and devilish qualities lurking in the human race, it has also shown us how much of the angel there is in the best of men and women.
  • Sally Tomkins of Richmond and a staff of only six nursed 1,333 wounded men in her private hospital, and kept all but 73 of them alive; a record unmatched by any other Civil War hospital, North or South.
    • Narrator
  • Once a black Union Soldier spotted his former owner among a group of Confederate prisoners. 'Hello massa' he said, 'bottom rail on top this time'.
    • Narrator
  • On the second day of fierce fighting, Rosecrans committed a fatal mistake, ordering his troops to close a gap in the Union line that wasn't there. In the process, he opened up a real one; and Longstreet's Confederates stormed through. The Union forces broke and ran.
    • Narrator
  • He spoke just 269 words. He started off by reminding his audience that just 87 years had passed since the founding of the nation, and then he went on to embolden the Union cause with some of the most stirring words ever spoken.
    • Narrator

Episode 6: Valley of the Shadow of Death[edit]

  • While Grant conferred with Meade, members of his staff described Grant’s triumphs in the West. Veterans of the Army of the Potomac were not impressed. "That may be," one said, "But Grant never met Bobby Lee."
    • Narrator
  • In 1861, Lee refused command of the northern army and followed his state out of the Union, not because he approved of slavery or secession, but because he believed his first duty was to Virginia.
    • Narrator
  • I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonor.
  • The man who stood before us...was the realized King Arthur. The soul that looked out of his eyes was as honest and fearless as when it first looked out on life. One saw the character as clear as crystal, without complication, and the heart as tender as that of ideal womanhood.
    • Christiana Bond describing General Robert E. Lee
  • A Union girl watching Lee ride past her Pennsylvania home said, "I wish he were ours."
    • Narrator
  • That man Grant will fight us everyday and every hour until the end of the war.
  • Never before in my lifetime did I ever see such a scene as was enacted when Lee pronounced these words. A yell rent the air which must've been heard for miles around. A courier riding by my side with tears coursing down his cheeks exclaimed 'I would charge hell itself for that old man!'
    • John Gregg General Lee had just called a division of Texan Infantry to battle with a shout of "Texans always move them"
  • May 7. If we were under any other General except Grant, I should expect to retreat. But Grant is not that kind of Soldier.
    • Elisha Hunt Rhodes Recorded after the defeat at the Battle of the Wilderness.
  • Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate commander who now faced Sherman, was heartily disliked by President Jefferson Davis, but he was very nearly worshipped by his men. "I do not believe there was a soldier in his army but would gladly have died for him. With him, everything was his soldiers. He would feed his soldiers if the country starved. Sam Watkins." Outgunned, outsupplied and outnumbered 2 to 1, Joseph Johnston could only hope to slow Sherman’s advance and perhaps lure him into making the kind of doomed frontal attack that would help swing the election against Lincoln.
    • Narrator (Charley McDowell provides voice of Sam Watkins)
  • In the first years of the war, battle was bloody but sporadic. From now on it would be waged without a break. From the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, it would not stop for thirty days. It was, one Soldier wrote, 'Living night and day in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.'
    • Narrator
  • Petersburg is a magnificent sloop to the durability of men, on both sides. It was just a rehearsal for World War I, trench warfare. And they stood up very well to it. But the Soldiers always did in that war; its to us almost an incredible bravery, considering the casualties.
    • Shelby Foote
  • June 23, 1864. The demand down here for killing purposes is far ahead of the supply. Thank God however for the consolation that when the last man is killed, the war will be over. This war you know differs from previous wars in having no object to fight for. It can't be finished until all the men on either the one side or the other are killed. Both sides are trying to do that as fast as they can because it would be a pity to spin this affair out for two or three years longer.
  • Sherman will never go to hell. He'll flank the devil and make heaven in spite of the guards.
    • Captured Confederate Soldier

Episode 7: Most Hallowed Ground[edit]

  • In less then six months, from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor to Petersburg, Grant had nearly destroyed his Army.
    • Narrator
  • July 4th 1864. The Glorious fourth has come again and we have had quite a celebration, with guns firing shot and shell into Petersburg to remind them of the day. This day makes four Fourth of Julys I have passed in the Army. The first at Camp Clark, the second at Harrison's Landing, the third at Gettysburg, and today at Petersburg.
    • Elisha Hunt Rhodes
  • A man who would stay on an ironclad from choice is a candidate for the insane asylum.
    • Robert B Ely, Union Sailor
  • I had a good time in Washington. Lager beer and a horse and buggy, and in the evening, horizontal refreshment! Or, in plainer words, riding a Dutch gal. Had a good time generally, I tell you.
    • Pvt. Eli Veesy, Union Soldier
  • The news came like a flash of lightning, staggering and blinding everyone. Farewell old fella, we privates loved ya because you made us love ourselves.
    • Sam Watkins, on General Joe Johnston's reassignment from command of the Army of Tennessee
      The Union's most hallowed ground.
  • I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back. [...] I think that if there had been more Southern successes, and a lot more, the North simply would have brought that other arm out from behind its back. I don't think the South ever had a chance to win that war
    • Shelby Foote
  • Not the fall of Richmond, nor Wilmington, nor Charleston, nor Savannah, nor Mobile, nor all the combined can save the enemy from constant and exhaustive drain of blood and treasure, which must continue, until he shall discover that no peace is attainable unless based on the recognition of our indefeasible rights.
    • President Jefferson Davis
  • If it hadn’t begun before, the Lost Cause was born with his words. As Davis spoke at Richmond, his audience could hear Grant’s guns at Petersburg, just 20 miles away. More and more, it was becoming a Confederacy of the mind.
    • Narrator
  • Lincoln now issued a proclamation, making the last Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving. In the trenches of Petersburg, 120,000 turkey and chicken dinners were served to Grant's huge Army. Only yards away, the Confederates had no feast, but held their fire all day in respect of the Union holiday.
    • Narrator
  • On the night of November 25th, at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar opened. Three brothers had starring roles: Edwin, Junius and John Wilkes Booth. At one point in Shakespeare’s play, Cassius speaks of the assassination of Caesar: "How many ages hence shall this, our lofty scene, be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown?"
    • Narrator
  • By the spring of 1864 Union dead completely filled the military cemeteries of Washington and Alexandria. Secretary of War Stanton ordered the Quartermaster General, Montgomery Meigs to choose a new site. [...] Without hesitation he picked the grounds of Robert E. Lee's home of Arlington for the new Army cemetery. [...] Now the men Grant was sending to fight Robert E. Lee were being buried in Lee's own front yard. And that yard became Arlington National Cemetery; the Union's most hallowed ground.
    • Narrator

Episode 8: War is All Hell[edit]

  • We believed that it was most desirable that the north should win. We believed in the principle that the Union is indissoluble. We, or many of us at least also believed that the conflict was inevitable and that slavery had lasted long enough. But we equally believed those who stood against us held just as sacred convictions that were the opposite of ours. And we respected them, as every man with a heart must respect those who give all for their beliefs.
  • He saw from the very beginning how hard a war it was going to be. And when he said how hard a war it was going to be, he was retired under suspicion of insanity; and then brought back when they decided maybe he wasn't so crazy after all.
    • Shelby Foote (Referring to Gen William Sherman)
  • We were willing to go anywhere, or to follow anyone who would lead us. We were anxious to flee, fight, or fortify. I have never seen an army so confused and demoralized. The whole thing seemed to be tottering and trembling.
  • The conduct of the Southern people appears many times to be truely noble, as exemplified for instance in the defense of Petersburg. Old men with silver locks lay dead in the trenches side by side with mere boys of thirteen or fourteen. It almost makes one sorry to have to fight against people who show such devotion for their homes and their country.
    • Washington Roebling
  • The few men who still carried their muskets had hardly the appearance of soldiers. Their clothes all tattered and covered with mud, their eyes sunken and lusterless. Yet still they were waiting for Gen. Lee to tell them where they were to face the valiant fight.
    • Magnus Thompson, Confederate Cavalryman
  • The country be damned, there is no country, there has been no country, for a year or more. You are the country to these men.
    • Confederate Officer to Gen R. E. Lee, urging him to surrender
  • A crowd of soldiers waited in front of Lee’s tent. "Boys," he told them, "I have done the best I could for you. Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I shall always be proud of you. Good-bye, and God bless you all." He turned and disappeared into his tent.
    • Narrator

Episode 9: The Better Angels of Our Nature[edit]

  • My shoes are gone. My clothes are gone. I’m weary, sick, and hungry. My family have all been killed or scattered. I have suffered all this for my country. I love my country, but if this war is ever over, I’ll be damned if I ever love another country.
    • Confederate soldier in James Longstreet's army
  • America has no north, no south, no east, no west. The sun rises over the hills and sets over the mountains. The compass just points up and down. And we can laugh now at the absurd notion of there being a north or a south. We are one and undivided.
    • Sam Watkins
  • Robert E. Lee swore renewed allegiance to the United States, and by so doing persuaded thousands of his former Soldiers to do the same.
    • Narrator
  • Unable now to eat or speak, he sat on the front porch in the afternoon laboring over his manuscript. He finished it on July 16 and died one week later. Grant's memoirs sold half a million copies and restored his family's fortune.
    • Narrator
  • The Civil War is not only the central event of American history but its a central event in large ways for the world itself. If we believe today in the 20th century, as surely we must, that popular government is the way to go, it is the way to the emancipation of the human spirit; then the Civil War established the fact that a popular government could survive, that it could overcome an internal secession movement that could destroy it. ‘‘‘So the war becomes, in essence, it becomes a testament for the liberation of the human spirit for all time.