It has become almost cliche of late to blog on the subject of Ken Burns and his monumental PBS documentary The Civil War. The rebroadcast of the remastered nine-part series has caused a flurry of activity among online commentators who seem to either malign Burns and his magnum opus for its perceived flaws or praise it unsparingly for spawning a resurgence of interest in the conflict that hadn’t been seen since the Centennial of the 1960’s.
To be perfectly honest, I’m in no position to dispassionately critique the series. In 1991, at the age of eight, my parents presented me with a used VHS copy of the entire production as a Christmas present. Over the course of the next four days I watched it unfold, enraptured by the images and story line along with the expert narration of David McCullough, who I’d still argue is the unsung hero of the series. When I finally reached the end of the last VHS tape I experienced a sadness that to an eight year was akin to losing a family member. Subsequent viewings over the course of the next decade reduced the tapes to dust. Fortunately a DVD version has been acquired as a replacement.
Re-watching it twenty five years later has engendered a similar feeling – one that has nothing to do with the enhanced picture quality, which to be honest is lost on me. The
documentary is at once a poignant reminder of my youth and simultaneously an affirmation of everything that I love about my profession. It remains, to me at least, inherently watchable.
The success of the series was due in no small part to the contributions made by the historians, writers, and talking heads that appeared throughout the film. Of these
individuals, none had a greater impact—or more screen time—than the famed Shelby Foote, author of a massive trilogy of the war that is still widely read today. It’s difficult to
imagine the series without Foote. His folksy appeal and southern drawl lent the film a kind of warmth that it would have otherwise lacked. That being said, no aspect of the documentary has been criticized as heavily as Foote’s contributions – and perhaps rightly so. Foote, at least in the Burns series, pays scant attention to the centrality of slavery as a cause of the war and perpetuates a Lost Cause narrative throughout his commentary.
On November 19th, 1993, Foote spoke at the Rostrum in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery for the 130th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. His remarks that day confirmed, and to a degree conflicted, with his contributions in Ken Burns’s The Civil War. Shelby Foote’s Gettysburg Address appears in full below. We invite you to read over his remarks and comment. It is well worth the time.
– C. Gwinn, Gettysburg National Military Park
Dedication Day Remarks
November 19, 1993
It is an awesome, indeed a daunting thing to stand here where perhaps the greatest American—in or out of public office, high or low—stood, 130 years ago, and delivered what he later called ‘my little speech.’ His predecessor on the rostrum, the distinguished orator Edward Everett (former governor of Massachusetts, ambassador to England, president of Harvard, successor to Daniel Webster as Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore, and recently a candidate for Vice President on the Constitutional Union ticket, which had carried Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee) spoke for two solid hours by the clock. Lincoln, in a black, full skirted suit, a tall silk hat, and white gloves, spoke for two minutes… I hope to hold my time closer to the latter’s—especially since Everett afterwards said to him: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as close to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
I do not hope to achieve his eloquence—no one has. But I intend to emulate his brevity—though even that I cannot quite match.
The President in fact had done something beyond communicating any ‘central idea,’ no matter how noble that idea was and is. He created something more permanent than if his words had merely been cast in bronze or engraved on brass. The speech he read, and in part improvised, on that November day as he stood here, and later in Washington touched up in response to requests for copies, now are [is] recognized as an imperishable page in the highest rank of American prose. Lincoln as a writer is up there with Hawthorne, Twain, James, and all the distinguished men who followed them and him. Sometimes the strength and beauty of his language—as in the King James Bible, from which he learned a good part of his craft—mask and dominate his meaning. The Gettysburg Address is a case in point, particularly in its closing words, in which he declared that if the Northern case fell short of victory, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ would ‘perish from the earth.’
My great-grandfather, who commanded the Noxubee Cavalry at Shiloh, would have denied fervently that he and his compatriots were out to destroy government of or by or for the people. In fact he saw it as being rather the other way around, and so did those who served under and over him in the Confederate ranks. Yet, such was the force and beauty of Lincoln’s words, that I, along with my fellow students in the public schools of Mississippi, fifty-odd years ago, were required to memorize those and all the other words of that Address in reverence for the man who spoke them, here at Gettysburg, in dedication of the Union dead who found their ‘final resting place’ in the hallowed ground on which we are gathered in observance of this anniversary of that utterance.
(Incidentally, I have been informed that this memorization is no longer universally required in our schools. If so, I am sorry indeed to hear it—for, if so, this is a signal milepost in the decline of American education. For me, it’s hard to imagine a group of young folks milling around without the cadences of the Gettysburg Address pulsing in their young brains.)
But the truth is, Lincoln did not come here (or exercise his craft) to cast aspersions on those who were doing their best to tear the fabric of the Union, even as he spoke. He did not think they were wicked, in the main; he simply thought they were wrong. At ‘four score and seven,’ the nation was in its adolescence, nearly half a century closer to the Revolution than we today are to the Civil War, which he saw as a test as to whether this country could ‘long endure.’ Democracy, as established and practiced here, was still in its experimental stage, suffering as it were from growing pains. If the Union split, secession succeeded, the experiment failed as a model others might decline to follow down the years. The dream, he was saying, would ‘perish,’ and with it what he had earlier called ‘the last, best hope of earth.’
In time, even those who had opposed him most fiercely during the four-year conflict would come to agree in large part with Lincoln’s war-scorched vision. That would be part of what became known as the Great Compromise, whereby Southerners agreed that it was best, all round, that the Union had been preserved, and Northerners agreed—although some with equal reluctance—that the South had fought bravely for a cause it believed was just.
In the light (or shadow) of that Compromise, I suggest that we remember here today that roughly half of the 50,000 casualties on this field were Confederates, many of whom also gave ‘the last full measure of devotion.’ We would do well to remember that they too were Americans—deserving, as well, of our remembrance, our admiration and, if need be, our forgiveness. One man I know would give all three of these, and had even begun to do so before he was martyred, three days after Appomattox. That man was Abraham Lincoln, who spoke here all those hundred and thirty years ago.
I thank you.*
* Special thanks to Ranger Daniel Vermilya who transcribed Foote’s remarks.