Ric Burns explores 'Death and the Civil War' for 'American Experience'

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Death is inevitable, especially in war, but when 900 men died in 12 hours at the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Va., on July 21, 1861, a divided country was unprepared for the sheer number of corpses. What was expected to be a military escapade of short duration dragged on for four years.

By the time the Civil War ended, an estimated 750,000 men -- making up almost 2.5 percent of the entire U.S. population -- had been killed. The task of retrieving, identifying and burying the dead -- let alone notifying families waiting for word of husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, uncles, nephews and cousins -- proved beyond the capability, even the very imagination, of a sundered nation.

On Tuesday, Sept. 18 (check local listings), PBS' "American Experience" and documentarian Ric Burns look at "Death and the Civil War," which examines how the carnage forever changed the nation's view of its obligation to the bodies and families of war casualties. Out of the conflict's aftermath came national cemeteries, means of naming the fallen, burying them and notifying and supporting their families, and improved medical facilities.

The film airs one day after the 150th anniversary of the bloody Battle of Antietam, which took place on Sept. 17, 1862.

Burns based his film on "This Republic of Suffering," written by Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust. Mark Samels is executive producer.

"A few years ago," Samels tells Zap2it, "I read Drew Gilpin Faust's book on the Civil War, 'This Republic of Suffering,' and I was stunned by how little I really knew about this central event in our nation's history. There have been some 60,000 books written about the Civil War, and here was something completely fresh and original.

"It wasn't about which general won which battle. It was about how the war shook the American people, everyone, to their core. It was about death, the work of death, as Drew put it. But it was also about dog tags and embalming and national cemeteries and Memorial Day. It was about death and what is so dear to life. It was a rich book and a daunting task to translate to television."

A distinctive feature of the Civil War is the photographic record, especially the shots of bodies strewn across battlefields -- as graphic and disturbing today as they were in the 1860s.

"There are many pictures of soldiers going off to war," Faust says. "You've seen them, I'm sure, the framed, proud photographs of people in uniform. But far more dramatic were the battlefield photographs taken, always after the end of a battle. But those often focused on the dead, because that would be what a battlefield contained at the end of an encounter.

"And there's a very dramatic review in the New York Press of an exhibit of photographs of the dead at Antietam, that Mathew Brady presented in the fall of 1862. And what this New York newspaper said, 'It was as if these bodies had been brought north and dumped onto the streets of New York City.'

"So the horrible underside of war, not just the gallantry or the heroism or how the exploits of the successful soldiers might be covered, it wasn't just that presented to the wider public. Instead, there was a quite realistic access to the horrors of war."

But the words of the dead carry as much weight in conveying the heartbreaking loss of life.

"We were dedicated," says Burns, "determined, to show the war in its full gruesomeness, as both the photographic record and the manuscript record would allow us access to it.

"Sometimes, the gruesomeness was actually more available through the imagined horror of receiving a letter from your son.

"Wilder Dwight, as he lay dying on the battlefield at Antietam, had started a letter to his mother on horseback as Hooker's men were charging across the cornfield there in the early hours of Sept. 17, 1862, and then suddenly his letter continues, 'Dear Mother, I have been wounded in such a fashion as to render me helpless. My unit has moved on from the field where I lie ... .'

"In that sense, you have a very rare moment, where you are actually being brought essentially right to the moment where life and connection is going to cease. And I found that, in a way, as gruesome and certainly as horrifying and sorrowing as the extraordinary photographic record."

Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman is quoted as saying, "War is all hell," and that was certainly never truer than when the reunited nation faced the staggering reality of death.

"This central topic," says Burns, "of the war, 'Isn't war death?' is something which had been strangely shifted, not off-camera, but sort of just to the periphery in a way that loses the essence of what the story is, in that one important respect."
Photo/Video credit: PBS
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