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Ken Burns’ The Civil War is a profound storytelling and leadership masterclass through Lincoln, Grant and Lee; who defined the soul of America

Ken Burns The Civil War-Poster
  • 10/10
    Critic's Rating - 10/10

“….this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


I had procrastinated long enough to watch this well-known documentary series. The first signs of watching this were given in 2020, when I binge watched my first ever Ken Burns series – The Vietnam War (2017). I was amazed by the expansive length and depth it had covered in over 10 episodes amounting to approximately 18 hours, covering over 30 years of the Vietnam conflict and how it changed the American society at that time.

The Civil War (1990) is Ken Burns first documentary series and it led to widespread recognition of Ken Burns. It’s a story which covers the prologue leading to Civil War and concluding majorly with the end of Civil War, assassination of Abraham Lincoln and beginning of reconstruction era, all capsuled in 9 episodes and 18 hours long, being called as a “movie”. Ken Burns went on to make documentary series Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014) & Country Music (2019).

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To start with, let me set some context. The Civil War (1861 – 1865) is America’s deadliest war ever. In the contemporary era, it is somehow overshadowed by the two World Wars and the Cold War for obvious reasons. However, Civil War is what united America and as of today, it defines America. Period.

The Civil War focuses on the reasons and ground which eventually led to the secession of various states, formation of Confederacy, challenges for Lincoln and his vision to see America united, violence and attacks which finally led to the Civil War. Specifically pertaining to the Civil War elements, it focuses on the four most important personalities which shaped it – Jefferson Davis, Robert Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S Grant. Their psyche, their strategy, the battle plans, their ability to take pressure and new challenges and their command over leadership is what forms as the highlight of the show. Focusing on these personas from narration point of view is what makes the viewers connect to the era and situation in an immersed manner.

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Lincoln had to wait for 3 years into the Civil War to finally get a General who was able to adapt, willing to win the war. The previous 6 commanders failed Lincoln. Lincoln was also haunted by a divided house of Republicans the opposite Democrats. Anti-war protest and war profiteering was rampant. The horrors of the war were narrated thanks to the few surviving diary and notes of Confederate and Union soldiers. How they lived, ate, moved around, fought, got treated and various other facets of life were covered in a manner which, with a tone of empathy, was soothing to listen however viewers would be surprised to hear the reality during this era.

The show doesn’t simply end with facts. It questions, just like Lincoln, the intent of war whether it was about saving the union or freeing the slaves? Ever since America has been founded it has never been able to resolve the problem even today. The show questions that the military battle was fought 200 years back approximately, however the scars still exist today in the form white supremacism in southern states specifically and the existing racial division in the society, which, at times alarmingly institutional. The contemporary Black Lives Matters among other hate crimes are a byproduct of the Civil War.

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A compelling story with narration and dollying in camera on the images from the old times. The Ken Burns effect is a sight to be witnessed. Ken Burns with his long-time collaborators have researched material thoroughly to present a content which is unbiased. Even if one forgets the fact and the war, the inspirational quotes and the leadership values it conveys will be with viewers forever. Especially the flawed personalities of the 3 most important leaders and towering personalities – Abraham Lincoln (unfortunately he was assassinated just after the end of war), Ulysses S Grant (General of the Union Armies who would later become US President twice) and Robert E Lee (General of the Confederate Armies who was a brilliant tactician and a planner, would later become President of Washington College).

After watching Ken Burns’ The Civil War and The Vietnam War, I’d definitely be on lookout for more documentaries from his end. Thankfully, his future production is already lined up and it includes Benjamin Franklin, The Holocaust & the United States, The American Revolution, LBJ & the Great Society, From Emancipation to Exodus etc. But first, tune into the most used background music of Ashokan Farewell – as satisfying, as deep and as hitting as this miniseries.

About the author

Vipul Singh

An ardent cinephile who considers movies not only as an entertainment but an experience envisioned by the creative minds, put together by brilliant people. Sometimes the "reel life" teaches you more lessons than the "real life".

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