Monday, September 17, 2012

"Death and the Civil War" -- September 18th

Tomorrow evening, September 18, 2012, will see the debut of a new documentary,
Death and the Civil War, an installment of PBS’s outstanding “American Experience” series. It is the work of filmmaker Ric Burns, brother of the more widely known documentarian, Ken Burns. Like many bloggers, I received an advance review copy of the documentary, and like them, I would encourage everyone to make time for this compelling production.

To get some sense of the subject matter, try a little exercise. Imagine if the United States today -– in a four-year period –- were to suffer the same percentage of deaths as the nation endured during the Civil War. In today’s terms, and based on a recently updated death toll from the war, the total deaths would number 7,000,000. Yes, seven million.

The program’s content sprung in large measure from the book, The Republic of Suffering, by Drew G. Faust, one of the most intriguing, scholarly releases in recent years. Fittingly, the film is being broadcast a day after the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Antietam, an epic clash of arms that still stands as the single most costly battle in American history.

The presentation will be familiar to everyone, colored as it is by camera and atmospheric effects that have become more or less an industry standard. As reviewer Megan Kate Nelson pointed out, Apple’s iMovie application actually features a “Ken Burns” button, allowing users to reproduce the effect of panning across or zooming in and out of a still image. Though some would say it's overused, it remains a mesmerizing technique, particularly with the masterful collection of images assembled for this work. 

The scope of the carnage at Antietam is difficult to appreciate from our distant vantage point, and the bucolic landscapes of that battlefield park today belie any tangible sense of the death and destruction visited upon the ground in 1862. But the dead at Antietam changed everything, beginning with the public exhibition of Alexander Gardner’s photographs in Mathew Brady’s New York City studio. Gardner’s graphic Antietam photographs, widely featured in Death and the Civil War, began to bring the war home. Speaking of the photo exhibition, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “The sight of these pictures is a commentary on civilization such as the savage might well triumph to show its missionaries.”

While Antietam can be said to be a microcosm of the war as a whole, this film ambitiously examines the effect on the nation of the exponentially larger casualties resulting from a four-year bloodbath. The United States was ill-equipped -– emotionally, and in terms of infrastructure or policy (even policies regarding such basic things as notifying the next of kin)  -– to handle casualties of such magnitude, and Ric Burns has given us a powerful look at how Americans of all stripes coped with widespread mortality.

Burns opens the film with a heart-wrenching, blood-splattered letter from a Mississippi soldier who was mortally wounded at Spotsylvania Court House – a boy writing a final farewell to his father. History is especially gripping when told through the words of those who lived it, and this boy’s letter memorably sets a somber tone for a film exploring how the nation – the government itself, and the citizenry, wholly unprepared -- was transformed by loss of life on a scale previously unimagined.

A preview and other information can be seen here

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A crossroads near the farm of Charles Monroe, deep in the heart of Fort Bragg

Last March, a number of regulars from the CompuServe Civil War Forum made a visit to the North Carolina battlefield of Monroe's Crossroads for a tour with historian Mark Bradley (who also conducted a tour of Bentonville the following day). Access to Monroe's Crossroads is complicated by the fact that it is situated deep inside the grounds of Fort Bragg, and subject to overshot from live fire ranges. Each of these photos needed to be reviewed and approved by the U.S. army before permission was given to post them on my blog, and at the Forum website.

Mark Bradley secured permission for our bus, and enlisted Charles Heath, an archaeologist with Fort Bragg's Cultural Resources Program, to escort us and aid in interpretation of the site. From a preservation standpoint—because of its location—Monroe's Crossroad's remains more or less unchanged from its 1865 condition. It is the final resting place for cavalrymen on both sides of the fight.

For quick reference, there is a compact narrative of events and archaeological report, along with excellent maps, online here. For in-depth reading, you can do no better than Eric Wittenberg's, The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign, and Mark Bradley's, The Battle of Bentonville, Last Stand in the Carolinas (which treats Averasboro and Monroe's Crossroads in good detail).

Mark Bradley, right, gives us our bearings.

Charles Heath and Mark Bradley

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Broderick-Terry duel, 1859

The last duel in San Francisco occurred 153-years-ago today, when anti-slavery Senator David C. Broderick squared off with former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, pro-slavery firebrand David S. Terry, along the shoreline of Lake Merritt. Broderick became the first sitting senator to die in a duel.

There’s a great article with some cool illustrations on the Anchor Steam blog today. I wrote about it in a blog entry three years ago (read that here). The Broderick-Terry duel occurred a full month before John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and illustrates the trans-continental nature of what William Henry Seward in 1858 called the "irrepressible conflict."