American Experience: The Abolitionists

7 01 2013

Abolitionists

Things have been busy around here. Very busy indeed. So, despite having received the discs well in advance, my intention to view each of three episodes of PBS’s American Experience: The Abolitionists prior to their airing remains an intention. I do apologize. But here’s some info: the first part airs tomorrow night (Tuesday, January 8) in the Pittsburgh market, with parts II and III airing on successive Tuesdays. I’ll try to view the 2nd and 3rd parts in advance and hep you to them, but I can’t make any promises. Go here to view more details.

I tend to agree (will wonders never cease?) with the theme of Gary Gallagher’s The Union War that the pendulum has swung a bit too far to slavery as the cause of the war (not from an action standpoint, but from a motivational one, if you get my drift.) There’s too much stridency on the part of the pendulum swingers for my taste, but hey, that’s the way pendulums work. They go from one extreme to the other, right? While there are talking heads involved (usual suspect David Blight is first and foremost, but also a few folks with whom I’m unfamiliar – but “Abolition” titles total only 10 or so volumes of my library so that really doesn’t mean anything), The Abolitionists is a more theatrical presentation, with actors in the lead roles of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown. Most prominent among them, for me at least, is Richard Brooks as Douglass. You may know him better as Assistant DA Paul Robinette on Law and Order or, if you are a hopeless geek, as bounty hunter Jubal Early on Firefly.

Anyway, I will try to be better about filling you in on the next two episodes in advance, but if you want to talk about the show after it airs Tuesday we can do that here or over on the Facebook page.





Soundtrack for “Death and the Civil War”

18 09 2012

Hey folks: if you enjoy the soundtrack to tonight’s PBS American Experience presentation of Death and the Civil War, you can find ordering information here.





Preview: American Experience – “Death and the Civil War”

14 09 2012

On Tuesday, September 18, PBS will be airing a new episode of American Experience titled Death and the Civil War. The good folks there sent me a DVD of the program a while back and asked me to hold off on telling you about it until we got closer to the air date. That was a big mistake on their part, since without a firm deadline I put things off until the last minute. But I did make time to watch the program and have a few thoughts to share.

The film builds off of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering and is directed by Ric Burns, who with his brother Ken brought us The Civil War, among other things (see the Civil War Monitor interview with Burns here). Much of the Burns formula is present here, with a reliance on panning and zooming of period photographs. In Death however, the photos are sometimes shown in their entirety in a natural setting – that is to say, we see the whole image and sometimes its frame, perhaps on a table. It certainly makes for a warmer mood at times, which considering the subject matter is much needed.

Also important to a Burns project is the soundtrack, and in this case we get a very moody, string heavy background to the narration that is effective. I don’t know if I could listen to a lot of it on its own without blowing my brains out, which is to say it suits the subject matter very nicely. (Apparently you’ll be able to purchase the soundtrack as well – I didn’t receive a copy of that for review.) I thought I caught themes from Johnny Cash (The Highwayman) and Beethoven (Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92), but I could be wrong. Anyway, it’s good stuff. Rea has more info on the soundtrack here.

OK, now on to the film itself. It’s presented in 8 parts. In the introduction we’re told the story of a mortally wounded Confederate and his sobering letter home in 1864, which sets the stage for the subject at hand: how was the country affected by, and how did it deal with, the unprecedented scale of death that accompanied the war? The nation was unprepared for it, and it overwhelmed individuals and institutions that had to deal with it. At the time, there were no national cemeteries, and no systems for burial or for the notification of families of the death of loved ones. Resulting reburial and pension systems would transform the Federal government in profound ways.

In Part I, Dying, we learn that death in antebellum America was viewed as a part of life. The importance of a “good death”, at home, surrounded by family and friends, with last words, was paramount. It was a very Christian view of the process of moving from one world to the next. This of course was directly opposed to death on a battlefield far from home and relatives, often alone, and often without the body ever being identified or even buried. In addition, there was little preparation for the care of casualties, which brought about the formation of the U. S. Sanitary Commission and the U. S. Christian Commission in the north. In the south, with its fewer resources, the prospect of dealing with the dead and wounded was even more overwhelming. Dying sets the stage for the remaining six parts, Burying, Naming, Honoring, Believing & Doubting, Accounting, and Remembering. In the end, it’s a tale of adaptability and the struggle to maintain some sense of humanity and normalcy in inhuman and abnormal circumstances. To achieve a good death in a bad death setting.

The film is ultimately not an uplifting piece, but for those who have not already read Faust’s book, or for those more visually inclined, it is informative and moving. The answers to some questions I’ve long pondered, such as why physicians were so quick to tell their patients that their condition was fatal, have been made more understandable to me.

Watch it.





Review: American Experience – Robert E. Lee

29 12 2010

A few weeks back the folks at PBS’s American Experience sent me a copy of their new program on Robert E. Lee set to air next Monday night, January 3, at 9:00 PM ET.  I finally got a chance to view it last night and was pleased with what I saw: a well-balanced and generally unvarnished look at the marble man, warts and all.  Of course, such a view may displease many who subscribe to the belief that Lee was in the end a “pure Christian with a clean soul.”  Here’s a promo:

The 83 minute program features an impressive list of “talking heads” – some usual suspects but encouragingly some newer faces as well.  Here they are in what I think is their order of appearance:

  • Lesley Gordon
  • Michael Fellman
  • Peter Carmichael
  • Elizabeth Brown Pryor
  • Gary Gallagher
  • Emory Thomas
  • Ervin Jordan
  • Joseph Glatthaar
  • Winston Groom

The program does a nice job of laying out Lee’s life in chronological order and identifying the influences that helped form his character: the role his father played in the early days of the Republic and his subsequent disgrace; Lee’s single-minded purpose firmed up at West Point, where he developed his sense of duty, self-discipline, denial, and achievement, and also his burning ambition.   Both his courtship of Mary Custis and his experience in Mexico under Winfield Scott were lessons in the value of audacity.  Lee never really felt at home at Arlington and preferred the order of military life, but in 1857 after the death of his father-in-law he returned to Arlington, where he was not a good manager of the farm and was less than kind to “insubordinate” slaves – this segment may cause some discomfort to some viewers.  Lee is described as aligned with “slavery apologists” who felt slavery was far from ideal and would eventually die off  but who also believed that negroes were better off as slaves and that the institution should be defended to the last.  Also interestingly the commentators note that Lee did not become particularly religious until after the Mexican War, when he was having trouble adapting to the peacetime army and Mary became ill.

A better job of exploring Lee’s decision to resign from the army could have been done.  Although a good amount of time was spent showing how hard the decision was, the producers could have more closely examined why, and really if, Lee and his fellows actually felt that their state was their country.  Why not their section of the state?  Why not their county?  Why not their town?  How do we explain the decision of many to side with the Confederacy despite the decisions of their states to not do so?  Were these decisions based more on philosophy or, more likely, finances than on loyalty?  I tried to discuss this here a while back, with disappointing results.

A little more precision could have been used in describing just what Francis Blair offered Lee – command of an army, not the army.

Lee’s role early in the war, his failures, disappointments, and physical aging are adequately discussed.  Then comes his rise, reorganization of the army, and strategic vision.  In the winter of 1862-63 he was plagued by bad temper, paperwork, the deaths of a daughter and two grandchildren, and possibly a heart attack.  He reached his zenith at Chancellorsville, the moment “that the bond between Lee and his men was sealed.”  In the wake of the wreck of his army at Gettysburg, Lee became more insistent that his men - the Confederate people, in fact – become more committed to the cause, that they could persevere because God was on their side, but that they must be brave, strong, and disciplined.  He demanded that they live up to the standards to which he held himself.  While desertions spiked in 1864, so too did executions [in this Lee was not unlike his father, who was admonished by Washington for his harsh treatment of deserters].

Through the Overland Campaign, Lee broke down further, until finally at North Anna he couldn’t rise from his cot to take advantage of a tactical opportunity.  When his army was backed into a siege, he probably knew the gig was up but persisted as he believed it his duty as a soldier.

Post war, Lee was never able to reconcile to the defeat.  He believed that his cause was just, that God was on his side, and that his men had been brave.  Defeat made no sense to the engineer given the knowns of the equation – until the day he died he believed the wrong side had won the war.  He never accepted reconstruction (though he publicly encouraged his countrymen to do so) and was bewildered by emancipation.  In the end, he believed his life a failure, and that the great mistake of it was taking a military education in the first place.

[Perhaps the most tantalizing quote ever attributed to Lee comes at the end of Freeman's opus, when near the end of his life he advised a southern mother to teach her infant son that he "must deny himself."  If God was on the side of the south, if the cause was just, if the soldiers were brave, then were they and their people not disciplined enough to achieve victory?  What did folks like Jefferson and de Tocqueville think along these lines even before the war?  Was this what Lee meant by his advice?]

Don’t get me wrong – the program is no hit piece, and the above paragraph presents thoughts that ran through my head as I watched.  Your mileage may vary.  Give it a whirl Monday at 9:00 PM ET.








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