The Civil War (TV series)

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The Civil War
Civil war.jpg
Genre Documentary
Starring David McCullough
Sam Waterston
Jason Robards
Julie Harris
Morgan Freeman
Garrison Keillor
Arthur Miller
George Plimpton
Country of origin USA
Original language(s) English
No. of seasons 1
No. of episodes 9
Running time 690 minutes/11 hours 30 minutes (9 episodes)
Production company(s) American Documentaries Inc.
Kenneth Lauren Burns Productions
Distributor PBS
Original channel PBS
Picture format 1.33:1
Audio format Mono
Original airing September 23–27, 1990

The Civil War is a documentary film created by Ken Burns about the American Civil War. It was first broadcast on PBS on five consecutive nights from September 23 to 27, 1990. Approximately 40 million viewers watched it during its initial broadcast, making it the most-watched program ever to air on PBS. It was subsequently awarded more than 40 major television and film honors. The film was remastered on the twelfth anniversary of its release, and a book following the movie has also been released.[1] The nation was captivated by the film, which drew praise from President George H. W. Bush.


Ken Burns was inspired to make this documentary because of Mathew Brady's photographs. More than 10 hours in length, the documentary has nine episodes that explore the Civil War through personal stories and photos. During the creation of the movie, Burns made extensive use of over 16,000 archival photographs, paintings, and newspaper images from the time of the war. The series' slow zooming and panning across the photos resulted in the coining of the term the "Ken Burns effect".

He combined these images with modern cinematography, music, narration by David McCullough, anecdotes and insights from authors such as Shelby Foote,[2] historians Barbara J. Fields, Ed Bearss, and Stephen B. Oates; and actors reading contemporary quotes from historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Mary Chesnut, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Walt Whitman, Stonewall Jackson, and Frederick Douglass. A large cast of actors voiced correspondence, memoirs, news articles, and stood in for historical figures from the Civil War.

Burns also interviewed Daisy Turner, then a 104-year-old daughter of an ex-slave, whose poetry features prominently in the series. Turner died in February 1988, a full two and a half years before the series aired.

The film took five years to produce, longer than the four years it took to fight the Civil War, which lasted from April 12, 1861, when the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina, until April 9, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.[3]

The film was co-produced by Ken's brother Ric Burns, written by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ric Burns, edited by Paul Barnes with cinematography by Buddy Squires.


The theme song of the documentary is the instrumental "Ashokan Farewell", which is heard twenty-five times during the film. The song was composed by Jay Ungar in 1982 and he describes it as "a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx." It is the only modern piece of music heard in the film. It became so closely associated with the series that people frequently and erroneously believe it was a Civil War song. Ungar, his band Fiddle Fever and pianist Jacqueline Schwab performed this song and many of the other 19th century songs used in the film.[4][5] Schwab's arrangements in particular have been acclaimed by many experts. Musicologist Alexander Klein wrote: "Upon watching the full documentary, one is immediately struck by the lyricism of Schwab’s playing and, more importantly, her exceptional arranging skills. What had been originally rousing and at times bellicose songs such as the southern “Bonnie Blue Flag” or the northern “Battle Cry of Freedom” now suddenly sounded like heart-warming, lyrical melodies due to Schwab’s interpretations. The pianist not only changed the songs’ original mood but also allowed herself some harmonic liberties so as to make these century-old marching tunes into piano lamentations that contemporary audiences could fully identify with".[6]

A major piece of vocal music in the series is a version of the old spiritual "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder", performed a cappella by the African American singer, scholar and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon and several other female voices. The song appears on Reagon's album River of Life.


Indicates performer voiced other characters as well.

Sam Waterston, who voiced Abraham Lincoln here, later played Thomas Jefferson in Burns' films about Jefferson and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In 2011, Waterston made an appearance as a voiceover again in Burns' miniseries, Prohibition.

Episode list[edit]

Each episode was divided into numerous chapters or vignettes,[5] but each generally had a primary theme or focus (i.e., a specific battle or topic). The series followed a fairly consistent chronological order of history.

No. Episode Original air date
1 "The Cause" (1861) September 23, 1990[7]
All Night Forever; Are We Free?; A House Divided; The Meteor; Secessionitis; 4:30 a.m. April 12, 1861; Traitors and Patriots; Gun Men; Manassas; A Thousand Mile Front; Honorable Manhood
2 "A Very Bloody Affair" (1862) September 24, 1990[8]
Politics; Ironclads; Lincolnites; The Peninsula; Our Boy; Shiloh; The Arts of Death; Republics; On To Richmond
3 "Forever Free" (1862) September 24, 1990[8]
Stonewall; The Beast; The Seven Days; Kiss Daniel For Me; Saving the Union; Antietam; The Higher Object
4 "Simply Murder" (1863) September 25, 1990[9]
Northern Lights; Oh! Be Joyful; The Kingdom of Jones; Under the Shade of the Trees; A Dust-Covered Man
5 "The Universe of Battle" (1863) September 25, 1990[9]
Gettysburg: The First Day; Gettysburg: The Second Day; Gettysburg: The Third Day; She Ranks Me; Vicksburg; Bottom Rail On Top; The River of Death; A New Birth of Freedom
6 "Valley of the Shadow of Death" (1864) September 26, 1990[10]
Valley of the Shadow of Death; Grant; Lee; In the Wilderness; Move By the Left Flank; Now, Fix Me; The Remedy
7 "Most Hallowed Ground" (1864) September 26, 1990[10]
A Warm Place in the Field; Nathan Bedford Forrest; Summer, 1864; Spies; The Crater; Headquarters U.S.A.; The Promised Land; The Age of Shoddy; Can Those Be Men?; The People's Resolution; Most Hallowed Ground
8 "War Is All Hell" (1865) September 27, 1990[11]
Sherman's March; The Breath Of Emancipation; Died Of A Theory; Washington, March 4, 1865; I Want to See Richmond; Appomattox
9 "The Better Angels of Our Nature" (1865) September 27, 1990[11]
Assassination; Useless, Useless; Picklocks Of Biographers; Was It Not Real?

Reception and awards[edit]

The series has received more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, Producer of the Year Award from the Producers Guild of America, People's Choice Award, Peabody Award, duPont-Columbia Award, D.W. Griffith Award, and the US$50,000 Lincoln Prize, among dozens of others.

Enough historians were critical of the series that editor Robert Brent Toplin responded with a book in 1997 titled Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond which gives voice to several historians as well as responses from Ken Burns and others involved in the series' production.

2002 remastering[edit]

The entire series was digitally remastered in September 17, 2002 in VHS and DVD. The DVD release included a short documentary on how a Spirit DataCine was used to transfer and remaster the film.[12][13] The remastering was limited to producing an improved fullscreen SD digital video of the source 16mm film, for broadcast and DVD; no widescreen/HD/Blu-ray versions are available. The soundtrack was also remixed.

Paul Barnes, Editor & Post-Production Supervisor, Florentine Films at that time commented:

"Ken Burns and I decided to remaster The Civil War for several reasons. First of all when we completed the film in 1989, we were operating under a very tight schedule and budget. As the main editor on the film, I always wanted to go back and improve the overall quality of the film. The other reason for remastering the film at this time is that the technology to color correct, print and transfer a film to video for broadcast has vastly improved, especially in the realm of digital computer technology... We also were able to eliminate a great deal of the dust and dirt that often get embedded into 16mm film when it is printed."


A soundtrack featuring songs from the miniseries, many of which were songs popular during the Civil War, has been released.

No. Title Artist(s) Length
1. "Drums of War"   Old Bethpage Brass Band 0:10
2. "Oliver Wendell Holmes"   Paul Roebling 0:32
3. "Ashokan Farewell"   Jay Ungar, Matt Glasser, Evan Stover, Russ Barenburg, Molly Mason 4:05
4. "Battle Cry of Freedom"   Jacqueline Schwab 1:40
5. "We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder"   Bernice Johnson Reagan 4:27
6. "Dixie/Bonnie Blue Flag"   New American Brass Band 1:57
7. "Cheer Boys Cheer"   New American Brass Band 1:12
8. "Angel Band"   Barenburg, Jesse Carr 1:07
9. "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier"   Schwab, Carr 1:44
10. "Lorena"   Ungar, Carr 1:44
11. "Parade"   New American Brass Band 3:30
12. "Hail, Columbia"   New American Brass Band 2:06
13. "Dixie (reprise, lament)"   Bobby Horton 2:06
14. "Kingdom Coming"   Glaser, Stover, Ungar, Art Baron, Mason 1:01
15. "Battle Hymn of the Republic"   Ungar, Schwab 1:38
16. "All Quiet on the Potomac"   Schwab 1:12
17. "Flag of Columbia"   Schwab 1:03
18. "Weeping Sad and Lonely"   Glasser, Schwab, Carr 1:10
19. "Yankee Doodle"   Old Bethpage Brass Band 0:41
20. "Palmyra Schottische"   New American Brass Band 3:30
21. "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"   Old Bethpage Brass Band 0:45
22. "Shenandoah"   The First Bull Run [original] 0:47
23. "When Johnny Comes Marching Home (reprise)"   Ungar, Yonatin Malin, Schwab, Mason, Peter Amidon 1:00
24. "Marching Through Georgia"   Ungar, Mason, Amidon 0:57
25. "Marching Through Georgia (reprise, lament)"   Schwab 1:14
26. "Battle Cry of Freedom (reprise)"   Schwab 2:33
27. "Battle Hymn of the Republic (reprise)"   Abyssianian Baptist Choir 3:22
28. "Ashokan Farewall/Sullivan Ballou letter"   Ungar, Roebling, David McCullough 3:34


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ward, Geoffrey C.; Burns, Ric; Burns, Ken (1992) [First published 1991]. The Civil War: An Illustrated History. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0679742777.
  2. ^ "'Civil War' audience 'discovers' storyteller-writer Shelby Foote". TV Today (The Milwaukee Sentinel). September 25, 1990. Retrieved 2013-07-01. 
  3. ^ 'The Civil War': Ken Burns documentary airing on PBS for 150th anniversary of war
  4. ^ Ashokan FAQ
  5. ^ a b Episode Descriptions retrieved 2009-11-02
  6. ^ Alexander Klein, "Scoring Ken Burns' Civil War: An Interview with Pianist Jacqueline Schwab"Film Score Monthly, April 2013.
  7. ^ "Sunday Prime Time Television Listings". The Milwaukee Sentinel. September 22, 1990. Retrieved 2013-07-01. 
  8. ^ a b "Monday Prime Time Television Listings". The Milwaukee Sentinel. September 24, 1990. Retrieved 2013-07-01. 
  9. ^ a b "Tuesday Prime Time Television Listings". The Milwaukee Sentinel. September 25, 1990. Retrieved 2013-07-01. 
  10. ^ a b "Wednesday Prime Time Television Listings". The Milwaukee Sentinel. September 26, 1990. Retrieved 2013-07-01. 
  11. ^ a b "Thursday Prime Time Television Listings". The Milwaukee Sentinel. September 27, 1990. Retrieved 2013-07-01. 
  12. ^ PBS Why we decided to Re-master the The Civil War
  13. ^ Why we decided to remaster retrieved 2009-11-02.

External links[edit]