“The Civil War” on PBS


Some 24 years have passed since the premiere of the groundbreaking PBS documentary series, “The Civil War,” by Ken Burns. It stands as probably the best historical documentary series ever made. Burns mixed photos, graphics, interviews, readings, music, and pitch-perfect narration by historian David McCullough to create an evocative and gripping story of America’s Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865.

At the time it aired, I was a broke-as-hell public interest lawyer in New York, with no cable and a rabbit-eared black & white television set given to me by friends. The lack of decent TV reception made no difference; I knew I was watching an instant classic. Burns and his team pulled off the seemingly impossible. In nine episodes totaling roughly eleven hours, they made an era come alive in documentary form. No CGI. No Civil War re-enactors. Just brilliant content.

Of course, the series was criticized by some partisans for North and South alike for what it did or didn’t do, but the overall response to “The Civil War” was abundant, enthusiastic praise. It helped to rekindle a national interest in Civil War history that endures to this day. It certainly had that effect on me.

The producers of “The Civil War” brilliantly selected a modern piece of music with a 19th century feel, “The Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Ungar, as the series theme. Here’s Ungar playing a rendition with a folk band just a few years ago. It’s a beautiful, haunting tune, perfect for the series, and well worth five minutes of your time:

Even better, rent or pick up the series and watch it. You’ll get the whole deal, a documentary that breathes heart and soul into a story of one of the signature events in American history. And you’ll never tire of hearing “The Ashokan Farewell” over and again.


I have to toss in a side note about series narrator David McCullough, one of America’s leading popular historians. Several years ago, McCullough spoke at Boston’s Old South Meeting House — a key stop on the city’s “Freedom Trail” of historic Revolutionary-era sites — to preview one of his upcoming books. He started his talk by looking up at the packed house, opening up his arms wide, and warmly proclaiming “Aren’t we lucky to be here!?” It was his own way of celebrating how we all could share our love of history in this significant building. For a history buff like me, it was such a great, fun moment.

Photo of DVDs: DY, 2014

3 responses

  1. That 24 years went by incredibly fast! It is a series worth re-watching many times.

  2. Dave, thanks for this reminder of a great series. It’s available on Netflix streaming so I just added it to my “Must Watch Soon” list.

    By the way, this may be the summer that I take Thomas (now age 15) to tour Gettysburg with semi-professional tour guide Jim Hale, if he is available. Care to join us?

    1. Hey Don, we should talk about this! I’d love to join you guys if the the timing works.

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