The Battle Hymn of History

It must have been part of filmmaker Ken Burns' plan. The accumulation of detail upon narrative detail. The eventual blurring of one battle into another, of one charge into the next retreat. It must all have been intended to wear the viewer down.

Speaking solely for the spuds on my sofa, I know that by the time Hour 10 of Burns' PBS The Civil War miniseries rolled around this autumn, I could have sworn that I personally had lived through the siege of Vicksburg. By the time the Yanks took Richmond, I was convinced that the series had lasted as long as the interminable war itself.

I don't think that my tube-tied attention span is that much worse than the American average. So I'd bet that, like me, much of the 1990 Civil War viewing public was just as war-weary as was the 1864 voting public. But, like the folks who re-elected Honest Abe that year, we all kept coming back for more. We kept coming back because Burns and Co. (with the help of General Motors' millions) performed miracles with still photography, sound effects, and the glorious character of America's many speaking voices.

This old, old story was never better told. But we also kept coming back because the Civil War is in fact, as the series hype insisted, the greatest American story.

It's also a story in which all but the most recently minted Americans can recognize themselves. For most of us -- black and white, Northern and Southern -- this is our story. Hispanics, too, are represented since the story really begins with the U.S. conquest of northern Mexico. One of us may identify with the New England abolitionist, another with the runaway slave turned soldier, and another with the woman left at home to pick up the pieces and weep at the folly.

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