The Civil War, by Ken Burns

Episode 7

In his docuseries, The Civil War, filmmaker Ken Burns masterfully reconstructs the early 1860s of the United States through use of countless perspectives from people who took notes of their lives. The pictures and stories that follow are featured in his standout seventh installment of the nine-part series, entitled “Most Hallowed Ground”.

My intention when transcribing, often word-for-word, select passages from the episode is purely to encourage someone to carve out time to watch the entirety of the series on their own.

Without further ado.

In 1864 the American Civil War was in its fourth year, and Abraham Lincoln was up for reelection. People on both sides of the conflict were tired of the fighting, and thusly they were tired of Lincoln.

President Abraham Lincoln

“We should never have wars like this again.” Though this quotation was uttered by a Union soldier, the general sentiment was not uncommon to men on either side of the engagement three years into the war. One newspaper reported “The people are wild for peace. Lincoln’s reelection is an impossibility.”

One of the most well-circulated journals of the time, Harper’s Weekly, published its official thoughts on the election against the backdrop of the war: “The political campaign, which ends in the election on the eighth of November, decides the most important question in history. It has always been the fate of republics to be destroyed by faction. That fear is now about to be confirmed or dissipated forever.” Politician and newspaper editor Horace Greeley said, “Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot be reelected, and we must have another ticket.”

On top of the apprehension over ending the war, no sitting President had won a second term since Andrew Jackson last did it 30 years prior, when he was the 7th President to Lincoln’s 16th.

Despite the perceived odds not being in his favor, Lincoln himself fully endorsed not delaying the election by even a day: “We cannot have free government without elections. And if the rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election, it may fairly be claimed to have already conquered and ruined us.”

In the lead up to the election, General George McClellan, whom Lincoln removed from his post during the war, was announced as the candidate who would run against Lincoln on behalf of the Democratic Party. Because the War had grown out of favor with nearly everyone, McClellan’s platform was to pull both sides together again and re-form the country into something resembling what it was before the war, including rescinding the demand for emancipation in the South.

Propaganda produced by George McClellan supporters

In hindsight, this lowest point for Lincoln’s reelection outlook was temporary, as the Union Army began stringing together victory after victory while the Confederacy deteriorated. Due to Lincoln’s approval rating and reelection hopes being tied to the North’s outlook in the war, he overwhelmingly won a second term in office.

Walt Whitman summed Lincoln up at the time by saying, “I think well of the President. He has a face like a Hoosier Michelangelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut crisscross lines and its donut complexion. I do not dwell on the supposed failures of his government; he has shown an almost supernatural tact in keeping the ship afloat at all. I more and more rely upon his idiomatic western genius.”

Regarding his reelection, Lincoln himself focused on successfully overcoming the burden of staging an election during a difficult moment: “I give thanks to the almighty for this evidence of the people’s resolution. This contest has demonstrated to the world that a people’s government can sustain a national election in the midst of a great Civil War.”

Confederate Officer Nathan Bedford Forrest

“I require able-bodied men with good horse and gun. I wish none but those who desire to be actively engaged. C’mon boys, if you want a heap of fun and to kill some Yankees.”

Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Ken Burns partially drew inspiration to make his docuseries from a set of three books entitled The Civil War: A Narrative, written by Shelby Foote. In fact, Foote himself appears regularly throughout all nine episodes, recounting various anecdotes and reports from the war. As a manner of operating, Foote naturally endeavors to offer a neutral look at the two sides of the fight, giving a measure of objectivity to both the North and the South, which best enables comprehension as to what exactly happened.

Author Shelby Foote

To this end, Foote could make statements like “the war produced ‘two authentic geniuses’: Abraham Lincoln, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.” While the reason for Lincoln is obvious, Foote managed to explain everything about Bedford Forrest’s inclusion by simply relaying that it was once said about him that “he was born to be a soldier the way John Keats was born to be a poet.”

As a soldier, Bedford Forrest naturally embodied strong military principles, but the Southerner did it in his own words, such as when saying, “Get there first with the most men”, or “Keep up the scare.” Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman said Bedford Forrest was “the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side.”

Bedford Forrest was raised as the son of an illiterate blacksmith, and made himself a millionaire by selling land, cotton and slaves. When the war began in 1861, Forrest joined the Confederacy as a lowly Private, but promptly quit to create an entirely self-funded cavalry battalion. By the end of the war, he’d become a Lieutenant General – the only man on either side to achieve such a rise in rank. As the legend goes, he was the most feared cavalry commander in the war, known as the “wizard of the saddle”. He was wounded in battle on four separate occasions and was famous for having his horse shot out from under him. Foote specified that Bedford Forrest had 30 horses shot out from underneath him during the war, but he also killed 31 men in hand-to-hand combat, so Bedford Forrest was claimed to have said “I was a horse ahead at the end.”

All that aside, where Bedford Forrest really excelled as a soldier was as an anticipator of the enemy. He was said to have fought his battles “by ear”, and this helped him predict Union soldier movement with “uncanny precision.”

Tecumseh Sherman also said of his enemy: “Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs 10,000 lives and bankrupts the federal treasury.”

Make no mistake about it though, Bedford Forrest was worthy of this Union ire, as he was a man who was proud of his extreme prejudice against Blacks. One example of his maliciousness occurred when he sent his men to surround the enemy at Fort Pillow in Tennessee, and demanded that the Union soldiers stationed there (which included a large number of Black troops) surrender. The Union Commander refused, but after the fort was overrun by Bedford Forrest’s Confederates, forcing the Union men to drop their weapons and give up, of the 353 men who were murdered in the aftermath, 300 of them were Black.

This specific travesty pushed General Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant to declare that the prisoner exchange agreement between the North and the South would be suspended until the South recognized no distinction between white and Black prisoners; Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee refused.

As a direct result to the proclamation that the North was cutting off prisoner exchange until its demands that white and Black prisoners be seen as equal were met, both North and South prison camps exploded in population.

The prison with the worst living conditions on either side was the Confederate lockup near Andersonville, Georgia called Camp Sumter. It was only meant to hold a maximum of 10,000 prisoners, but just four months after the prisoner exchange ceased the population ballooned to 33,000, good for the 5th largest city in the Confederacy.

The person in charge of the prison camp, Henry Wirz, disbarred the prisoners from many things, including building shelters. For this reason, the prisoners dug out small holes in the ground and tried to curl up in blankets at night. For food, the prisoners each received a daily teaspoon of salt, three tablespoons of beans and a half pint of cornmeal. There was one creek that ran through the camp, called Sweetwater Branch, that was both the only source of drinking water, and the camp’s sewer system.

In a single year, 13,000 men died in the camp from things like disease, malnutrition, and exposure. One prisoner who survived the camp said, “When I was taken prisoner, I weighed 165 pounds, and when I came out, I weighed 96 pounds and was considered ‘stout’ compared to some I saw.”

A Union survivor of Camp Sumter
A second survivor of the camp

On his fourth 4th of July in the army, newly promoted 22 year old Union Captain Elisha Hunt Rhodes (who kept extensive journals from his time while enlisted) celebrated the holiday at a battlefield by eating a meal with his fellow officers that was catered as followed: stewed oysters (canned); roast turkey (canned); bread pudding; tapioca pudding; apple pie (made in camp); lemonade; cigars.


By the time the war turned three years old, spying on both sides had become a major part of it.

Alan Pinkerton ran the Northern secret service, and the South had a spy network that went as far north as Montreal. Everywhere, every moment, everyone was looking for signs of spying.

Mary Chestnut, a Southern woman who extensively journaled about her time during the war added some color about the perils women faced if they chose to wear a popular style of large hoop skirt in public. “Women who come before the public are in a bad box now. All manner of things, they say, come over the border under the huge hoops now worn, so they are ruthlessly torn off. Not legs, but arms are looked for under hoops, and sad to say, found.”

Both sides even had people reporting back to them from within the lion’s den: The Confederates had a spy ring operating not just in Washington D.C., but a few blocks from the White House itself. Much of the information Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a spy who operated out of the post, gathered came from an infatuated suitor by the name of Senator Henry Wilson, Chairman of the Military Affairs committee. On the other side of the conflict, the North had a slave named Mary Elizabeth Bowser who worked to collect secrets while stationed inside the Confederate White House.

During the nine-month long Richmond-Petersburg campaign in which General Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant commanded Union forces attempting to cut off a major Confederate Army supply line between the Virginian cities of Richmond and Petersburg, the stalemate between the sides resulted in some unusual and catastrophic tactics to gain an edge.

To break the firm Confederate line in front of him, Union General Ambrose Burnside had an idea to dig underneath enemy lines and detonate explosives below them. To accomplish this, for a month an entire regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners worked to dig a 500 foot tunnel beneath the enemy to place four tons of gun powder, with the plan being to blow a hole through the defenses and then rush through it to finally take over Petersburg once and for all.

The plan went ahead to detonate the gun powder at dawn, and the resulting explosion left a crater 70 feet wide, 30 feet deep, and 250 feet long.

On the other side was Confederate Commander General William Mahone, who had extensive experience fighting in major Civil War battles. He and his troops immediately fell back in the aftermath, and it seemed that General Burnside’s plan would be a rousing success.

Unfortunately, an hour elapsed before the Union soldiers began to take advantage of the fresh hole, and when they did the three divisions that were sent to attack went through the hole instead of around it. Whether he knew things were about to go poorly or not, their Commander, General James H. Ledlie chose to forgo watching the battle in favor of staying in a bomb-proof shelter with a bottle of rum.

Once inside the crater, the Union soldiers realized there was no way to scale the 30-foot sheer wall without ladders, which their side had failed to bring. General Mahone sensed an opportunity to turn the tide after being caught flat-footed, and he ordered his men to return to the hole in order to attack from the high ground.

Battle of The Crater, by Tom Lovell

In the wake of this terrible Union loss of life, Grant said “It was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war. Such an opportunity to carry fortifications I have never seen, and do not expect again to have.” In the aftermath, General Ledlie was dismissed from the service outright, and General Burnside was granted extended leave and was never recalled to duty.

The night after the loss, Washington Roebling — a Union Captain during the War, and the man who would go on to oversee the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge — summed up the low morale on the Union side in the following way: “The work and expectations of almost two months have been blasted. The first temporary success had elated everyone so much that we had already imagined ourselves in Petersburg. But 15 minutes changed it all, and plunged everyone into a feeling of despair, almost of ever accomplishing anything. Few officers can be found this evening who have not drowned their sorrows in the flowing bowl.”

Another illustration of men on both sides being worn down by the fighting and allowing their humanity to shine through came during the siege of Atlanta, when every evening for an entire month, a sharpshooter from Georgia played his coronet so beautifully that soldiers on both sides stopped shooting to listen.

Ultimately, the North had the financing to fight the war much longer than the South. Shelby Foote believed that “the North was fighting with one hand tied behind its back”. He rightfully points out that while the war was going on, the Northern government was successfully passing legislation, its people were designing major inventions, and in 1864 the Harvard/Yale boat race even restarted after a three year hiatus, with not a rower from either college having seen any action because the North didn’t need them. Foote speculated that even if the South had seen more success earlier in the war, “the North would’ve simply brought that other arm out from behind its back.”

For as bleak as the Civil War was, three years into the engagement the North was still bringing more and more, but the South was meeting them with less and less, and the conflict more or less wound down than came to an abrupt end.

The 3rd Massachusetts Volunteer Unit “never heard a shot fired in anger,” and Abraham Lincoln’s focus shifted toward healing, beginning with declaring that the last Thursday in November would be a National Day of Thanksgiving. In the trenches in Petersburg, 120,000 turkey and chicken dinners were served to the Union Army, while the nearby Confederates, though hungry, held their fire all day out of respect for the holiday.

Lincoln then called for even more men, and the South had no one to spare.

By the Spring of 1864, Union dead completely filled the cemeteries of Washington and Alexandria. Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, ordered the Quartermaster General, Montgomery Meigs, to choose a new site to lay the Union dead. Meigs was a Georgian who had served under Robert E. Lee in the peacetime army, but he had developed an intense hatred for all his fellow Southerners who fought against the Union he still served. Without hesitation he picked the grounds of Lee’s home at Arlington for the new army cemetery and ordered that the Union dead be laid to rest within a few feet of the front door of the man he blamed for their deaths, so that no one could ever again live in the house.

Robert E. Lee’s former home, Arlington House

In October, Meigs’ own son John was killed by Confederate guerillas in the Shenandoah and was buried in Mrs. Lee’s rose garden.

At one point later in 1864, the Union Army was sending back 2,000 wounded, maimed and dying men a week to Washington. Now though, the men Ulysses S. Grant was sending to fight Robert E. Lee were being buried in Lee’s own front yard, which became Arlington National Cemetery – the Union’s most hallowed ground.

On the night of November 25th, 1864 at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opened. Three brothers had the starring roles: Edwin, Junius, and John Wilkes Booth.

John Wilkes Booth, as Marc Anthony

At one point in Shakespeare’s play, Cassius speaks of the assassination of Caesar: “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn, and accents yet unknown!”

Hey, it’s me again. Speaking strictly for myself, the American Civil War is a time period that was taught to me more as a broad concept, lacking focus on the countless motivations at play, and the fascinating specifics. Every single story that’s ever been told is better understood when expressed through its details, and this famously deadly chapter in American history has a lot of those through which to perceive it.

As for where to watch it now, the entirety of The Civil War docuseries (as of 2020) can be found on the streaming service Kanopy, to which many library cards across the country offer free access.

So, whether learning about the war more deeply for the first time, or simply using it as a memory refresher, this nine-part series is worth the time to watch. Be it consuming one episode per night, per week, per month … dissipating any fog of ignorance always goes down as a personal victory.

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