Suddenly, war became close and personal

Some of TV's best non-fiction moments have come from "American Experience" and/or the Burns boys, Ric and Ken. Now Ric Burns has a superb new "Experience" documentary Tuesday (Sept.18); here's the story I sent to papers:


It was going to be a quick fight, a
skirmish between neighbors. Abraham Lincoln accepted 30-day
enlistments to fight the uprising in the South.

And then the Civil War kept growing,
leaving unidentified bodies scattered in the countryside. There was,
filmmaker Ric Burns said,a “complete lack of preparation that
either side had for death tolls and casualties on this scale.”

It was all in front of people. Many saw
the bodies; others saw a compelling photo exhibit by Mathew Brady.
“There was a quite realistic access to the horrors of war,” said
author Drew Gilpin Faust.

That became the core of her book (“This
Republic of Suffering”) and now of Burns' PBS documentary, “Death
and the Civil War.”

Certainly, Burns has viewed the subject
before. He worked with his brother Ken on the 1990 “The Civil War,”
which won Emmys, a Peabody and more.

But PBS' “American Experience”
asked him to do a film based on the book by Faust, who is president
of Harvard. He was soon startled by the details.

“It's as if no one was in charge,”
Burns said. “It's as if no one had any idea – which, indeed, they
didn't – that war was going to be fought on this scale ….

“There was no ambulance corps until
1864 in the Union Army. There was no system organized for burying the
dead. There was no system for notifying next of kin.”

Almost half the dead were never
identified, Faust said. Years after the war, people kept thinking
their loved one might wander back.

On one level, this brought
extraordinary volunteer efforts. A patent clerk, Clara Barton, filled
a wagon with medical supplies and took them to the front lines; after
the war, she started the Missing Soldiers Office, imploring the
government to do more.

On another, it changed government
itself. The federal structure started to become directly involved.

“It became a huge national project,”
Faust said, “and the origins of the American national cemetery
system; 303,000 Union soldiers were found and reburied in the years
following the Civil War.”

All of this is told through photos,
letters and artifacts, many of which Faust had already found for her
book. “Imagine if your good fortune is that you have the president
of Harvard as your chief research assistant and also unpaid,” Burns

At the Museum of the Confederacy, she
showed him the letter James Robert Montgomery wrote in his final
hours to his father. “You can see the blood splattered on the
page,” Burns said.

It was a personal and permanent
reminder of the impact of death and the Civil War.

– “Death and the Civil War,”
under the “American Experience” banner

– 8-10 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, PBS
(check local listings)