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Ken Burns' The Civil War - Entry the second

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Finished The Civil War over this long memorial day weekend.  Turns out I was wrong when I wrote that I was halfway through in the last entry, I was actually only three episodes from the end.  The last episodes were just as strong as the first.  It's hard to believe that I have absorbed about 15 hours of Civil War history in such a short period.

One thing that has stuck out to me is how much the war is contextualized.  Ken Burns' style of interspersing eyewitness journal accounts into the overall narration really champions the thought of the average Joe.  The war doesn't seem like a thing of dusty history, it is brought home that these were real events lived by real people.  This seems obvious in hindsight, but too frequently major efforts to capture events of the past rely on the omniscient narrator, which is good to make the account authoritative, but also serves to hide the humanity of the events.  This wasn't always history, this was real, and the outcome was sometimes very much in doubt.  It's easy to forget that we have the benefit of hindsight in putting together our reconstructions.

I simply cannot recommend this series enough.  If you have not seen it, you absolutely should.  If you have seen it, it may be worth checking it out again.  I've now enjoyed it thoroughly during two entirely different times of my life.  Few other TV and film works can claim the same.

Time to piss all over some more Confederate ideas about the war.  What the heck makes Robert E. Lee so hot?  Seems that every time people (at least Americans) talk about great generals throughout history, Robert E. Lee gets mentioned.  Sure, he had some early successes, but so did tons of confederate generals.  This seems normal as the majority of the West Point-trained officers sided with the Confederacy, and because the obligation was on the Union to attack.  Nobody throughout the entire Civil War seemed to understand the sheer idiocy of charging masses of infantry over open ground against entrenched positions; it would take the world the superhuman deadly idiocy that was World War I to learn that lesson. 

Lee seems like a classic "Right place, right time" guy, where he happened to be in command of the Confederate army during some of the Union's greatest follies, and thus gets credit for more than he deserves.  If you take away the battles he won over the shrinking violet George McClellan, and take away the battles where the Union won the battle for him by wasting thousands of men in foolish frontal assaults, then what's left?  He is left with two very successful battles at Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville, but two battles is not enough to justify his position in lore.  What's more, his position is further eroded in that when he had to go on the offensive, he failed, and failed spectacularly.  In fact, he oversaw the turning point of the war at Gettysburg, and is responsible for the single most iconic military blunder of the war.  Pickett's charge should be called Lee's charge.  Pickett may have led it, but it was Lee's idea, and was never anything other than a foolish waste of lives the South couldn't afford.  This is the man who's mentioned in the same breath as Alexander and Napoleon?

 

The first part of this post can be found here.

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