Adapted from the best-selling book This Republic of Suffering by historian and Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, the two-hour American Experience film Death and the Civil War, from director Ric Burns, looks at the incredible change the United States underwent due to the massive “work of death” it found itself undertaking during the Civil War. The film shows how the startling death toll of the conflict — which took everyone by surprise and still ranks as America’s deadliest war — changed everything about our nation’s concept of and relationship with military deaths, and what our government owes to those who give their lives for their country and to their surviving loved ones. It also changed the relationship of many with God, and raised questions of a spiritual and existential sort that much of the population had not considered before.
Civil War deaths led to, among other things, the creation of battlefield ambulance services, efforts to notify next of kin and the creation of military cemeteries to honor the fallen, and this film powerfully retells some of the heartbreaking events that helped inspire these and other decisions. As galling as the battlefield numbers are, however, the film doesn’t dwell on statistics, and instead brings a gut-wrenching personal touch to the stories of those directly affected by death in the Civil War. Burns is helped by a moving musical score from Brian Keane, and it is hard for a viewer not to be impacted as a voice-over reads from a letter written back home to loved ones by a dying soldier, the camera slowly zooming in to show that it is still stained with the blood of its author.
Death and the Civil War shows why American Experience remains at the top of the class among documentary series. It’s informative and educational even as it draws you into the stories of its subjects immediately and completely — engrossing, emotional and often heartbreaking stories that, ultimately, have led to our stories today.
Death and the Civil War: American Experience premieres on PBS Sept. 18 at 8pm ET (check local listings).
Photo: Unfinished Confederate graves near the center of the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (July 1863); Courtesy of Library of Congress