Ric Burns’ documentary provides an elegiac consideration of how the internecine conflict forever changed the way Americans viewed death. This documentary, which is based on Drew Gilpin Faust’s book “This Republic of Suffering” and was originally broadcast part of PBS’ “American Experience” series, explains that both North and South were caught unprepared by the carnage unleashed during the conflict. The first major military campaign, the Battle of Bull Run, claimed more casualties than the entire Mexican War.
With each new military engagement, the number of battlefield fatalities became more staggering. Complicating matters was the primitive medical conditions of the era – two out of three deaths were attributed to diseases spread through the army encampments. Neither side went into war with the infrastructure to identify and bury the dead and to notify next of kin, and many families only learned of the loss of loved ones in letters written by soldiers who were dying from their wounds.
Burns follows the protocol set by his brother Ken Burns’ earlier documentaries with the intelligent use of photographs from the era, most notably in Mathew Brady’s still shocking pictures of the corpses that littered abandoned battlefields – public reaction helped fuel the Lincoln administration to create the concept of national military cemeteries. A number of articulate experts offer insight on the subject, though writer George Will stands out with his observation of how the 19th century killing machine was “lubricated every step of the way with blood.”
This profoundly moving production is highly recommended for anyone with a deep passion for American history.