Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review: Death and the Civil War

Powerful Civil War Documentary Suffers from Its Length

Death has had a huge impact on the United States of America. From 1861 through 1865, some 750,000 soldiers were strewn bloody, dead and dying in villages and in the fields of farmers and slaves during the Civil War.

In that short period of time, 2.5% of the population was killed - comparable to 7 million people dying today - with no ambulances to transport the dying to hospitals. There were no phones or modern communication to call for help or to inform families.

There were few cemetaries and fewer mortuaries to embalm bodies to prevent them from exploding, stinking and rotting for days, weeks or months in often hot, damp and humid climates.

The horror of the slaughter is depicted graphically, yet beautifully, in Ric Burns' documentary Death and the Civil War on PBS's American Experience (8pm).

The country at the time was waging a war that divided the nation, in part over whether slavery should be legal or not. Hatred between Americans in the north and Americans in the south was intense. And the treatment of rivals by the other was often horrific, both in life and death.

Death is a familiar documentary. Narrators (sometimes over acting) tell the tale of the Civil War and its impact on the country by reading letters from soldiers - dying or survivors informing families of their sons deaths. The camera stops on a photo and the camera slightly moves or a candle just off camera flickers.

In between, historians like David W. Blight and Drew Gilpin Faust - whose book The Republic of Suffering is the source material for Death - flesh out the story.

The sheer number of dead during the Civil War sparked massive changes in the United States, from documenting the whereabouts of soldiers, tracking their deaths and informing families, to launching industries from ambulances, mortuaries and voluneteer services for soldiers and their families.

The 750,000 dead Civil War soldiers also led to the honorable remembrance of soldiers who have died for their country, first sparking the creation of Decoration Day, which is now Memorial Day.

Death and the Civil War is a somber, slow and enormously informative documentary. It's also an important reminder of our country's soldiers who fight and die for our freedom and the freedom of everyone in the USA.

Death's weakness is its length. At two hours, Death is a long haul. It is an important story that at times feels repetative and too slow. In that way, Death may best be viewed at a time like Memorial Day when you are in the mindset to remember and honor the country's fallen soldiers.

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