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AFTERSHOCK: BEYOND THE CIVIL WAR

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Lydia Alvita, Jennifer Antkowiak, Orion Barnes, Dan Bolton, Joshua Bradley
Director: David Padrusch
Video:  Color Widescreen 1.33:1
Audio:  Dolby Stereo 2.0
Studio:  A&E Home Video
Features:  See Review
Length:  90 Minutes
Release date:  April 24, 2007

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all men, except a few hell-born and hell-bound rebels in Knoxville.”  

Union sympathizer and future Tennessee Governor William “Parson” Brownlow.   Quoted in Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War,” Volume One.

“Swallow the dog” - Confederates taking the oath of allegiance to the United States, which included renouncing all allegiance to the Confederacy.

Film ****

As I write this, votes are being taken in the U.S. Senate on whether there should be adequate funding for American Troops abroad if there is no timetable for their withdrawal.  Iraq is on the verge of civil war, and there is great controversy over whether American forces are wanted or needed there.  Many of us assumed wrongly that when they were liberated from tyranny, everything would be sunshine and roses.  Instead, in some ways, things are even worse than before Saddam Hussein fell.  While the people are more free, they are slow to learn that freedom is never free.  Aftershocks are all too common in every conflict, as this aptly named special from A&E shows.   It contains violence and racial epithets that were all too common at the time and reveals how similar the current violence in Iraq is to the violence throughout the former Confederacy.   

Part of my fascination with history is that it repeats itself, and this assures me that there are patterns to everything and that storms will always pass.  Reading or viewing programs about our own Civil War makes almost any other conflict seem like just a bad day at the office.  And this outstanding special from The History Channel shows that the years following the civil war were even worse than the war years themselves in some ways.  Officially, the war ended in April of 1865 with Lee’s surrender, but actual fighting did continue, and when soldiers returned home, they returned to find their beloved lands destroyed, their economy obliterated, and the newly freed slaves were in some ways even worse off than before.   Violence was a daily occurrence in almost every southern city of any size, and our own reign of terror broke out.

Historians interviewed for this program elaborate on how important the slave trade was to the South, being a $4 billion dollar industry, about $30 billion in today’s dollars.  And of course it artificially propped up the cotton economy with it, and when it all went away, the Federal Government under President Andrew Johnson did very little to help anyone.  Programs to reconstruct the south were instituted, but underfunded and barely managed in any way.  With Abe Lincoln gone, his hopes to rebuild the nation died with him.  Johnson unfortunately was like many northerners in that he hated slavery mainly because it gave so much power to the plantation owner elites.  When slavery went away, he felt little sympathy for the people themselves.  And of course southern whites, who had lost so many lives, property, and most of all Southern pride, took all of their frustrations out on their new brethren.  At least when slaves were valuable property, there was motivation to discipline them but not to kill them unnecessarily.  With that motivation gone, and with radical Republicans being shot on sight, it was as if the war never ended and was fought for nothing.  The unrest gave rise to our own home-grown terrorist organization, the KKK, who inflicted wounds into America from which she may never heal.  They were the terrorists of the day, the Al Qaeda of the American South. 

One of the best analogies applied to the Civil War in this special is that while 9/11/01 involved terrorism and death on Wall Street, the market itself was only dented, not destroyed.  In the former Confederacy, one-fourth of all able-bodied males were dead, and the agrarian economy was obliterated.  Reconstruction in some ways was never finished. 

The program shows a re-enactment of a sort you won’t see staged anywhere.  Governor Brownlow in Tennessee takes voting rights away from former Confederates but gives it to blacks.  He threatens to shoot legislators when they refuse to come in to vote. When Federal soldiers order a southern woman to display mourning for President Lincoln, she refuses on the grounds that she lost her husband and son to the war.  When they insist, she goes inside to retrieve her widow’s garments, but instead of putting them on, she ties them above her porch and the other end into a loop.  Before anyone can stop her, she hung herself.  Much like Mr. Brownlow above, this incident showed that the Civil War was about pride and the right to self-determination. And in Tennessee, Governor Brownlow and KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest prepare for an in-state civil war.  In Arkansas, a war did break out.

It is always a catastrophe when proud people turn against each other, whether in Paris, Charleston, or Baghdad.  

Video ***1/2

A&E continues to issue excellent productions, which is not easy when combining interviews, reenactments, and images of the time.   Depiction of the madness of the New Orleans Massacre and the beginning of the seven-year Lowery War are especially well-directed and compelling. 

Audio ***1/2

Only Dolby Stereo but the mix is excellent, with nice incidental music that adds greatly to the effect as well as clearly recorded narration.  Interestingly a mix like this is better than many 5.1 mixes heard in other features. 

Features ***1/2

There is a feature length documentary called “Images of the Civil War” which does not have the high production standards of some other specials, and this is probably why it is included as an extra rather than an independent program.  But it is still well-done, focusing on portraits of the main characters of the war.  It contains a great deal of rich historical data in a short program and is well-narrated, like a mini-history of the whole war.  This is what I like to call a “lite” feature, a good introduction to the subject. 

The second feature is more of a “heavy” feature which might be too detailed for the casual viewer.  “Tales of the Gun: Guns of the Civil War” has extremely high production values and is very valuable for more seriously interested viewers.  History has so often been decided by who had the better gun, or who could make more of them at a good price, such as Mr. Remington.  

Summary:

The History Channel continues to produce fast-paced and well-produced documentaries that make the past come to life as if it was breaking news right now.  This excellent disc is as informative as it is entertaining.  It is a reminder that there are always aftershocks from any conflict and courage and patience are the best virtues for such times. 

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