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THE LAST DAYS OF THE CIVIL WAR

Review by Mark Wiechman

Directors: Various
Audio:  Dolby 2.0
Video: Color and B & W
Studio:  A&E/History Channel
Features:  Gettysburg Address
Length:  5 hours, 50minutes
Release Date: August 26, 2003

Disc 1: April 1865: The Month that Saved America, Civil War Combat: The Tragedy at Cold Harbor

Disc 2: Biography: Abraham Lincoln, Civil War Journal: Jefferson Davis, Biography:  Robert E. Lee

 

“…It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Film ****

The History Channel has done it again with a superb set of documentaries which actually make history interesting and the end of the American Civil War as riveting as any action adventure. 

Imagine that Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Boston were destroyed over a four-year period.  More than 600,000 American soldiers are dead, mostly from disease and starvation.  Surgeons throw amputated limbs into buckets and the blood on the floor is so thick that the surgeon’s bootprints are clearly visible in the wood more than a century later.  Then, imagine that when it is all over, the president of one nation instructs his general to be generous in victory, and he is.  Imagine that the president of the other nation wants to fight on forever, but that his general, one of the finest soldiers in history, swallows his pride and surrenders against the orders of his commander-in-chief.  Instead of hangings and executions, the soldiers simply take an oath to the victorious nation, have their citizenship restored, and go home.  And the more generous president is shot, the first such assassination in the country.

All of this really happened in the American Civil War, except that the cities were Vicksburg, Atlanta, Richmond, and Gettysburg, as well as countless smaller hamlets in the South.  The nation aged a century in that one four-year fight, and in its final month, when victory was near, it almost all came unraveled with Lincoln’s assassination.  The North wanted to destroy the South, but instead began a Reconstruction.  The South took years to recover economically, and the freed slaves struggled even into the next century to live the freedoms promised.  Did you know that more than 100,000 former slaves fought for the North, and that even the South decided to use them at the very end? 

But it could have been much worse.  History has no other examples of such a bloody conflict ending with such wise generals as Grant and Lee.  And the government did survive Lincoln’s death.  His love of country and wisdom saved the country even after he was gone.  In fact, this documentary points out that the long train ride his casket took through the northern states calmed the Yankees’ desire for revenge.  In death, Lincoln achieved something he could not have in life.  Perhaps no other president was so reviled in his own lifetime, even by his own cabinet, and yet history has shown him to be one of our best presidents, if not the best ever. 

Our founding fathers, for all their wisdom and courage, could not work out two fundamental issues: states' rights and slavery.  It took a war to resolve them enough for the nation to unify for good.  The Civil War began as a war over rights and it was not until near the end that Lincoln openly called it a war against slavery.  Therefore, our nation was thrice blessed with wise founders, a wise President, and a few wise generals who had undaunting courage but also saw the real implications of their actions.  Even Nathan Bedford Forrest, a true warrior, knew when the battle was lost and could surrender with honor.

In the days after 9/11/01, President Bush was photographed holding a book called April 1865: The Month that Saved America and therefore this excellent book received much well-deserved publicity.  It discusses the lives of most major figures of the war, but also goes into great detail about the actual end of the war.  It is chilling to read how close the South came to continuing the war as a guerilla operation which could have led to a Viet Nam calamity right here on American soil after more than 600,000 men had died.  This very book fired my fascination with the Civil War, which is the basis for the first episode of this two-disc set.  It is by far the best program on the two-disc set. 

The biographies of Lincoln, Davis, and Lee are also excellent mainly for their accounts of their early lives and psychological profiles though the 1865 portion covers some of that.  The other documentary Civil War Combat:  The Tragedy at Cold Harbor is also excellent in that it shows how different fighting was at the beginning of the war with its Napoleonic marching, versus this particular battle with its trench warfare which foreshadowed the first World War.  More than 7,000 men died in only twenty minutes near Richmond.

Compared with the Ken Burns epic, these programs are shorter, more to the point, and have higher production values, especially regarding the video presentations.  Historical images are juxtaposed with modern re-enactments and color footage, but there is no haunting soundtrack, and you do not feel like you are actually there as one does while watching the incredible Burns saga.  These programs move along briskly and contain more fact than feeling.  If you liked one, you would probably like the other, but this set definitely is easier to digest.  It also features interviews with many excellent historians as does the Burns set, though I missed the inimitable Shelby Foote with his authentic southern accent.

Video ****

Excellent production values and nice special effects, especially 1865, which features the names of every location shown, the date, and the name of each historian so that it is very easy to follow.  I could not detect any visual flaws whatsoever and the editing is exciting without being distracting.

Audio ***

Just stereo but an excellent mix and high production values.  I missed the haunting soundtrack from the Ken Burns series, though the music here is serviceable.

Features **

Nothing other than the Gettysburg Address text on Disc 2, but that deserves some stars in my opinion.

Summary:

Clearly the History Channel continues to produce documentaries that are entertaining enough to watch just for fun and they brought one of the best recent books on history to life in April 1865.  If you were not a history buff before, The Last Days of the Civil War will make you one and inspire courage in these trying times.