The Civil War : An illustrated history

by Geoffrey C. Ward

Other authorsKen Burns (Author), Ric Burns (Author)
Hardcover, 1990




New York : Knopf, 1990.


The complete text of the bestselling narrative history of the Civil War--based on the celebrated PBS television series. This non-illustrated edition interweaves the author's narrative with the voices of the men and women who lived through that cataclysmic trail of our nationhood, from Abraham Lincoln to ordinary foot soldiers. Includes essays by distinguished historians of the era.

User reviews

LibraryThing member gbill
Goosebump-inducing. Absolutely stunning. If I could give it 6 stars, I would.

This is the companion book to what was possibly the best documentary ever made, Ken Burns 11.5 hour epic “The Civil War”. Burns spent five years researching and producing it – one year longer than the war itself
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took – pouring through thousands of photographs, interviewing prominent Civil War historians such as Shelby Foote and James McPherson, and paying attention to the both the larger historical context for the War and at the same time poignant personal stories. Among other things, he invented what came to be known as the “Ken Burns effect”, the slow zooming and panning across photos, which has since been adopted by many other filmmakers.

The book does the documentary justice. It contains over 500 photographs and illustrations and is truly beautiful. There are of course all the “big” things you’d expect: the genius of Lincoln as politician, preserver of the Union, commander-in-chief, and orator. The pompous and overly cautious General McClellan, who after being replaced would run against Lincoln in the election of 1864. (As an aside, the picture of their last meeting that Burns includes says everything about the personalities and relationship Lincoln and McClellan had.) The public turning out to watch the First Battle of Bull Run from a nearby hill, as if it were theater. The horrors of slavery and the blatant racism of the 19th century, set against the gentility of the Southern way of life. The horrors of battlefield carnage, set against the incredible bravery and valor of soldiers who sometimes found themselves fighting on the opposite side of relatives or friends from before the war. The genius of the Southern Generals like Robert E. Lee of course, but also Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest, who despite having a two to one disadvantage in armed forces had the South within a battle or two of improbably winning the war.

American men of letters are here: Herman Melville recognizing the significance of Jackson’s death in his poems, one ending, “By the edge of those wilds Stonewall had charged – but the year and the Man were gone.” Walt Whitman, after having worked in the appalling Union hospitals, saying “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background, the countless minor scenes and interiors of the secession war; and it is best that they should not. The real war will never get in the books.”

If that’s true, Burns must surely come close. There is no way to do his work justice in a review, but I’ll close with two scenes that have stuck to me all these years after having seen the documentary and read the book. They are indelible and unforgettable.

The first, after the battle of Fredericksburg on December 11, 1862, former college professor Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (and then commander of the 20th Maine), hearing the wounded at night on the freezing battlefield:
“But out of that silence…rose new sounds more appalling still…a strange ventriloquism, of which you could not locate the source, a smothered moan…as if a thousand discords were flowing together into a key-note weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear, yet startling with its nearness; the writhing concord broken by cries for help…some begging for a drop of water, some calling on God for pity; and some on friendly hands to finish what the enemy had so horribly begun; some with delirious, dreamy voices murmuring loved ones names, as if the dearest were bending over them; and underneath, all the time, the deep bass note from closed lips too hopeless, or too heroic to articulate their agony.”

…and then after scraping out shallow graves for the dead, and looking up to see the Northern Lights dancing in the winter sky. “Who would not pass on as they did,” he asked, “dead for their country’s life, and lighted to burial by the meteor splendors of their native sky?”

And the second moment, this letter, written by Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife a week before the first battle of Bull Run:

“July the 14th, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more...

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt…

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness…

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night… always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again…”

Burns then notes that Sullivan Ballou was killed at the first battle of Bull Run.
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LibraryThing member boeflak
Nothing is as good as Ken Burns PBS documentary, but this book, upon which much of the film was based, is as good an alternative as you'll find.
LibraryThing member samfsmith
An excellent book of Civil War era photographs. The companion volume to the PBS series.
LibraryThing member drruth
The book that accompanied the award-winning PBS documentary. Filled with magnificent photographs, this book does a good job of covering a complex event of enormous scope.
LibraryThing member chellinsky
The American Civil War is one of those things we concentrated on (repeatedly) in my K-12 education, but I haven't thought much about it since then. I bought this book when it first came out in paperback and I was a freshman in High School on a camping trip in Gettysburg. It took me twelve years to
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open it. However, this book, based on the Ken Burns PBS documentary on the Civil War from the 1990s, reminded me of what I had forgotten over the years (or never learned because I wasn't paying attention).

Without going into excessive detail, the authors walk the reader through the Civil War from its political beginnings through the last battles. Although I missed the depth I've come to expect from history books, I felt this was an excellent primer for someone looking to learn more about the American Civil War elsewhere. It help me comprehend and realign the fragments left from my earlier education.
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LibraryThing member RonWelton
Easy to read cursory account of war, its causes and consequences including many oft repeated anecdotes. eg: The response to his capture by a Confederate soldier near the end of the war, "Yes, You've got me, and a hell of a git you got."
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
It covers a lot of the War but must, of necessity hit only the high points. I'm tempted to Call this the "novelization" of the TV series. I couldn't get the sound track music of that production out of my head while reading the book.
LibraryThing member ShadowBarbara
Integrated with audio clips and video clips
LibraryThing member amcheri
Only two hours and excerpted from the PBS documentary series. After listening to an hour, I found the series on Netflix and started watching. Still finished up the audio book, though, because it's interesting.
LibraryThing member Borg-mx5
The excellent companion to the inspiring PBS documentary.


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