Many historians believe the North won the Civil War by winning in the west. With victories at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Atlanta, Union armies captured territory and inflicted damage on both Confederate armies and on the South’s ability to wage war while the campaigns in the east resulted in high casualty figures but little ground gained. Yet the important battles of the western campaigns have gotten much less attention over the years than those in the east.
The Civil War: The Untold Story is a new five part documentary airing on PBS television in April 2014. Produced by Great Divide Pictures, a company that has produced history themed television documentaries and interpretive films for many National Park Service sites, this documentary emphasizes these western campaigns. Using reenactors, historian comments, archival photos, and eyewitness accounts from both soldiers and civilians, the series tells the story of the battles themselves, the causes of the war, the politics of the times, emancipation, and the role of African Americans in the war. The documentary is narrated by actress Elizabeth McGovern, currently seen on the popular PBS show Downton Abbey.
I thought the battle reenactment scenes were quite well done. The gunshot and artillery wounds are realistic in appearance, as is the portrayal of the suffering of the wounded and vast numbers of casualties covering the fields. Overviews of the battles are described fairly well in the narration, and certain aspects of the battles are focused on in greater detail, such as the fighting at Cheatham Hill in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain near Atlanta. Another detail I liked was that most of the reenactment scenes appear to have been filmed at the same time of year that the battles they portray occurred. The Battle of Shiloh was in early April, and the trees and foliage in the Shiloh scenes were just beginning to leaf out. Chickamauga and Kennesaw Mountain were summer battles and the reenactments for those were filmed with fully leafed out summer trees. The Union assault on Missionary Ridge occurred in late November, and the reenactors charge up a leafless wooded slope. It’s a small detail, but contributes to the accuracy of the recreations of battle.
Most of the documentary’s civilian focus has to do with the effects of the war on the south. Recollections of life in caves during the Union siege at Vicksburg, letters between husbands fighting in the field and wives and children at home, and the effect of General William T. Sherman’s total war targeting the south’s economy are presented.
Historians who contribute their expertise to the documentary include Steven Woodworth of Texas Christian University, Allen C. Guelzo and Peter Carmichael of Gettysburg College, John F. Marszalek of Mississippi State, Amy Murrell Taylor of the University of Kentucky, and Stacy D. Allen, Chief Historian at Shiloh National Military Park. Allen also portrayed Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston in the Shiloh reenactment scenes.
The episodes cover a lot of topics and move along, but don’t seem rushed. I found The Civil War: The Untold Story to be informative and entertaining, and is a good overview of the crucial fighting in the west. PBS stations will not all be showing the series at the same time, so check your local TV listings or the documentary’s Facebook page.