The Civil War: On PBS and at Arlington National Cemetery

This week, PBS aired a remastered version of Ken Burns’s landmark 1990 documentary, The Civil War. I was very young when the documentary first aired–I was three. It’s been twenty-five years, and the documentary is still powerful. The imagery is beautiful, the music is an expert mixture of the uplifting and the contemplative (sometimes the same song is both, depending on the tempo), and the voice acting is both understated and moving. The narration, by historian David McCullough, adds a note of sophistication, occasional wry amusement, sometimes mild excitement, and–from time to time–sadness. The choices of passages–diaries, letters, speeches–and images–photographs, paintings, cinematography–is evocative. I think the best way to watch it is to commit, to sit down and watch straight through with no interruptions, so that you can get into the rhythm of it.

PBS has a lovely portal devoted to Ken Burns’s Civil War:

And you can watch the series here (most likely for only a limited time):

I can’t recall when I first saw the series, but I remember being mesmerized by it. Now that I’m older, I really appreciate the storytelling quality and the beauty of the series. I have it on DVD, but I was still excited to tune in to PBS to watch the remastered version–not so much because it’s remastered, which is nice, but just because it was on. I get caught up in my day-to-day research needs, and while I know I love the Civil War series, I never quite seem to get myself to sit down and watch it. The re-airing gave me a reason to get serious about watching it instead of just thinking I ought to. And if I missed an episode, I just put in the DVD to catch up!

The view from Arlington House. The House and the Cemetery are connected to the Lincoln Memorial by Memorial Bridge.

The view from Arlington House. The House and the Cemetery are connected to the Lincoln Memorial by Memorial Bridge.

On a vaguely related note, I also went last weekend to Arlington National Cemetery. I’m always a little surprised that people aren’t aware of the Cemetery’s history. It’s a hell of a story. The land was owned by the Custis family, which Martha Daindridge married into. She was widowed but brought the land with her when she married George Washington. It was her grandson (and the Big Man’s step-grandson), George Washington Parke Custis, who built Arlington House (in 1802) at the center of what is now the Cemetery. Of course, it wasn’t a cemetery at the time; it was a family home. George Washington Parke Custis’s daughter, Mary Anna, grew up there. It was there in 1831 that she married a certain Robert E. Lee, U.S. Army officer. And it was there, thirty years later, that Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army to command the Virginia state military (obviously, he went on to lead the Army of Northern

The view from the bottom of the hill up to Arlington House.

The view from the bottom of the hill up to Arlington House.

Virginia). As soon as Lee resigned, the U.S. Army crossed the river and occupied the house; it was too strategic a position, looking right down on the Federal capital, for it to be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Lee had already left; Mrs. Lee vacated for Richmond. In their absence, the house was trashed, and then, in 1864, the Quartermaster General, Montgomery Meigs, proposed using the grounds of Arlington House as a cemetery. It was a convenient place to bury soldiers who were dying at hospitals in DC. And it was a particularly apt place, given whose home it had been. They started planting graves in Mrs. Lee’s rose garden shortly thereafter. The burials have never stopped. The Lees never returned.

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The first military burial at Arlington Cemetery was William Christman, buried on May 13, 1864:


Freed slaves lived on at Arlington at Freedman’s Village. Many of these freed slaves are buried at Arlington Cemetery, too, in the same section as Christman:


Also buried here is Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the man commemorated in the great memorial just across the river. He was an officer in Grant’s staff, after he finally convinced his parents to allow him to join the army:

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And here is a memorial to the crew of the ironclad USS Monitor:


And here are some pictures from around the cemetery on a beautiful day:

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