Why we made Death and the Civil War

Executive Producer Mark Samels describes why no other TV series would tackle this subject.

Death and the Civil War
is really about things that we take for granted and how they came to be. We take for granted that there are national cemeteries for our soldiers who have fallen in war; we take for granted that we’re going to honor those soldiers, and that we’re going to bring them back no matter how much effort has to go into bringing them back.

It's a story about how individuals, from the bottom up, really addressed this cataclysmic event; how they struggled even just to name the soldiers who were being killed in the battlefields; how they struggled to get them back to their families, get them properly identified, get them buried. And underlying all of this is a conception of what death actually meant in the nineteenth century to Americans. And it’s different than today. The film really originated when I read Drew Faust, Republic of Suffering. She looked at war from an entirely new angle: how death had completely changed not only the American people, but the American government’s relationship to its people. And I was just floored by it. I thought, "Wow, this is a completely fresh and original way of looking at the Civil War." The only problem with it was that it was so idea-rich and so thematic that it didn’t look like it leant itself to the kind of narrative foundation that we always look for when we are thinking about how books can translate into good television documentaries.

So I turned to Ric Burns -- and he and I began conversations about this -- and Ric really is, I think, one of the few filmmakers in the country who can tackle a subject like this. A subject that had the plot to the Civil War driving it, but it was really so idea-based, and I think Ric's done a fabulous job of finding and unearthing and bringing stories to the surface so that you feel in this film, not only the sense of the War progressing in a way sort of cresting in this almost unthinkable of casualties that are coming from the battlefields, but you see the response that Americans take, and, gradually, they pull their government into a new relationship, a new sense of responsibility, that really changes everything that came after the Civil War.

It's a Civil War story for people who may not be drawn by military history. Those stories are rich -- and we've certainly dined out on them in our series in years past -- but in a way this is an invitation for people to experience the Civil War who care about things like families and how families try to deal with being separated during war-time, people who think about things like what the government owes its citizens that it calls up and puts into service.

One of the things that AMERICAN EXPERIENCE really offers is, you know, we take risks, and we accept these sort of challenges. I really don’t believe that any other series on television would tackle a subject like this.

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • DIG: Nordblom Family Foundation, Gretchen Stone Cook Charitable Foundation (owens, death)
  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • NEH