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'Death and the Civil War' review: grim

Three women looking at graves in the Confederate

Three women looking at graves in the Confederate Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo Credit: Library of Congress, 1903

THE DOCUMENTARY "Death and the Civil War"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 8 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Directed by Ric Burns ("The Way West") and based on the book by Harvard president and historian Drew Gilpin Faust, "This Republic of Suffering," this film is about the Civil War dead -- 620,000, according to old estimates, but far exceeding 700,000, according to more recent ones.

How did the vast slaughter of "our young sons, once so handsome and joyous" -- in the words of one stricken correspondent of the time -- change America and the way the nation viewed both its war dead and itself? As Gilpin notes, "the bureaucracy of death" would transform the federal government, which during the war had absolutely no capacity to handle casualties, much less recover their remains. Before the war, there was -- historians explain -- a "good way to die," normally with loved ones gathered around; death in battle however meant anonymity, with bodies left to be ravaged by the elements. Hundreds of thousands of remains finally were collected -- long after the war was over.

MY SAY About an hour or so into this remarkable broadcast, you'll begin to wonder what you've gotten yourself into. Those famous Matthew Brady photographs of the war dead -- bloated and blasted, twisted beyond any recognition -- float by endlessly. The statistics, like all war statistics, pile up like the dead, threatening to lose all context and meaning. It's a slow, deeply mournful dirge viscerally brought to life by letters like this one, in which a father's "whole nature yearns to see and hear" his son again. "God has been very kind to me all my life. . . . Nevertheless, at times I feel crushed." And indeed, at times, so will you.

"Death and the Civil War" really does demand an emotional commitment on the part of viewers. Those willing to undertake that will be left with some profound insights into the Civil War -- likely fresh insights to many viewers -- and even nationhood. It also tends to erase the passage of time; history on TV has rarely felt so vivid.

BOTTOM LINE Magnificent but often terribly difficult to watch. Your call.


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