The Civil War is one of the most important events in the United States’ near two hundred and forty year history. To this day, it is discussed inside and outside the classroom. The mere flying of a rebel flag in some parts of the country raises tensions and political discussions. Countless documentaries have been crafted on the subject from nearly every possible angle. Now thanks to PBS, history buffs, teachers, and Civil War enthusiasts alike have a new addition to their libraries in the form of “America and the Civil War.”
“America and the Civil War” is a double disc DVD set from PBS that combines the best of the network’s Civil War programs and culls them together in an expansive five-part collection. The five specials culled together come from the network’s “American Experience” and “NOVA.” Being that the set includes five different specials, each viewer will have his or her own favorite moment(s). This reviewer’s personal favorite moments are the special, “Lincoln’s Secret Weapon” and “The 54th Colored Infantry.”
“Lincoln’s Secret War” has previously been released on DVD. It is part of the network’s “NOVA” programming. This near hour long special follows a group of Navy divers as they try to raise the propeller and shaft of the famed U.S.S. Monitor from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean just off the North Carolina coast. As viewers follow the sometimes tense moments of the work involved, they are also provided a history of why this project is being undertaken. The program’s narrator gives a history of the Monitor and its creator John Ericsson. Ericsson is described here as one of the greatest engineering minds of his time. It was Ericsson who developed the first screw propeller, which would eventually be used in the Monitor. Though, it was actually used in the Princeton first. The program also goes into some depth, explaining how the success of the Monitor led to the creation of other Monitors, though the outcome was not good. That’s because certain parties thought the ships could be used in open water battles. That ultimately was what led to the sinking of the original Monitor off the coast of North Carolina. It should be noted at this point, that Lincoln’s Secret Weapon is somewhat dated, as the turret from the Monitor has been pulled from the ocean floor. That aside, it is still a good lesson explaining what would be one of the turning points in naval history.
“Lincoln’s Secret Weapon” is a good special for anyone interested in naval history (this reviewer included). For those interested in other matters, there is the special, “The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry.” This roughly hour long special closes out the double disc set. It is narrated by veteran actor Morgan Freeman. It documents the true story of the regiment whose achievements were made into the big screen feature, Glory (1989). Through interviews with descendants of the 54th and historians, audiences learn interesting facts such as how the 54th Colored Infantry got its start in Boston. Perhaps most interesting of all in this special is that it actually took the Emancipation Proclamation for the 54th to be formed. Before this edict from President Lincoln, African Americans were not allowed to serve in the military, even in the North. And even when they were finally allowed to service, it was with a catch. They were not permitted to serve as commissioned officers or lead regiments in general. So even after Lincoln’s new law was signed, discrimination still happened to African Americans who wanted to fight for their own freedom. As Freeman notes at one point, documents showed that some Union soldiers went so far as to admit that they weren’t fighting against slavery at all. They were fighting because the war was right, in their eyes. So even in the North, free blacks faced almost as much unfair treatment as in the south. Of course, what documentary on the 54th would be complete without mention that the regiment did have a very important victory just before the war’s end? It was the 54th that helped to finally take Charleston, South Carolina only months before the war finally ended. As with “Lincoln’s Secret Weapon”, this is another interesting addition to PBS’ new Civil War documentary set. It is one more piece that makes the entire set worth the watch. It has so much more information that teachers and history buffs alike will enjoy checking out.
Of course, the only way to check out these two specials and the others in “America and the Civil War” is to own it for oneself. “America and the Civil War” will be available on August 28th. It will be available for order at http://www.shoppbs.org.
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