To paraphrase Charles Dickens, the 21st century has been the best of times and worse of times for television treatment of the Civil War. On one hand there are now hundreds of cable and satellite channels devoted to educational and documentary programing, and the Civil War has been featured on many such shows, too many to list here.
On the other hand quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Case in point was the History Channel’s 2011 documentary on the Battle of Gettysburg. Made by the noted director/ producers Tony and Ridley Scott the much hyped film was roundly panned by historians for historical inaccuracies and lack of attention to some of the battle’s biggest characters and events. Historian Eric Wittenberg noted in his blog
What a staggering disappointment this thing was. I turned it off after 45 minutes because I couldn’t take another moment of it. This thing was shockingly bad. Events were presented horribly out of context, with absolutely no stage setting. The movie begins with the Iron Brigade’s advance to the unfinished railroad cut and without any context for the viewer to understand how they got there or why they were there. It would have confused anyone without a decent working knowledge of the battle.
I counted ten major factual inaccuracies in the first ten minutes of the thing. And it got worse from there.
On the other hand there have been some much small scaled documentaries that have done a fine job of presenting materials.
As far as broadcast television programs, the new millennium has produced three of the most unusual Civil War themed shows aired to date.
The first was Fox’s Family Guy episode To Live and Die in Dixie which first aired in 2001. In this episode, dimwitted son Chris becomes an eyewitness to a robbery. Consequently the Griffin’s are put in the Witness Protection Program and move down South. Trouble ensues when Peter Griffin, who paints his station wagon to look like the “General Lee” from the Dukes of Hazzard, tries to point out that the South lost the war. This episode is noteworthy for it featured Waylon Jennings, in his last performance ever, recreated his role as the narrator on The Dukes of Hazzard.
Even more unusual was the short live series Firefly which aired on Fox in 2002. Produced by Josh Whedon (Buffy the Vampire TV series, The Avengers) The film deals with a crew of misfits flying through space and trying to survive in the aftermath of a civil war of which they were on the losing side. Their spaceship is called The Serenity after the Battle of Serenity Valley, the last big battle of the war. There were definitely many, many overtones to the American Civil War in the show, which was often called a “western in outer space.”
The show however only lasted for 13 episodes due to poor ratings. However it developed a strong cult following ( Its fans called themselves “Brown Shirts after the uniforms some crew members wore in the civil war.) Thanks to the Brown Shirts persistence, Whedon produced the 2005 theatrical film Serenity which tied up some loose ends left from the series with the hopes of launching it as a movie franchise. Despite good reviews and a strong word of mouth campaign, the film was a major box office disappointment, and all plans for a sequel or a return to the small screen were scrapped, though several Whedon approved graphic novels based on the show and the film have been published.
Also on Fox in 2002 The Simpson spoofed the Civil War in the episode The Sweetest Apu which featured perhaps the most inaccurate re-enactment ever staged.
Finally, for now, there was BBC America’s Copper which debuted in 2013, the network’s first original programing. The show is set in New York City’s infamous “Five Points” during the Civil War. The show focused on an Irish immigrant police officer who while trying to keep the peace, wants to learn the fate of his wife and daughter. Subplots involved the effect of the war on everyday life in New York and race relations in the city during that time. The show was cancelled after two seasons.
And there we have it. From dusty black and white westerns to high tech special effect laden science fiction, the American Civil War has been depicted in almost every genre of television. One can only imagine what the next 50-60 years will bring.