We continue our look at Civil War Themed television shows by examining the 1990s which saw one of the some most ambitious and controversial of programs of this genre.
By far the most ambitious Civil War documentary ever made was 1990’s The Civil War directed and produced by Ken Burns which aired on PBS. The film took five years to make, longer than the Civil War itself , with a runtime of 11 ½ hours. Burns incorporated over 16,000 period images, with contemporary accounts of the actions depicted. Burns also had a number of on air interviews with several historians, most notably Mississippi historian/novelist Shelby Foote.
The production became one of the most popular programs in PBS history and has been replayed numerous times since and became a bestselling DVD. It also received 40 major awards including two Emmys. Thanks to the show’s popularity, Shelby Foote’s 25 year-old Civil War trilogy, still one of the best overall accounts of the war, sold 400,000 copies in the six months after the show’s original airing. (Foote later told Burns that he had made him a millionaire.) Foote became such a big national celebrity that he was invited by Johnny Carson to be on the Tonight Show.
Spurred by the success of the documentary, Burns produced a sequel of sorts called Songs of the Civil War which featured a number of contemporary artists such as Judy Collins, Waylon Jennings, and Hoyt Axon performing popular songs of the era, both Union and Confederate, including a stirring version of Dixie performed by the West Point Marching Band. In between the songs the performers discussed the history and significance of the songs. Shelby Foote also provided insight as well. The soundtrack was released on CD and is still available, though one should not confuse it with the “official” soundtrack to Burns’ documentary.
Also in 1991, Ted Turner’s TNT Network premiered Ironclads a docudrama about the famous battle between the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia (aka The Merrimack). One third models of the two famous vessels were made and filmed in England to give a strong sense of realism. However, the film received at best only a mixed reaction.
In 1992, the Arts & Entertainment Network ( A&E) debuted The Real West. This one hour documentary series was hosted by singer/actor Kenny Rogers and dealt with various aspects of Western U.S. culture and history. Like Burns’ film, this series used period images and voice overs, and commentary from historians, but unlike Burns’ work, it also included some recreations. It aired from 1992-1994 on A&E and it success helped convinced the network to start The History Channel. Several episodes of The Real West dealt with the Civil War in part while one episode was totally devoted to Civil War actions in the West.
1993’s Civil War Journal was a spin-off of The Real West with Danny Glover, star of the popular Lethal Weapon films as the original host. (His appearance was later edited out in rebroadcasts). Though the show was well received, it did not achieve the popularity of its sister show and lasted only two seasons.
1993 saw the failed attempt at a new dramatic Civil War T.V. series, Class of ’61. Steven Spielberg produced this 90 minute 1993 pilot that would follow the lives of several West Point classmates (among them George Armstrong Custer) throughout the Civil War and how their friendship was tested by the war. Famed novelist/historian Shelby Foote served as a consultant and narrator.
ABC reportedly spent millions of dollars on the pilot, and it clearly shows in the production values, but decided to pass on the series fearing that it would be too expensive to produce. To recoup some of their investment, the network aired the pilot as a stand-alone movie.
In 1996 TNT produced Andersonville a four hour docudrama mini-series about the infamous Camp Sumter prison camp for captured Union soldiers located in Andersonville, Ga. It was directed by famed Hollywood director John Frankenheimer (The Bird Man of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May.)While some Southern partisans felt that it put the Confederates in a too bad light, and failing to mention that much of the problem there was related to the fact that Maj. Gen. U.S. Grant had stopped the exchange of prisoners of war, the mini-series was generally well received and won Frankenheimer an Emmy for his directing.
By far the most controversial Civil War themed television show of all time was UPN’s The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. The 1998 show revolved around Desmond Pfeiffer, played by Chi McBride. Pfeiffer is a Black English nobleman who is kidnapped by his enemies and sent to America on a slave ship. He eventually becomes the personal valet of President Abraham Lincoln and is apparently the only intelligent and sober person in the Lincoln White House, the goings on of which he keeps in a diary.
From a historical standpoint this scenario could not have happened. The importation of slavery into the United States was made illegal in 1808 and Lincoln abolished slavery in Washington D.C. in 1862, months before the Emancipation Proclamation.
The show generated controversy even before the first episode aired. The NACCP went on record against it and protests where held outside the studio where it was taped. UPN agreed not to air the pilot, but when the first episode came in 116th out of 125 programs that aired that week, the fate of the show was sealed. After taping nine episodes, of which only four aired, the show was cancelled. TV Guide listed it in 2007 as the 11th worse TV show of all time and the 15th biggest TV blunder ever in 2010.
That same year TNT presented The Day Lincoln \Was Shot based on the book by Jim Bishop. The cast included Rob Morrow as John Wilkes Booth.
In 1999 TNT debuted The Hunley a made for television movie about the first submarine to ever sink an enemy vessel on February 17, 1864 in the Charleston, S.C. harbor. The cast featured Donald Sutherland as Gen. P.T.G. Beauregard and Armand Asante as Lt. George Dixon, commander of the sub’s ill-fated mission.
The program was intended to raise awareness and fund to raise the actual Hunley which had just been located in 1995. (The sub was raised the next year.) Because of the submarine’s discovery the producers were able to make the most accurate depiction of the sub ever presented.
Though it is considered one of the most accurate Civil War films ever made, The Hunley had to have an ambiguous ending, as the actual cause of the sub’s sinking is still uncertain even after 18 years since its finding.
The 90s ended with one of the strangest Civil War themed shows yet with Comedy Central’s South Park episode The Red Badge of Gayness
In order to win a bet in which Kyle and Stan will be his slaves, Eric Cartman dresses up like Robert E. Lee and leads a band of Confederate re-enactors, drunk on Jagerminz S’more-flavored Schnapps across the country so the South can win the Civil War, with the “entire state of South Carolina” joining Cartman’s cause.
This episode caused controversy among re-enactors who felt it made them look like a bunch of drunkards. The episode also spoofs the Ken Burns PBS Civil War documentary. For the record, there were no Civil War battles in Colorado where the fictional town of South Park is located.
Next time we will conclude our look at television in Civil War with a look at the 21st Century. Stay tuned!