thumbnail of The Civil War; Interview with Robert Penn Warren
Transcript
Hide -
CAMERAMAN: July 9, 1986 Florentine Films. American Documentaries, Incorporated. Project title: “Civil War.” Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow [TONE]. Camera roll 17 Sound roll 7. Interview with Robert Penn Warren. Sounds rolling. Speed rolling. No wait you can’t do that. Camera test no noise. Sounds rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: All right.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history. Without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history. Before the Civil War, we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense. We had no true identity.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful, why don’t you read that one more time, and when you look up you can look up to me. Because that was fine. Go ahead.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history, without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history. Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense. We had no true identity.
KEN BURNS: Good, why don’t you go on to the next one.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: A civil war is, we may say, the prototype of all war, for in the persons of fellow citizens who happen to be the enemy we meet again with the old ambivalences of love and hate and with all the old guilts, the blood brothers of our childhood.
KEN BURNS: Great. Move on.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: In a civil war, all the self-divisions of conflicts within individuals become a series of mirrors in which the plight of the country is reflected, and the self-division of the country, a great mirror in which the individual may see imaged his own deep conflicts, not only the conflicts of political loyalties, but those more profoundly personal.
KEN BURNS: Good now go to the top of that second one again, The Civil War is...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: A civil war is, we may say, the prototype of all war, for in the persons of fellow citizens who happen to be the enemy, we meet again with the old ambivalence of love and hate and with all the old guilts, the blood brothers of our childhood.
KEN BURNS: Great, and go on.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: In a civil war, all the self-divisions of conflicts within...
KEN BURNS: Start again please.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: In a civil war, all the self-divisions of conflicts within individuals become a series of mirrors in which the plight of the country is reflected, and the self-division of the country, a great mirror in which the individual may see imaged his own deep conflicts, not only the conflicts of political loyalties, but those more profoundly personal.
KEN BURNS: Very nice. Why don’t you move on to the next one.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: The Civil War was a war waged under new conditions and in a new economic, technological, political and moral context. The rules in the textbooks did not help very much. The man whose mind could leap beyond the book was apt to win. It was a war fought, on both sides, with the experimental intelligence, the experimental imagination. Ah, I fucked that up.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: The Civil War was a war waged under new conditions and in a new economic, technological, political and moral context. The rules in the textbooks did not help very much. The man whose mind could leap beyond the book was apt to win. It was a war fought, on both sides, with the experimental intelligence, the experimental imagination, not only in the area of lethal conflict, but in the very speculations about the nature of war. Out of the Civil War came the concept of total war, the key to Northern victory.
KEN BURNS: Why don’t you read that last sentence again.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Out of the Civil War came the concept of total war, the key to Northern victory. The Civil War was a secret school for 1917-1918 and 1941-1945.
KEN BURNS: Fine, and move on to the last one.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Union, the abolition of slavery, the explosion of the westward expansion, big business and big technology, style in war, philosophy, and politics‚ we can see the effects of the Civil War in all of these things. In a sense, they all add up to the creation of the world power that America is today.
KEN BURNS: Can we have a slate please?
CAMERAMAN: Take one. Sounds rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: Okay.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Union, the abolition of slavery, the explosion of the westward expansion, big business and big technology, style in war, philosophy, and politics‚we can see the effects of the Civil War in all of these things. In a sense, they all add up to the creation of the world power that America is today.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful. And why don’t you go ahead, ‘The Civil War offers a gallery...’ Tell me about this gallery.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: All right. God help. The Civil War offers a gallery of great human images for our contemplation. It affords a dazzling array of figures, noble in proportion yet human, caught in time as in a freeze, in stances so profoundly touching or powerfully mythic that they move us in a way no mere consideration of "historical importance" ever could. We can think of Lincoln alone at night in the drafty corridors of the White House, the shawl on his shoulders; of Jackson's dying words; of Lee coming out of the McLean farmhouse at Appomattox to stare over the heads of his waiting men who crowded around, and strike his gauntleted hands deliberately together; of Sam Davis, with the rope around his neck, giving the federal soldiers the order for his own execution, the order which General Dodge was too overcome by emotion to give; of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Harvard '60, who led his black Fifty-fourth Massachusetts in its ultimate test of manhood, died with the cry, 'Forward, my boys!' and was buried under the heaps of his own men in the ditch before Fort Wagner; of Grant, old, discredited, dying of cancer, driving pen over paper, day after day, to tell his truth and satisfy his creditors.
KEN BURNS: When the truck is passed, why don’t you start with ‘...of Grant’?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Of Grant? All right.
KEN BURNS: Okay.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: ...of Grant, old, discredited, dying of cancer, driving pen over paper, day after day, to tell the truth and satisfy his creditors.
KEN BURNS: It’s ‘to tell his truth and satisfy.’ That’s the important thing, I think...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: You’re right, you’re right. Yep. Again, ‘of Grant’? ...of Grant, old, discredited, dying of cancer, driving pen over paper, day after day, to tell his truth and satisfy his creditors.
KEN BURNS: Move on to that next paragraph.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: That was our Homeric period, and the figures loom up... That was our Homeric period, and the figures loom up, only a little less than Gods, but even so, we recognize the lineaments and passions of men, and by that recognition of common kinship, share in their grandeur.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful, read that one more time. Really make me understand, how that was our Homeric period. What if this was the last line of the entire project? Go ahead.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: That was our Homeric period, and the figures loom up only a little less than Gods, but even so, we recognize the lineaments and passions of men, and by that recognition of common kinship, share in their grandeur. Any better?
KEN BURNS: Much better. Want to try the whole big paragraph one more time, so that we have a choice... Can you do that one more?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Sure, sure.
KEN BURNS: Go.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: One second.
CAMERAMAN: Two. Sounds rolling, speed. Slate.
KEN BURNS: Okay.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: That was our Homeric period, and the figures loom up only a little less than Gods, but even so, we recognize the lineaments and passions of men, and by that recognition of common kinship share in their grandeur.
KEN BURNS: Very nice. Um, why don’t you do a slate in the middle and keep rolling.
CAMERAMAN: Take three.
KEN BURNS: Now read the bottom paragraph. ‘The war meant that Americans now saw America.’
ROBERT PENN WARREN: All right. The War meant that Americans now saw America. The farm boy of Ohio, the trapper of Minnesota, and the pimp from the Mackerelville section of New York City saw Richmond and Mobile. They not only saw America, they saw each other, and together shot it out with some Scot of the Valley of Virginia or ducked hardware hurled by a Louisiana Jew who might be a lieutenant of artillery, CSA.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful. Want to read that one again one more time?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: All right, sure. The War meant that Americans now saw America. The farm boy of Ohio, the trapper of Minnesota, and the pimp of the Mackerelville section of New York City saw Richmond and Mobile. They not only saw America, they saw each other, and together shot it out with some Scot of the Valley of Virginia or ducked hardware hurled by a Louisiana Jew who might be a lieutenant of artillery, CSA.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful. Okay, we’ll spend two minutes changing the roll.
CAMERAMAN: Okay, there was no slate on that. There was a runout. Slate in the middle, excuse me, slate in the middle but camera runout. July 9, 1986. Florentine Films. American Documentaries, Incorporated. Working title “Civil War.” Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow. [TONE]. Camera roll 18 Sound roll 8. Interview with Robert Penn Warren. Cameras rolling. Speed.
KEN BURNS: Okay.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: The Civil War offers a gallery of great human images for our contemplation. It affords a dazzling array of figures, noble in proportion yet human, caught in time as in a freeze, in stances so profoundly touching or powerfully mythic that they move us in a way no mere consideration of "historical importance" ever could. We can think of Lincoln alone at night in the drafty corridors of the White House, the shawl on his shoulders; of Jackson's dying words; of Lee coming out of the McLean farmhouse at Appomattox to stare over the heads of his waiting men who crowded around, and strike his gauntleted hands deliberately together; of Sam Davis, with the rope around his neck, giving the Federal soldiers the order for his own execution, the order which General Dodge was too overcome by emotion to give; of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Harvard '60, who led his black Fifty-fourth Massachusetts in its ultimate test of manhood, died with the cry, 'Forward, my boys!' and was buried under the heaps of his own men in the ditch before Fort Wagner; of Grant, old, discredited, dying of cancer, driving pen over paper, day after day, to tell his truth and satisfy his creditors.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful. Now go down to the bottom of the page and do the one, once again that great thing, with some humor. No we’re all right. I think there’s some humor in this as well.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: You mean this section right here?
KEN BURNS: Yeah, that last one. You know I think there’s just a little bit of the twinkle in the eye there.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: The War meant that Americans now saw America. The farm boy of Ohio, the trapper of Minnesota, and the pimp of the Mackerelville section of New York City saw Richmond and Mobile. They not only saw America, they saw each other, and together shot it out with some Scot of the Valley of Virginia or ducked hardware hurled by a Louisiana Jew who might be a lieutenant of artillery, CSA.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful. Let’s have a slate there. Great, that was great!
CAMERAMAN: Take four.
KEN BURNS: That was nice.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, Speed.
KEN BURNS: Okay.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: With the war the old America, with all its virtues and defects, was dead. With the war the new America, with its promise of realizing the vision inherited from the old America, was born. But it was born, too, with those problems and paradoxes which Herman Melville, during the war, could already envisage when he wrote that the wind of history "spins against the way it drives," and with that success, "power unanointed" may come to corrupt us," And the iron dome, stronger for stress and strain/ Fling her huge shadow athwart the main; but the founders* dream shall flee." Melville was, of course, referring to the fact that in the middle of the Civil War, the old wooden dome of the Capitol was replaced by one of iron.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful. Yeah, let’s get a slate. Great image, such a great image.
CAMERAMAN: Rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: Blood is the first cost.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Blood is the first cost. History is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that. It was real blood, not tomato catsup or the pale ectoplasm of statistics, that wet the ground at Bloody Angle and darkened the waters of Bloody Pond. It modifies our complacency to look at the blurred and harrowing old photographs, the body of the dead sharpshooter in the Devil's Den at Gettysburg, or the tangled mass in the bloody lane at Antietam.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful. Read one more time, ‘Blood is the first cost.”
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Blood is the first cost. History is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that. It was real blood, not tomato catsup or the pale ectoplasm of statistics, that wet the ground at Bloody Angle and darkened the waters of Bloody Pond. It modifies our complacency to look at the blurred and harrowing old photographs, the body of the dead sharpshooter in the Devil's Den at Gettysburg, or the tangled mass in the bloody lane at Antietam.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful. You like that, bud?
UNKNOWN: Very good.
KEN BURNS: Great. Keep going down to ‘the Northerners.”
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Northerners, from different motives at different periods, tend to favor the view that the Civil War was inevitable. In one perspective, for some members of early... I’m sorry.
KEN BURNS: It’s all right.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Northerners, from different motives at different periods, tend to favor the view that the Civil War was inevitable. I fucked that up.
Northerners, from different motives at different periods, tend to favor the view that the Civil War was inevitable. In one perspective, for some members of earlier generations, living under the bruising and bloody shock of the event, one appeal of the inevitability theory may have been that it relieved the Northerner of certain unpleasant speculations about his own hand in the proceedings.
Did that work all right?
KEN BURNS: Yeah, it worked fine.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: I couldn’t tell, I lost all track. I lost sense of it.
KEN BURNS: Let’s do a slate.
CAMERAMAN: Slate, number six. Sounds rolling, speed.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: The word tragedy is often used loosely. Here we use it at its deepest significance: the image in action of the deepest questions of man's fate and man's attitude toward his fate. For the Civil War is, massively, that. It is the story of a crime of monstrous inhumanity, into which almost innocently men stumbled; of consequences which could not be trammeled up, and of men who entangled themselves more and more vindictively and desperately until the powers of reason were twisted and their very virtues perverted; of a climax drenched with blood but with nobility gleaming ironically, and redeemingly, through the murk; of a conclusion in which, for the participants at least, there is a reconciliation by human recognition. I stumbled there.
KEN BURNS: How about you go back to ‘of a climax...’
ROBERT PENN WARREN: One second, there’s a problem, just.
KEN BURNS: Do you see where ‘of a climax’ is?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: I found it. My glasses are catching a glimpse somewhere. Don’t worry about it. I’ll find it, I’ll be all right. Now where do you want me to go?
KEN BURNS: ‘Of a climax...”
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Okay, here we go. ...of a climax drenched with blood but with nobility gleaming ironically, and redeemingly, through the murk; of a conclusion in which, for the participants at least, there is reconciliation by human recognition.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful, why don’t you go on to the next? ‘Beyond.’
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Yep. Wait just a second. Beyond the satisfaction it may give to rancor, self-righteousness, spite, pride, spiritual pride, vindictiveness, armchair blood lust, and complacency, we can yet see in the Civil War an image of the powerful, painful grinding process by which an ideal emerges out of history. That should teach us humility beyond the great alibi and the treasury of virtue, but at the same time it draws us to the glory of the human effort to win meaning from the complex and confused motives of men and the blind ruck of event.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful, go ahead.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: One second.
KEN BURNS: Why don’t you do a slate?
CAMERAMAN: Tail slate, number seven. Sounds rolling, speed. Number 8, head.
KEN BURNS: Okay.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Looking back on the years 1861-65 we see how the individual men, despite failings, blindness, and vice, may affirm for us the possibility of the dignity of life. It is a tragic dignity that their story affirms, but it may evoke strength. And in the contemplation of the story, some of that grandeur, even in the midst of the confused issues, shadowy chances, and brutal ambivalences of our life and historical moment, may rub off on us. And that may be what we yearn for after all.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful, wonderful.
CAMERAMAN: Cut. July 9, 1986. Florentine Films. American Documentaries, Incorporated. Working title “Civil War.” Camera roll 19 Sound roll 9. Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow. [TONE]. Interview with Robert Penn Warren. Sounds rolling. Speed.
KEN BURNS: Okay.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Looking back on the years 1861-65 we see how the individual men, despite failings, blindness, and vice, may affirm for us the possibility of the dignity... Start over again. Looking back on the years 1861-65 we see how the individual men, despite failings, blindness, and vice, may affirm for us the possibility of the dignity of life. It is a tragic dignity that their story affirms, but it may evoke strength. And in the contemplation of the story, some of that grandeur, even in the midst of the confused issues, shadowy chances, and brutal ambivalences of our life and historical moment, may rub off on us. And that may be what we yearn for after all.
KEN BURNS: One more time on that.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Okay, yep.
KEN BURNS: Want to do a slate?
CAMERAMAN: Second slate, number nine. Sounds rolling, speed.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Looking back on the years 1861-65 we see how the individual men, despite failings, blindness, and vice, may affirm for us the possibility of the dignity of life. It is a tragic dignity that their story affirms, but it may evoke strength. And in the contemplation of the story, some of that grandeur, even in the midst of the confused issues, shadowy chances, and brutal ambivalences of our life and historical moment, may rub off on us. And that may be what we yearn for after all.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful, great. Sound great. Let’s do a slate.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: That all right?
KEN BURNS: That was wonderful.
CAMERMAN: Tail.
KEN BURNS: You follow that, bud?
UKNOWN: Yep. I thought it was the best reading of that piece.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: I think you need to be up a little bit. No, I guess you’re all right. Go ahead.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history. Without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history. Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense. We had no true identity. A civil war is, we may say, the prototype of all war, for in the persons of fellow citizens who happen to be the enemy we meet again the old ambivalence of love and hate and with all the old guilts, the blood brothers of our childhood.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful, a little bit more animated. A little bit more animated on that one.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: A civil war is, we may say, the prototype of all war, for in the persons of our fellow citizens who happen to be the enemy we meet again with the old ambivalence of love and hate and with all the old guilts, the blood brothers of our childhood.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful, now read it once more without looking up until the very end. ‘The blood brothers of our childhood.’ Go ahead.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: All right. A civil war is, we may say, the prototype of all war, for in the persons of our fellow citizens who happen to be the enemy we meet again with the old ambivalence of love and hate and with all the old guilts, the blood brothers of our childhood.
KEN BURNS: Great, cut. Slate.
CAMERAMAN: Number thirteen. That previous should be marked as tail slate number eleven, not thirteen. Sound rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: Okay.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: To give things labels, we may say that the War gave the South the Great Alibi and gave the North the Treasury of Virtue. By the Great Alibi the South explains, condones, and transmutes everything. By a single reference to the "War," any Southern female could, not long ago, put on the glass slipper and be whisked away to the ball. Any goose could dream herself (or himself) a swan - surrounded, of course, by a good many geese for contrast and devoted hand-service.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful, could we get a slate? That was great.
CAMERAMAN: Tail, twelve.
KEN BURNS: That was wonderful, that was perfect. Let me go to the other one.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Now what?
KEN BURNS: Same one that you read.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: Okay.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said, long before his great fame: "You could not stand up day after day in those indecisive contests where overwhelming victory was impossible because neither side would run as they ought to when beaten without getting at least something of the same brotherhood for the enemy that the north pole of a magnet has for the south..."
KEN BURNS: Wonderful. Read it once more?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: All right, sure.
KEN BURNS: Okay, once more for variety.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: All right. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said, long before his great fame: "You could not stand up day after day in those indecisive contests where overwhelming victory was impossible because neither side would run as they ought when beaten without getting at least something of the same brotherhood for the enemy that the north pole of a magnet has for the south..."
KEN BURNS: Great.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: It didn’t feel right.
KEN BURNS: You want to do one more?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Well, it didn’t feel right to me somehow.
KEN BURNS: Yeah. Ok, well we’ll do one more and then we’ll...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said...
KEN BURNS: Let’s hold, let’s wait for this...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Oh sure, sure.
KEN BURNS: That’s suddenly a big hurricane.
CAMERAMAN: Let’s do a slate. Tail, thirteen. Sounds rolling, speed. Camera please.
KEN BURNS: Okay.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said, long before his great fame: "You could not stand up day after day in those indecisive contests where overwhelming victory was impossible because neither side would run as they ought to when beaten without getting at least something of the same brotherhood for the enemy that the north pole of a magnet has for the south..."
KEN BURNS: Wonderful, that’s very nice. Let’s have a slate on that.
CAMERAMAN: Tail, fourteen.
KEN BURNS: Great, and let’s take away some glasses.
CAMERAMAN: Rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: Uh, Red, we were talking earlier, you know, I didn’t want to bite you at that time, about the story about Jackson and how... I think it’s a kind of interesting story of the kind of understanding between the two armies is the story of Jackson’s baby. Can you tell us?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Oh yes. It reminds me, by the way, of a Oliver Wendell Holmes remark that the Northern soldier as he was, wounded six times, got the feeling of brotherhood for the Southern soldier because they wouldn't run away. Neither side would run away as they ought to go. They just stayed on. And they had the affinity for each other the north pole of a magnet has for the south pole. But anyway, a good example of that seems to me to be this tale about Stonewall Jackson's baby was born during the war. And one night Southern pickets very close to the Northern picket line heard the news of Jackson's baby's birth, and so they burst into cheers and cheered General Jackson. And the Federal pickets so close said, "What are you cheering about?" The said, "Jackson's got a baby." Well the whole line of Northern pickets went and cheered the baby too. A strange kind of camaraderie.
KEN BURNS: How do you explain that? I mean usually a civil war is the prototype of brutal slaughter of civilians. Why did we care for each other in the midst?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: They were all trapped. They sensed they were all in it together, I guess. They all were the victims. They all were caught in the same machine of some kind. And also, you had on both sides certain admiration, how ungrudging, for the worthy enemy. Lee could command applause. And Grant was recognized, or Sherman for their abilities. They were soldiers too. They recognized a common craftsmanship. Put it that way.
KEN BURNS: Was it James who spoke at the dedication of the Shaw memorial?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: He did. James built Gould Shaw's Memorial, that Saint Gaudens put on the Common in Boston long after the event, yes.
KEN BURNS: What was the gist of his remarks?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: James said‚ I can't quote it exactly‚ but he was talking about victory and defeat in war and he says, "Where something should lie. Something should always lie with a side that can recognize the virtues of their opponent." ...of the opponent. Now that's not the exact phrase but that's the exact idea, that can understand the quality of the opponent. Quality demands respect.
KEN BURNS: It seems to be...
CAMERAMAN: Fifteen, in the middle.
KEN BURNS: It seems to be an incredibly poetic war, I mean that we really, we gravitate toward the Civil War because of a kind of excruciating poignancy and irony about it. Can you respond?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Well, I know what you mean. Sure, I know what you mean.
KEN BURNS: Maybe just restate what I’ve said in your own...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: It's been said elsewhere in many forms, the same idea, that not only they are all in the same trap, North and South, an individual could see himself as trapped, too. He was there against his will usually but...I've lost track of what we were talking about, tell you the truth.
KEN BURNS: It’s fine because we just ran out and we’ll take our long back and we’ll get back to this really... I thought you told the Jackson story...
CAMERAMAN: July 9, 1986. Florentine Films. American Documentaries, Incorporated. Working title “Civil War.” Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow. [TONE]. Camera roll 20 Sound roll 10. Interview with Robert Penn Warren. Sounds rolling. Speed.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: [inaudible] It was a personal, it was a personal violation. That was a very common attitude.
KEN BURNS: What do you actually think... Why did the war happen? Why did Americans murder each other?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: I don't know. It's an insoluble tangle, it seems to me. Strange things like this happen. I have to check this carefully. But the basic fact is anyway that in the legislature of '31, ’30-'31, Virginia missed Emancipation by one vote. Tangles of that, but that's miraculous. And four years later, you see, they had Turner's Rebellion. Now this, its tangled. And then some Caribbean stuff, but the panic then set in as apparently that could never happen again. Before that event...It's a historical accident. I mean, no price tag on it, you see.
KEN BURNS: Shelby said that it was the failure of compromise, of the ability of people to compromise is what really did it.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Well, that's the case, obviously, and isn't it? But that's just saying it was damn foolishness.
KEN BURNS: Was it damn foolishness?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: How do I.... it looks idiocy from our perspective. But localisms....we've lost them now. Your country was where you lived, the place you had some identity, I don't know. But it's true. I mean it seems incredible now to us. But also the State's Rights system of belonging to a section, or to a state....Hawthorne would say that New England was as big a country as he could imagine above him. Beyond that he couldn't grasp it.
KEN BURNS: Let’s cut for a second.
CAMERAMAN: Tail. Fifteen.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: ....you see. Cotton growers and a few others are by the fact that they wanted secession because their debts got cancelled, their personal debts got cancelled. That's one theory, I have no details of this. But there are all sorts of facts as it may have never been been. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. I have no facts on that. That's just one of the theories.
KEN BURNS: Just like you’re saying sometimes what’s obvious about who wins a battle a battle is different. You were telling me this story of Herman Halp and Gettysburg. Could you sort of...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Well, at Gettysburg the problem of getting rid of the wounded in
a protracted battle is enormous. And another thing is getting artillery supplies up with a heavy and a hard to handle mule wagon and so forth, well General Halp at Gettysburg built a railroad to the battlefield. He flung it down and overnight, overnight, really, got a railroad going. So they had a train to carry back the wounded, behind the lines to keep them out, so they wouldn't interfere with the battle and also keep the ammunition for the artillery. But they could ...Lee had to bring all this stuff by wagon from Virginia. So there's ammunition right there. That's a crucial factor and the battle...of a wounded in a battle...You got to get them out of the way. It's a several day battle, you see.
KEN BURNS: Tell me about, the story about the ‘what’s on the tombstone of the South,’ and who said that.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: That's a historian named Frank Ausey (?) did a book on States' Rights. And it concludes by saying on the tombstone of the Confederacy would be the inscription: 'Died of States Rights.’ Well States' Rights was a suicidal principle.
KEN BURNS: And there’s something about guns in Georgia, you were telling me?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Well, I think this is right now. I know it might not be exactly the number but it's a terrific number... in the early days of the war, the state of Georgia had I think it was 200,000 firearms, muskets and rifles. At the same time, they couldn't get enough armament for volunteers elsewhere. He would let it go. That's Georgia. States' Rights always has a way. Of course it was crazy. There was no overall military planning, really in a sense, so I read somewhere.
KEN BURNS: But I’ve heard it postured also that the South really died of will, lack of will.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: It did, in certain ways anyway. That's a complicated notion, though, lack of will. There was no overall war plan apparently and because of States Rights. Now I've heard this said by veterans‚ take it for what it's worth‚ people who fought the war and are saying that the South could have won the war, even late, if it had the will to‚ that's an old soldier‚ if they had the will to. It really wasn't a will of not willing to fight. It was another question of will, in his notion. In fact, this was my grandfather. He said that Sherman's march could have been prevented. But it would take a strong central government to do it. He said the Russian campaigns against Napoleon, they [cleared the world?] in front of Napoleon. They should have Shermanized the country before Sherman, you see. So he would have had to get supplies, and then say, and then use the Southern cavalry to break our supplies. They had an expert cavalry,great cavalry leaders and at least, the only hope against Sherman would have been to destroy ... [so] he couldn't live off the country, clear it before him. And make him move into a desert. And then cut his supply lines. They were fragile....Supply lines were really fragile. If you turn loose a massive cavalry assault on them, kept them cut. I'd say 60,000 men Sherman had down there, they just.... Things besides letters would be not getting to them at that time. But that's one of the cases of argument about will. Is it will or is it something else? Will gets infected by other things. I don't know, I mean I guess you can't say will explains it....but surely, it was not a nation. That's the answer, it was not a nation.
KEN BURNS: Do you have a favorite character, somebody that you look to, North or South, that you not so much identify with but that you’re drawn to.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: I really have a lot more than one. I mean, you can find stacks of people. I mean, poor Grant, in his terrible stupidity after he became President and before sometimes but the heroic end, of course that business, writing his memoirs, redeeming himself, that heroic death. One of the strange moving tales to me about the Civil War is: Floyd surrendered to Grant at that fort in Kentucky, Fort Pillow, not Pillow... it's the first river port captured and Grant did it. Anyway the point is this: Floyd surrendered to him. Now Floyd and Grant were classmates at West Point. And Grant was on his uppers, he'd become a drunkard, had no job, and was broke, so stony broke he couldn't get out of the rooming house he was living in in New York. He met Floyd on the street. This time Floyd was a great man militarily. And Floyd said, "My friend!" and took in Grant, the decrepit broken-down drunkard, and got him started again in life, said ... gave him money, paid his bills, and so forth. They were great friends. And sent him back to his family, you know. And then Floyd surrendered to him.
KEN BURNS: There it is. Slate.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: It's an incredible case.
KEN BURNS: Keep rolling.
CAMERAMAN: Sixteen.
KEN BURNS: Keep rolling.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: And Floyd came to see Grant on his deathbed and saw him privately. And this news got out to the press and there were mobs of newspaper men, real enough probably ten but by those standards, outside waiting, you see, for Floyd to see Grant on his deathbed. And they all went around to Floyd: "What'd you say? Tell us about this..." And he was weeping, dabbing his eyes. He said, "It's too sacred." That's a little human touch in that. If I was to remember the book-I read it 40 years ago.
KEN BURNS: Why should we remember the Civil War?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: I don't know. It's what, I think, you said. It's an echo of, what? Its ambivalences are so intense for anybody, I think, who knows any history at all. 'Course we've lost our history. Nobody knows any history now...except surprisingly few people. But its tensions go to anybody's center. It's a family story in a way. And also it's a pack of myths too.
KEN BURNS: Let’s stop right there, that was a runout. And we’ll change the roll, and we’ll keep going on that.
CAMERAMAN: July 9, 1986. Florentine Films. American Documentaries, Incorporated. Working title “Civil War.” Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow. [TONE]. Camera roll 21 Sound roll 11. Interview with Robert Penn Warren.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: The boot-heels scarred, you see. Wet red clay and so and so. They wouldn’t have it. That’s not poetic enough for our purposes. That’s what I’m talking about. The sentimentalization of the Civil War, and I got it from the southern side. But the realism of the war, that side of the war, was by and large suppressed except as an anecdote. It’s the officialized view of the war for the Southerners.
KEN BURNS: A second ago you were talking about that the Civil War really gave rise to human...could you restate what you were talking about? Human beings...really just...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: It's our Homeric period. I think that's just obvious fact. But it's the number of characters and personalities and some foolishness and some genius in it. And all kinds of causes, but memorable personalities. It's incredible. The pressure on that generation was so great, from a subliterate to Lee, on both sides, extraordinary qualities of character and intelligence and personality. Incredible. It's an endless story. But the pressure, is what always has struck me for years, are these tremendous emotional pressures. Somehow Lee's talents and other human qualities, in an extraordinary way.
KEN BURNS: Let’s get a slate.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: And I think that part of that was because of the tension...
CAMERAMAN: Sixteen.
KEN BURNS: Excuse me. I think we’re going to have you. We’re gonna, yeah. You were just saying that the pressure of the time, the generation...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: The division...almost anybody, it seems to me‚course this has got to be guess work‚ who is subject to those pressures, whatever side he's on, will find some self-division, some sign of self-division. Pressures that were unusual anyway. After all, it was a civil war. It wasn't just a war, just a foreign power thing, that's clear cut and simple. It's bound to have had strange elements of that sort. And the pressure is released. I think the emotional pressures release something‚ we haven't seen anything like it before or after. The period produces many impressive personalities of one kind or another.
KEN BURNS: Who comes to mind?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: There's no period like it. You can find individuals, like Washington, there’s... you can find a great man, but still...
KEN BURNS: Who were those great men of the Civil War in your estimation?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: I don't know. I mean it's the fact that the emotion of the war is alive, so alive to America. It is in itself a mark of its complexity. Civil War round table, for instance, is strange.
KEN BURNS: What is the war, in its total, if that’s possible, mean to you, Robert Penn Warren? Does it have meaning, real meaning?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: How do I know what it means to me? I mean it's a story that I grew up with, of course. I don't mean merely by word of mouth but it was never offered to me by...the fancified version of it....I mean I heard the other side of it, the grizzly side, too. And I never had, personally with the old people I knew, I never had the romanticized view of the war, the suffering, what they had. In fact, humans were the things that constantly appeared. For instance, well, a grandfather whom I knew was a scout, a cavalry scout, and they encountered something like turnips hanging from trees way up a lane. They got there and a scout, a Federal scout, just ahead of him. And these looked like turnips, well they had some old women they'd met on the road said the Federals had put all their skirts above their head and put a knot in their skirts and hung them up so their feet couldn't touch the ground. So they looked like turnips up the road til she stops kicking. Well, that sort of thing. Also, the same grandfather, one of the scouts, he went back to the headquarters where he interviewed a captive they had, overtaken by some Federal scouts and surprised him, brought him in. And one interview‚ he interviewed the man, the prisoner, and the prisoner was embarrassed. He had a dark-complexion but he certainly wasn't in any sense a Negro and he spoke very strange English, it was very accurate English, but all the same very strange. And my grandfather said, "What are you?" He said, "I'm a Turk, sir." And "What are you doing here?" would say Grandpa. And he said, "Well, I'm here to study the art of war." My grandfather was a very unwitty man, he never made any jokes. He said, "I said to him that he'd come to the right place." That was in North Mississippi after Shiloh.
KEN BURNS: And there’s coincidence...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: But that reality of the war from old man who had lived through it killed off these things for me, you see, very early. And the actual physical sufferings you hear about.
KEN BURNS: Can you bring that home for us, to someone who doesn’t know about that? What war had that...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Anybody reads anything about it knows about it. But, as I say, it's not the UDC version of the Civil War. And that wasn't absolutely the official view, was that way. They tried to make it so.
KEN BURNS: There is in the Civil War an abundance of coincidence and irony, I think. You know where brothers find themselves...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Yes, over and over again.
KEN BURNS: Does any of those stories come to mind?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: One does.
KEN BURNS: Let’s wait until that truck passes.
CAMERAMAN: Seventeen. Sounds rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: I just wanted to have you recall, we’re talking about coincidence...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Well, there are two episodes. I remember I read them rather vaguely, I know they're true. But one I think, I'm pretty certain of this one, but I could check it, I haven't read it in a thousand years....But in the battle, you see, of the Ironclad in its first foray up the river and it was being fired on by a Federal battery from the shore on one side. Meanwhile it struck a Federal warship out there and was about to sink it. But they couldn't....the Federal batteries would not stop firing, you see, and let this ship surrender and their guns on the Merrimack, you see. And I forget the relationship. The officer of the Merrimack had a kinsman on the ship and I think he had to fire on the ship. Now I forget the details of that. That's the situation anyway. But there are others of that same sort. There's another one which is in a poem, I think by Melville, I forget the details of it, but those things happen all the time.
KEN BURNS: Do you remember what that was?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: I can’t remember, I can hunt it up, but I can’t remember.
KEN BURNS: Speaking of Melville, Melville said the Civil War ‘brought forth the iron dome.’ What was he talking about?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Well, he said this, you see the old Capitol building was wooden, had a wooden dome and not adequate for the national glory and they put up an iron dome. It was done during the Civil War, an iron dome. Now Melville in a poem called "The Conflict of Convictions"‚ it was a poem about, a whole book of battle pieces about the Civil War, published in '69, in '66‚and in this poem, "Conflict of Convictions", he tries to make into a long poem, the various views of the nation on the war. Written toward the end of the war actually. He says "You can't tell what history means" is what it amounts to. He says "The wind of history spins against the way it drives." It's like a whirlwind moving this way, you see. Spinning is one thing and the drive's another. History you can't read, you can't read it. It's always ambiguously meaningful. You can't quite be sure of it. "Spins against the way it drives." Then he says, another passage, same page actually... then he says that ... “And the iron dome," you see, of the Capitol, "strong before stress and strain", meaning the Civil War, "strong before stress and strain/ Shall stretch its jaggedy shadow athwart the main", be a great power. "But the founder's dream shall flee," "But the founder's dream shall flee." The democracy which is intended would go with the power of state, would not last in the power of state, "the iron dome", which casts a shadow across the world, across the ocean. "But the founder's dream shall flee." But the democratic dream will not survive the great power of state, the great modern state.
KEN BURNS: And that’s what the Civil War brought forth.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Melville raises this question in the poem. I quote that passage. And that ambiguity of the war, we have to confront. What is the nature of our democracy in terms of the great modern power of state?
KEN BURNS: Turning from the general to the particular, what’s the story of Sam Davis, what happened?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: He was, I think now, he was accused of being a spy and was picked up and condemned to be hanged. And he was a very touching young fellow, a very touching fellow and dignified and he was being hanged. And the officer in charge‚ Dodge is his name‚ broke down, couldn't give the orders to hang him. A noose is on him, going to be hanged. And Dodge just couldn't bring himself to do it, a Federal officer in charge. And then the boy gave the order for his own hanging, see Sam Davis.
KEN BURNS: Great, that was a runout. Ok, we’re going to change the...
CAMERAMAN: July 9, 1986. Florentine Films. American Documentaries, Incorporated. Working title “Civil War.” Recorded flat 7 1/2 ips minus 8 db reference tone to follow. [TONE] Camera roll 22 Sound roll 12. Interview with Robert Penn Warren. Sounds rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: So, something you want to...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Yes, nevermind, I going to forget it again...
KEN BURNS: Ok, we’re ready.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Well, I remember very distinctly as a boy noticing the equation, of noticing, of being Southern, the necessity of being anti-black in some way. I was noticing such things, you see, particularly because my father was very vocal about this matter. He wouldn't let the words be used in the house. One time the word 'nigger' was used in the house by a child, he said it was not to be used in this house again, never used. That's a different thing, same attitude of my grandfather. But the point I was getting at is this: as a boy I was puzzled by the fact that around me here and there something quite directly, somehow being Southern should be equated somehow with using the word 'nigger', a certain attitude toward blacks, you see. That was very common. It would be equated, you see, being a decent citizen would be equated with this in some people's minds and very commonly. And since I was exposed to other views as well, this was a puzzlement. And it was a real puzzlement. And then later on now, years later, I wrote two little books about segregation. One was called Segregation, it was a very brief book of a series of interviews, of traveling in the South just.... as the first business broke, you see. Then the long book which was done for LOOK magazine, parts they were going to use, called Who Speaks for the Negro? Two or three years going around interviewing various Negroes, of Southern leadership capacity, hundreds, sometimes fifty or seventy-five it seems I must have interviewed at one time or another. And I was really struck by this fact: that many white interviews I had, this I remember distinctly a woman saying to me, she says, "You know," she said: "I don't feel like using the word 'nigger’ and I don't feel like mistreating them the way some people mistreat. I hate it. I just feel that somehow I have to."
KEN BURNS: That’s a very good point.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Some pressure's there but purely against all her instincts, all her feelings, all her common sense 'cause she's obviously very bright. But it's true. It existed as a kind of off-shoot of the Civil War legend.
KEN BURNS: And the opposite is also true in some ways and we think of the North as fighting for abolition. Following out of what we were just saying... Oh, cut, yeah.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: You know we think of the North as fighting for abolition. What were the Northern boys fighting for?
ROBERT PENN WARREN: Well, I guess, like all the boys who fight in armies... they fight because they're put there or they have some vague notion this is the thing to do, some social pressure or just simply they're put there so a man's there. There are pressures on them of all sorts to be there. But I shouldn't expect those soldiers of the North and South to be more intelligent than the soldiers of Vietnam. Why should we expect them to be more?
KEN BURNS: If you could go back and witness one event or see or talk to one person, what would that be.
ROBERT PENN WARREN: God knows. I don't know.
KEN BURNS: You could place yourself the fly on the wall...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: I wish I could see inside of Lee's head on the morning of the surrender. Inside of Lee's head on the morning of the surrender, what went on inside him.
KEN BURNS: See what he was thinking...
ROBERT PENN WARREN: What he was thinking and the strange kind of complexity of feelings he had about the war himself. The way he struck his gloves together when he came out from the surrender. I'd like...his head.
KEN BURNS: Let’s cut.
CAMERAMAN: Tail, eighteen.
KEN BURNS: Thank you, that was wonderful. Is there anything else you want to?
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling. This is just wild sound in the same location as we did the interview with Robert Penn Warren. One minute. Cut.
This record is featured in “Ken Burns’ The Civil War Interviews.”
Series
The Civil War
Raw Footage
Interview with Robert Penn Warren
Producing Organization
Florentine Films/American Documentary, Inc.
Ken Burns - Florentine Films
Contributing Organization
Ken Burns - Florentine Films (Walpole, New Hampshire)
AAPB ID
cpb-aacip/509-f18sb3xm7h

Supplemental Materials

If you have more information about this item than what is given here, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/509-f18sb3xm7h).
Description
This is raw footage of an interview that Ken Burns conducted with Robert Penn Warren, a Southern writer. The interview takes place on July 9, 1986. At the beginning of this interview, Warren reads from some works including ?The Legacy of the Civil War.? For the rest of the interview, Warren offers stories from the Civil War from his perspective of growing up in the South. Instead of taking a historical and factual perspective, Warren provides anecdotes about the Civil War that demonstrate its complexities. He also describes the importance of localism for those who fought in the war and the importance of community. Towards the end of the interview, Warren shares the racism he observed in the South.
Created
1986-07-09
Asset type
Raw Footage
Genres
Interview
Topics
History
Race and Ethnicity
War and Conflict
Rights
Copyright 1989, Kenneth Lauren Burns All Rights Reserved
Media type
Moving Image
Duration
1:14:43
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Credits
Copyright Holder: Florentine Films
Director: Ken Burns
Interviewee: Robert Penn Warren
Producing Organization: Florentine Films/American Documentary, Inc.
Producing Organization: Ken Burns - Florentine Films
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Ken Burns - Florentine Films
Identifier: Robert_Penn_Warren_master (AAPB Inventory ID)
Format: image/x-dpx
Generation: Preservation
Duration: 1:14:43
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Citations
Chicago: “The Civil War; Interview with Robert Penn Warren,” 1986-07-09, Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 21, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_509-f18sb3xm7h.
MLA: “The Civil War; Interview with Robert Penn Warren.” 1986-07-09. Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 21, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_509-f18sb3xm7h>.
APA: The Civil War; Interview with Robert Penn Warren. Boston, MA: Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_509-f18sb3xm7h