The Civil War; Interview with C. Vann Woodward
CAMERAMAN: Say a new location, New Haven, Connecticut. Interview with C. Vann Woodward. Sounds rolling, speed, this is camera test. Okay rolling. [Unintelligible]. Okay cut. Sounds roll speed, camera test two. [Unintelligible].
KEN BURNS: Okay and... rolling.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds roll, speed.
KEN BURNS: Great. I guess the only way. [Unintelligible] like that? We are trying to find out what made Americans kill one another in extraordinary numbers. Why did the Civil War happen?
C. VANN WOODWARD: I'm afraid you're going for long lecture and you want a two word answer, and the nearest I can come to that is to say they were terribly human beings confronted with not untypical causes of war. And they got into one. I like the way Lincoln sidestepped your question. "And the war came" he said. And that's a short answer that evades the question.
KEN BURNS: Maybe you could, re... slate please?
CAMERAMAN: You alright bud?
KEN BURNS: Yeah I'm fine I just need to [Unintelligible].
CAMERAMAN: Nineteen tail! [TONE].
KEN BURNS: We're struggling. Some people, Shelby Foote, have said it was the failure to compromise that started the war. Why did the war happened?
C. VANN WOODWARD: The question of why the war happened and... takes an exploration and that takes time. Of events and people. When confronted with the question and the demand for a short answer, Abraham Lincoln, it seems to me, did as well as you could in a very few words. He said "and the war came." He avoided the problem of causes and didn't answer the problem, the question. It involved, the answer would involve the causes of all wars. Human frailty and passions and suspicions that were in every situation that leads to war. War had been thought of before and avoided before. It wasn't his time. And war was not expected, war was not planned.
KEN BURNS: Was there a single even that started it?
C. VANN WOODWARD: If you... about the question of a single event starting it, you'd have to look to Charleston Harbor and the firing on Fort Sumter, and what what was caused that. And so it's an endless question of a receding past leading to a presumably inevitable present.
KEN BURNS: You wrote recently that the civil war could have evoked the mystery and enigma expected of history. How does the Civil War evoke mystery and enigma expected of history? What is that that we're drawn to? Very quickly, very succulently, what is?
C. VANN WOODWARD: That brothers, families, states, communities could suddenly divide and start cutting each other's throats. And on a large scale, is always something of a mystery and a shock. That was what happened in the Civil War. It was not the kind of war that nations plan and set up to fight. They started this war without any armies to fight it, for one thing. And so I think the word mystery is appropriately used in connection with this war.
KEN BURNS: Why should we care about it though? I mean now we're 125 years past. What's the?
C. VANN WOODWARD: If we care about understanding what... made the country what it. What kept it from being what it is not. What it contributes to the understanding of catastrophe and... history. I think it's as capable of rendering as much meaning as the the Peloponnesian Wars, the Napoleonic Wars. I don't think we have to go that far away to find comparable events.
KEN BURNS: What was the south fighting for? We know the north had a noble cause. Is there anything, is there something to commend the reason why the south was fighting?
C. VANN WOODWARD: Both sides started with war aims which they changed in the course of the war. The North did, starting off in the early months, by assuring the protection of slavery where it existed, in the South. And, later on, developing the war aim of abolishing slavery and other war aims. The South began with the demand for independence and, in doing so, had in mind thirteen colonies and their war for independence and they put thirteen stars in their flag. They hoped that thirteen states would join them, actually only eleven did. But what was independence to do? It was to protect their rights. And what were with their rights? They were their rights to the common gains of the west that have been won by the shedding of blood and bullets north and south for one thing. And that was expressed by their right to take their property then, by that they meant slaves. So it was a war for slavery in that sense and the Vice President of the Confederate States declared in a famous speech that this was this institution was the cornerstone of that. Later on, the South abandoned that. Denied that they were fighting for slavery. Before the war was over they, in fact, enlisted slaves and promised them freedom and declared that they were not fighting for slavery but fighting for independence.
KEN BURNS: Runout, and we're going to change the roll which will take a couple of seconds.
C. VANN WOODWARD: Gee, have we done a roll?
KEN BURNS: Yeah. [TONE].
KEN BURNS: Charlie you're thirteen right?
CAMERAMAN: Ah yes. July ninth 1986. Florentine Films, American Documentaries Incorporated. Working title "Civil War". Camera roll twenty-three, sound roll thirteen recorded flat at 7.5 ips minus eight db reference tone to follow. [TONE]. Interview with C. Vann Woodward.
KEN BURNS: Focus in the war on the big guys, the Lincolns, and the Grants, and the Lees, and the Shermans, and Jacksons. Is there some person that you feel is neglected that's important to the war or important to an understanding of the war? And, if so who is it? Who are they?
C. VANN WOODWARD: Two. One was named "Johnny Reb" and the other was was named "Billy Yank." That's of course an abstraction, but it means the common soldier. And he is neglected and needs better understanding.
KEN BURNS: What is, whats been neglected? What should I know about them? Tell me about "Johnny Reb."
C. VANN WOODWARD: How they are peculiar to this war and they are quite different from the soldiers' of our twentieth century wars. They were a good deal more undisciplined, especially the southerners. They could be quiet undisciplined in fact. The very organization of forces required the election of officers of the junior below field rank and that necessarily implied an equalitarianism that is inconceivable in modern warfare and in most warfare before that.
KEN BURNS: But if these are the neglected people what have they done? What are their lives? What's the specific life that touches you? Tell me why I should care? Lincoln's much more important than that fella.
C. VANN WOODWARD: Well, if you have to make a choice, you have to you know the nature of command and what it's objects were, and how successful it was. But the instruments of command are the common soldier and the junior officers. And if those soldiers are going to behave in an eccentric way, it's well to know about it. And it's important for the commanding officer to learn his soldiers and they're peculiarities.
KEN BURNS: Do you have a favorite moment during the war that you would like to be that fly on the wall of history and look back? A battle, a moment, a meeting, a conversation? Where would you like to be placed?
C. VANN WOODWARD: Where would I like to be in perspective to? It's a hypothetical question but there are many puzzles and many curiosities. I would like to have been looking on the inside of General Lee's mind when he was offered the command of the Union Army, and what went through his mind. And how quickly the question was answered, whether it had been answered before it was asked, and what he based his answer on. I would've liked to have been on the inside of many minds. And one of them was Lincoln's when he was facing the complexities and subtlety of the period just leading to the war. How much responsibility was he going to take for actions which he knew would lead to war? And his decisions. Well, those are two.
KEN BURNS: They're wonderful, and I think I want to develop this a little bit. We have five parts and now I ask you where in 1861 or with whom in 1861 would you have liked most to have been?
C. VANN WOODWARD: Well, my interests tend to focus on the Southern side and I think it would've been interesting to watch Jefferson Davis in his decisions about Fort Sumpter and what he was going to go about it. And of why he did what he did and when he did it.
KEN BURNS: Tell me about 1862, a year in which I think everyone was surprised by the ferociousness of the war. Where would you like to have been?
C. VANN WOODWARD: I would like to have been watching the high command and debates over strategy in the South. Shall we go on the offensive in the confederacy? Shall we make this a strategically defensive war entirely? Then there in some moments, key moments, of battles that are fascinating. Those are some.
KEN BURNS: 63' things begin to change a bit I think.
C. VANN WOODWARD: Yes, the, 63' is usually thought of as the high water mark of the Confederate enterprise and it may well have been. The moment when Pickett was waiting for orders from General Longstreet to start his charge that began the turn of the tide at Gettysburg and defeat. The other great event was simultaneous in happening, namely the Vicksburg victory for the Union. Grant's great victory there. It was not as sudden and dramatic as the Gettysburg but quite as important I think.
KEN BURNS: 1864 it seems to be the rehearsal for World War I in the trenches around Petersburg and in some of Sherman's techniques. Where would you like to have been in 1864?
C. VANN WOODWARD: I hope it doesn't reveal that an elitist limitation in my interest but the important things were decided by command and how the invasion of Grant was going to be met and with the most economical use of the limited forces that were at the disposal of Lee. Those decisions were of a great importance. They probably, by the time, were facing defeat. Anyway it was a question of how long?
KEN BURNS: So 65' where would you have liked to have been?
C. VANN WOODWARD: Oh where else but the grand finale? To Appomattox and watching the scene. That meeting rarely equalled in the photography of the war I think.
KEN BURNS: Let's do a slate. [Unintelligible].
CAMERAMAN: Twenty tail. [TONE].
KEN BURNS: Great.
CAMERAMAN: Let's roll, speed.
KEN BURNS: Tell me about Mary Chestnut. What kind of person is she?
C. VANN WOODWARD: An unusual, Mary Chestnut, was a most unusual person, or she would not have written the unusual book she did. Another typical Southerner. She, however, represented, I think, a Southern type: the plantation intellectual. Which has a number of worthy precedents in the eighteenth century. And she was not a, she was a provincial only in a physical sense. That is, she lived in one place, but her mind roved the whole world and she achieved that by remarkable quantity and astuteness of her reading and English, French, German. She was a voracious reader.
KEN BURNS: Would you?... Some passage of hers that comes to mind that just stands out as striking and maybe is the war and some much help for you?
C. VANN WOODWARD: The most striking that comes to mind of her writings is not typical but only she could have written it in the Civil War. I think I can quote at least the start of it: "I wonder if it is a sin to question the rightness of slavery?" I believe she said that to Senator Sumner and never has said a false word about that hated institution. Now that is a dramatic thing for Southern woman to be saying in 1861, especially since it was only a few weeks since her own husband had spoken on the Senate floor denouncing Senator Sumner in very vehement terms, and was the first to leave the Senate to resign his office there.
KEN BURNS: Okay. [Unintelligible].
CAMERAMAN: There was camera runout, camera runout. Also no slate, no slate.
CAMERAMAN: July ninth 1986. Florentine Films, American Documentaries Incorporated's working title Civil War. Camera roll twenty four, sound roll fourteen. Recorded flat at 7.5 ips minus eight db reference tone to follow. [TONE]. This is a continuation of an interview with C. Vann Woodward. Sounds roll, speak.
KEN BURNS: Okay, could you please begin with the...
C. VANN WOODWARD: All night the Union army.
KEN BURNS: I'm sorry, start, now begin. We just didn't start in time.
C. VANN WOODWARD: All night, the Union army fled in retreat, like horses scared by shadows. A stumbling flood of panicking men had been brave for a while, and might be brave again on another day, but now were merely children chased by the night, and each man tainting his neighbor with the same blind fear. When men or horses begin to run like that they keep on running until they tire out, unless a strong hand masters the bridle rein. Here there was no hand to master, no rein to clutch. Where the riderless horses kicked their way through the crowd and the Congressmen's carriages choked [Unintelligible] and the Sykes' and the Regulars covered the retreat, and a few brigades were kept in some sort of order, but the rest, they tried to stop them at Centerville. McDowell and his tired staff held a haggard conference but, before the officers could order retreat, the men were walking away. They had fought, and lost. They were going to Washington. They were going back to their tents, and their cooking fires, and the letters from Susie. You're going back home to Maine, or Vermont or Howell, and they didn't care who knew it, and that and that was that.
KEN BURNS: Slate please?
CAMERAMAN: Tail. Twenty-one.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful.
CAMERAMAN: Speed, slate. [TONE]. Twenty-two head.
C. VANN WOODWARD: A smoke stained stars and stripes droops from a broken tooth pick, and ninety tired men march out of fallen Sumter to their ships. Drums rattling and colors flying. Their faces are worn and angry, their bellies empty and cold, but the stubborn salute of the gun fifty times repeated keeps their back straight as they march out. Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard is a pose of conquering courtesy, under a palmetto banner. The lugubrious little march goes grimly by, his courtesy. He watches it unsmiling. A life half real, half that of invisible footlights on his French, dark, and handsome face.
KEN BURNS: Cut. What?
CAMERAMAN: Sounds roll, speed.
KEN BURNS: Okay, and slate. Twenty-three head.
CAMERAMAN: I'm sorry, I turned it off [Unintelligible].
KEN BURNS: Twenty-three head.
C. VANN WOODWARD: He was a stone. A stone eroded to a cutting edge by obstinacy, failure, and cool prayers. Cloudy apostle hooped along to death by those who do no violence themselves, but only by the guns who have it done.
KEN BURNS: Cut.
CAMERAMAN: Speed. Slate.
KEN BURNS: Twenty-four head.
CAMERAMAN: ...and settled.
C. VANN WOODWARD: The situation is.
KEN BURNS: Sorry, start again.
C. VANN WOODWARD: The situation is this: a wide western river, a little lost landing with a steamboat store, a post office, where the roads from the landings meet. A plank church three miles inland called Shiloh Chapel. An undulating and broken table land rusted into a triangle by bordering creeks and scattered in camps from the tip of the triangle to the base at the landing are thirty-three thousand men. Some seasoned in war but many green sticks. Grant's army of the Tennessee.
KEN BURNS: Cut. Very nice.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed. [TONE].
KEN BURNS: Slate.
CAMERAMAN: Okay it's settled.
KEN BURNS: And... Action.
C. VANN WOODWARD: Muddy Washington, with it's still unfinished capital, sprawling, badly paved, beset with sharp hogs that come to the very doorstep and grunt for crumbs. Full of soldiers and clerks, full of all the baggage of war, bomb proof offices, veterans back on leave, recruits spies, spies on the spies, politicians, contractors, reports, slackers, ambassadors, bands, and harlots, and one most lonely man in a drafty white house.
KEN BURNS: Cut. Wonderful.
KEN BURNS: Sound please.
CAMERAMAN: Test roll, speed.
KEN BURNS: Slate. Twenty-six head. Settled. Okay.
C. VANN WOODWARD: For he will smile and give you, with unflinching courtesy, prayers, trappings, letters, uniforms, orders, photographs, kindness, valor, and advice. And do it with such grace and gentleness that you will know you have the whole of him pinned down. Mapped out. Easy to understand. And so you have all things except the heart. The heart he kept. A secret to the end from all the pick locks of biographers.
KEN BURNS: Cut. [Unintelligible].
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed. Slate. [TONE].
KEN BURNS: Twenty-seven head... and okay.
C. VANN WOODWARD: They come to me and talk about God's will in righteous deputations and platoons. Day after day, laymen and ministers. They write me prayers from twenty million soul defining meek God's will, and Horace Greeley's. God's will then is General this, and Senator that, but all of them are sure they know God's will. I am the only man who does not know it.
KEN BURNS: Cut. Very nice, very nice.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds roll, speed.
KEN BURNS: Slate. [TONE]. Twenty-eight head. Anytime.
C. VANN WOODWARD: It is sullen Cold Harbor. The Union attack has failed. Repulsed with a ghastly slaughter. A twilight falls, the word goes round the attack will be made again. Though all know now that it cannot be made and when. An anxious officer walks through his lines that night. There has been no mutiny yet, throughout all these years, but he wonders now. What are the men doing now? He sees them there. They're silent, writing their names on bits of rag and sewing the scraps of cloth to their jackets while they can, before the attack. When they die next morning somebody may read the names.
KEN BURNS: Cut. Wonderful, wonderful.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: Slate. [TONE]. Twenty-nine head. Wait for my cue and... okay.
C. VANN WOODWARD: John Brown's body was lies a-mouldering in the grave. Buried the South together with this man. Bury the bygone South. Bury the minstrel with the honey mouth. Bury the broadsword virtues of the Klan. Bury the un-machine, the planters pride. That courtesy and the bitter arrogance. The pistol-hearted horsemen, who could ride like jolly centaurs under the hot stars. Bury the unjust. Bury the whip. Bury their branding bars. Bury the unjust thing that some tamed into mercy, being wise, but could not starve the tiger from inside, or make it feed where beasts of mercy feed. Bury the fiddle music and the dance, the sick magnolias of the false romance and all the chivalry that went to seed before a trepanning.
KEN BURNS: Cut. Oh boy, that's beautiful!
C. VANN WOODWARD: I spoiled it.
KEN BURNS: No you don't worry.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds rolling, speed.
KEN BURNS: Slate. [TONE]. Thirty head. Okay and... anytime go.
C. VANN WOODWARD: The lonely man with a chin like John Calhoun's knows it is over. Who will not know it is over. Many hands are turning against him in these last years. He is inflexible, with fate and man. It is over. It cannot be. He fights to the end, clinging to one last dream of somehow somewhere a less miraculous battle where he can lead one wing of the Southern army and leave the other and so wrench victory out of the fallen odds. Why is it a dream?
KEN BURNS: Cut. Very nice.
CAMERAMAN: Roll, speed.
KEN BURNS: Okay.
C. VANN WOODWARD: It is sullen Cold Harbor. The Union attack has failed. Repulsed with a ghastly slaughter, a twilight falls. The word goes round the attack will be made again, though all know now that it cannot be made and when. An anxious officer a-walks through his lines that night. There has been no mutiny yet, throughout all these years, but he wonders now. What are the men doing now? He sees them there. They're silently writing their names on bits of rags and sewing the scraps of cloth to their jackets while they can, before the attack. When they die, next morning, somebody may read the names.
KEN BURNS: Cut. Wild. Very nice.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds roll, speed.
KEN BURNS: Go.
C. VANN WOODWARD: Sometimes there comes a crack in time itself. Sometimes the Earth is torn by something blind. Something, sometimes an image, that has stood so long it seems implanted as the polar star. Is moved against an unfathomed force that suddenly will not have it anymore. Call it the mores, call it god of fate, call it man's law or economic law, that force exists and moves. When it moves, it will employ a hard and actual stone to batter into bits an actual wall and change the actual scheme of things. John Brown was such a stone. Unreasoning as the stone. Destructive as the stone. And, if you like, heroic and devoted as such a stone, he had no gift for life, no gift to bring life, but his body and a cutting edge. But he knew how to die.
KEN BURNS: Wonderful. Let's cut. [Unintelligible] I think it's fine because.
CAMERAMAN: Sounds roll.
C. VANN WOODWARD: John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave. Bury the soft together with this man. Bury the bygone South. Bury the minstrel with their honey mouth. Bury the broadsword virtues of the Klan. Bury the un-machine, planter's pride. The courtesy and the bitter arrogance. The pistol-hearted horsemen who could write like jolly centaurs under the hot stars. Bury the whip. Bury their branding bars. Bury the unjust thing that some tamed into mercy, being wise, but could not starve the tiger from inside, or make it feed where beasts of feed. Bury the fiddled music and the dance, the sick magnolias of the false romance and all the chivalry that went to seed before a trepanning. And with these things bury the purple dream of America we have not been. A tropic empire, seeking a warm sea. A last foray of aristocracy.
- The Civil War
- Raw Footage
- Interview with C. Vann Woodward
- Producing Organization
- Florentine Films/American Documentary, Inc.
- Ken Burns - Florentine Films
- Contributing Organization
- Ken Burns - Florentine Films (Walpole, New Hampshire)
- AAPB ID
- Raw Footage Description
- This is raw footage of an interview that Ken Burns conducted with C. Vann Woodward, a professor and historian of the American South post-Civil War. The interview takes place in New Haven, CT on July 9, 1986. In the interview, Woodward discusses the war through the political and military viewpoint. He explains that it is hard to establish a certain cause of the Civil War, and that it was not a war that was planned or expected. He also emphasizes his sympathy for the struggles of the common soldier throughout the war while also expressing interest in the thought processes of the major generals. At the end of the interview, he reads several passages.
- Created Date
- Asset type
- Raw Footage
- Copyright 1989, Kenneth Lauren Burns All Rights Reserved
- Media type
- Moving Image
Copyright Holder: Florentine Films
Director: Ken Burns
Interviewee: Woodward, C. Vann
Producing Organization: Florentine Films/American Documentary, Inc.
Producing Organization: Ken Burns - Florentine Films
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Ken Burns - Florentine Films
Identifier: C_Van_Woodward_master (AAPB Inventory ID)
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- Chicago: “The Civil War; Interview with C. Vann Woodward,” 1986-07-09, Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 3, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-509-9882j68v5b.
- MLA: “The Civil War; Interview with C. Vann Woodward.” 1986-07-09. Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 3, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-509-9882j68v5b>.
- APA: The Civil War; Interview with C. Vann Woodward. Boston, MA: Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-509-9882j68v5b
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