How do you distill more than 200 years of history into 12 hours of television? Centennial, a popular and successful mini-series based on James Michener's novel took over 20 hours to tell its story. The writers, editors, producers, and directors of America: The Story of Us, faced a daunting task deciding what to leave in and what to omit. In addition to satisfying their own board of directors, Bank of America is the sponsor.
One critic complained that the series is focused more towards youth. Well, what's the average reading level of the majority of our country today? Through the first six episodes I feel that they've done an admirable job. It's hard to find a segment of our society that has been omitted up through the Civil War — or otherwise treated without a societal nod at political correctness. Neither CNN nor FOX get any of my attention, but co-workers keep me up to date and I cannot say that I'm aware of significant partisan complaints about biased coverage.
Episode 5: "Civil War"
Robert E. Lee and the South were doomed from the beginning and didn't know it. Lee was a brilliant leader and strategist on the battlefield and won significant victories even when outnumbered two to one. Newt Gingrich compared Lee favorably with George Patton. It's ironic that Patton, who eschewed politicians would be praised by one, in this case, to great effect. However, Lee's most formidable opponent was not on the battlefield. It was a quiet man who had resources (secret weapons) at his disposal that would eventually turn the tide of the war, even when his field commanders would not. Abraham Lincoln used the railroad, telegraph, and the previously established industry of the North in ways never before seen in war.
By 1862, armies for both the North and the South were using the most modern weaponry of warfare available — the mini ball. This ammunition was accurate to 600 yards, could be reloaded eight times faster than traditional weapons, and caused tremendous damage to the human body. In spite of the fact that these soldiers used these modern bullets, their commanders were still using outdated battle tactics. They simply lined up in the open and shot at each other. No wonder over 600,000 died. Fascinating depictions of how these weapons worked and the devastation they wrought was clearly displayed by THC's use of remarkable computer generated images.
Embalming saw an improvement in technology and popularity as a result of this debacle. Twice as many deaths were attributed to infection rather than actual battle. It's no surprise to learn that battlefield medical care advanced significantly during the Civil War. Clara Barton (who later founded The Red Cross) helped with triage and her insistence on clean wound dressings and clothing for the wounded.
Censorship of the letters from the battlefield had not yet been used by the military so real stories from the front lines add to the emotion with excerpts read aloud. Even with top notch production standards and direction, the program seems to have a "textbook" character and the re-enactments too clean. Perhaps current film technology could have made the settings less sterile and more authentic and charming.
Involvement of the media made a permanent change in the way war was waged and these changes are still evident. Field cameras became popular and over 1500 photographers rushed to the battlefields. They didn't get many action shots, but the carnage of war was sent home to the world in newspapers with over one million words written by more than two hundred reporters. From that point on, politicians and governments realized that public support for war would be a permanent requirement.
The war finally ended after the North picked up over two hundred thousand additional (Black) soldiers from the Emancipation Proclamation, and Sherman made his march to the sea. Curiously, Michael Douglas is on hand to comment on the Gettysburg Address. The History Channel has enjoyed a parade of military dignitaries, politicians, newscasters, historians and authors stopping by to contribute to the programs. It was especially appropriate for Donald Trump to comment on individual accomplishments and real estate deals (The Louisiana Purchase) and Colin Powell's comments on both ethnic and military matters have been appropriate. Maybe it's Douglas's star power or maybe he is a stockholder in Bank of America?
The industrial complex established in the North had matured with the War Between the States and was now poised to launch the conquest of the great plains and establish the heartland of the country.
Episode 6: "Heartland"
"Crazy Judah" takes the stage now with his explosive nitroglycerin, ten thousand Chinese laborers, and dreams of building a railroad right through the Sierra Nevadas. THC says he finished the job on May 10, 1869, but the Supreme Court said it was in November. I guess Napoleon was correct, the victors write the history. The plains had no trees, too many Indians, bison, tornadoes, and no fences. "Heartland" looks at the role the railroad played in settling the barren plains and their conversion into the world's bread basket.
Along with thousands of settlers, the trains brought the cowboy. Many cowboys were former soldiers, some just adventurers, and a third were either Black or Hispanic — all were out of work. "Lincoln freed the slaves but Sam Colt made them equal." we are told by The History Channel's narrator, Liev Schreiber. Schreiber gets a workout in these two episodes as re-enactments with voice overs significantly outnumber the dramatizations. The heyday of the American Cowboy was short lived but had a significant impact on the West and food supplies and other raw material sent back East.
The episode closes with two more significant events that would make dramatic changes in America: the invention of barbed wire and the mail order catalog business. Barbed wire fences cost only about thirty per cent of wooden fences and quickly closed the open ranges and settled the West. A railroad agent from Minnesota named Richard Sears got his start by purchasing an unwanted shipment of watches to other railroad agents up and down the line. The telegraph played as important a role in his success as it had for Lincoln, although Sears wasn't murdered. He began sending lists of available merchandise by mail and the rest is history.
One-third of the population of Norway moved to the midwest to cut timber to provide wood for the plains, cowboys drove cattle and Sears sold his watches, lawn mowers, and barbecue pits and it was all shipped by rail. This confluence of resources, business activity, and ingenuity gives birth to the topic of next week's Episode 7, "Cities."
Every episode has taught me something I'd never known or reminded me of something I'd once known and forgotten. Some of the choices on how much time to devote to particular events has been both surprising and disappointing. Why dwell on the Donner Party? One of my favorite features of this series is the frequency with which seemingly unrelated events are shown to be connected and how those connections are important to us today (cotton gins and computers). Since war has been such a prevalent part of our history, I'm looking forward to seeing how this production treats the two world wars, Vietnam, and the War on Terrorism. The story of our country as told by The History Channel is thought provoking, informative, and fun — I highly recommend it.
Tune in at 9/8 Central as America: The Story of Us continues on The History Channel every Sunday evening through Memorial Day.Powered by Sidelines