Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Death on a pale horse with hell following after": The Civil War Remembered

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

Mark Twain said of the Civil War that it "...uprooted institutions that were centuries old... transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations." Twain's description of it as "death-on-the pale-horse-with-hell-following-after" remains the most vivid, the most haunting, the most relevant.

On June 1, 1865, Senator Charles Sumner commented on what is now called the 'Gettysburg Address', certainly Lincoln's most famous speech and among his and history's shortest. In his eulogy on the slain Lincoln, he called Lincoln's address at Gettysburg, a "monumental act". It was in that address that Lincoln had said that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." But, according to Sumner, the battle itself was less important than the speech.

The Civil War is as alive today as are current headlines. As had been the case, our nation is again divided. In 1863, the divisions were geographical. But the exploitation of labor by privilege was more profoundly divisive.

Most recently, the Civil War was brought to life by filmmaker Ken Burns whose documentary aired on PBS for five consecutive nights in September, 1990. At the time, some forty million viewers watched. It remains one of the most popular programs ever broadcast on PBS.

"Ashokan Farewell" is a waltz in D Major composed by Jay Ungar in 1982 and later used as the title theme of the Burns miniseries, The Civil War. Unger said the piece resulted from his desire to write a 'Scottish lament'. The most popular arrangement begins with a violin solo later joined by the guitar.

Before its use in the PBS Series, 'The Civil War', it was included in the album, "Waltz of the Wind." The musicians included Ungar and his wife, Molly Mason, who gave the tune its name. It has served as a goodnight or farewell waltz at the annual Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps that Ungar and Mason run at the lakefront Ashokan Field Campus of the State University of New York at New Paltz.



As a documentary of 11 hours, 'The Civil War' drew heavily upon more than 16,000 archival photographs, paintings, and newspaper images of the period. Much of the cinematopgraphy was contemporary. The narration by David McCullough was enhanced with anecdotes and insights from historians Shelby Foote, Barbara J. Fields, Ed Bearss, and Stephen B. Oates. Gifted actors provided voice characterizations: Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln, Jason Robards as Ulysses S. Grant, Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman, and Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass. A re-mastered film was released on its twelfth anniversary of its release.

Filmmaker Ken Burns heard "Ashokan Farewell" in 1984 and "was moved by it", using it in two films, most prominently 'The Civil War' and his 1985 documentary --Huey Long. But it was certainly 'The Civil War' which brought the tune national attention. It was played 25 times during the eleven hours of the series.

It was popularly but erroneously believed that the tune was a traditional tune of the Civil War era. In fact, it is the only contemporary composition in the series. Every other piece of music is authentic 19th Century.

Indeed, Burns' effort --as superb as it was --was enhanced immeasurably by this 'instant' American classic. Jay and Molly are now immortal.

"The Civil War" hit all the buttons perfectly ---McCullough's voice was absolutely perfect for the narration; Shelby Foote's analysis was unmatched for its poignancy and humanity. The actors might never have played more lasting, better or more challenging roles. Through them, we relived this tragic chapter.

Mark Twain said of the Civil War that it "...uprooted institutions that were centuries old... transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations."

Twain's description of it as "death-on-the pale-horse-with-hell-following-after" remains the most vivid, the most haunting, the most relevant.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

--Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863


Media Conglomerates, Mergers, Concentration of Ownership, Global Issues, Updated: January 02, 2009

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