Rebirth of a Nation: Reframing The Civil War (1990) on Prime-Time Television

  • Gary R. Edgerton


Ken Burns laughs now about the apprehension he felt on September 23, 1990, the day The Civil War premiered on prime-time television and changed his life forever. He had just completed a two-month promotional tour, a grueling process at which he is particularly adept, being a highly quotable and charismatic speaker and storyteller. He checked out of his midtown Manhattan hotel on that Sunday morning and began the long drive back to his home in Walpole, New Hampshire. Suddenly seized with misgivings, he remembers thinking long and hard about the remarks of several reviewers who predicted that The Civil War would be “eaten alive,” going head-to-head with major network programming over five consecutive nights. That evening, he and his family were “completely unprepared for what was going to happen” next, as the first episode attracted 14 million viewers, while the full program reached nearly 40 million people by Thursday, the largest audience for a public television series ever. As Burns reminisced during a February 1993 interview, “I was flabbergasted! I still sort of pinch myself about it. It’s one of the rare instances in which something helped stitch the country together, however briefly, and the fact that I had a part in that is just tremendously satisfying.”2


Collective Memory Television Series Professional History Public Television Historical Documentary 
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© Gary. R. Edgerton 2001

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  • Gary R. Edgerton

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