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A&E Home Video presents
Civil War Journal: The Conflict Begins (2000)

"Liberty or slavery. Civilization or barbarism. One or the other must perish on this continent."
- William H. Herndon, 1861

Review By: Jesse Shanks   
Published: April 27, 2001

Stars: Danny Glover
Director: Craig Haffner, Donna E. Lusitana

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 03h:20m:00s
Release Date: April 24, 2001
UPC: 733961702088
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

I have to admit that I am a big fan of The History Channel. When I am skating around the satellite looking for something to watch, I often stop there and watch their examinations of the myriad topics that human history can provide.

Civil War Journal, narrated by Danny Glover, is fine collection of shows. There is plenty of historical detail but the main focus is on the people who participated in the events. The shows are illustrated with photographs, re-enactments, paintings, documents and other scene-setting shots. The narration is fast moving and intriguing. Copious quotes from participants are intermixed with analyses by current authors, historians and professors.

In watching histories of the nineteenth century, the shock is always in the natural way people of that time accepted the institution of slavery in a country "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." The horror of the Civil War is the idea that part of this country fought to keep the right to own slaves. Fortunately, they lost. Although the documentary acknowledges that slavery is not the only issue that caused the Civil War, it is, however, the central issue and certainly one that our country has not yet truly come to grips with. These programs do focus close attention on the issue of slavery and the social and political whirlwind that surrounded it in its time, and provides a perspective on the struggle for civil rights that continues to this day.

"John Brown's horror and hatred of slavery made its destruction the principal objective of his life..." - Danny Glover, narrator

John Brown's War

The ultimate abolitionist who refused to participate in mere rhetoric in his fight to end slavery in America, John Brown led a small band of men in an attack on a Federal arsenal and attempted to bring about a general revolt among the 4 million African-American slaves in the United States. This documentary recounts Brown's life from his youth in Massachusetts to his battles in Bloody Kansas, ending with his execution for treason and insurrection. Many can argue that his methods were wrong, but John Brown was proven right when he said that only by fighting could the blight of slavery be removed from this country.

"So, shortly before the [1860] election, [President] Buchanan and Secretary of War John B. Floyd, who was a Virginian, sent one of their most reliable people, Robert Anderson, to the point that they thought would be the point of greatest friction: the command of the post at Charleston." - Armistead L. Robinson, historian

Destiny at Fort Sumter

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Based on the idea that the states had ratified the Constitution and any state was free to leave that covenant, South Carolina declared its separation and expected the Federal government to hand over its military installations in that state. They even offered to buy the land. To their surprise, Lincoln not only refused to hand over Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, but declared his intention to resupply and defend it.

Surrounded by four well-armed forts that had been abandoned, Major Robert Anderson held on against a massive bombardment by Southern forces until they finally ran out of food and had to surrender. Although the battle of Fort Sumter was counted as "bloodless," it signaled the beginning of hostilities and led Lincoln to call for the enlistment of thousands of Federal troops to put down the rebellious states.

"I cannot give you an idea of the terrors of this battle. For ten long hours, it literally rained balls, shells and other missiles of destruction. The sight of the dead, the cries of the wounded, the thundering noise of battle could never be put on paper." - Jesse Reed, 8th South Carolina

The Battle of 1st Bull Run

This documentary tells the story of thousands of young Americans who descended on Washington to serve in the Union Army under General Irvin MacDowell and participate in the grand adventure of putting down the Southern rebellion. Most Americans of this time lived in small towns and their only experience of war were the tales of George Washington in the Revolutionary War.

Intense political pressure to move forced Lincoln to order McDowell to attack the Confederate Army under, General Pierre G. T. Beaureguard, which was massed near a small town in Virginia called Manassass Junction. The newly formed and untrained army was ill-prepared for the engagement but spirit was high. The Union army outnumbered the Confederates almost two to one and the attack went well at first. However, a heroic stand by the troops of the legendary general, "Stonewall" Jackson, and a cavalry charge by the equally legendary general, J.E.B. Stuart, broke the will of the Northern troops and they ended up retreating back to Washington.

The shocking defeat was named The Battle of Bull Run by Northerners and was a harsh lesson to the Federal Government in what it was going to take to win this war between the states.

"Abraham Lincoln argued that the contribution of black soldiers in the Civil War...was crucial to the winning of that war. I mean, he made no bones about the fact that he thought that it was very doubtful that the war could have been won without the involvement and sacrifice of black troops." - James Horton, Prof., George Washington University

The 54th Massachusetts

Escaped slave Frederick Douglass was a leading abolitionist and fought a long battle to convince the Federal government to allow African-Americans to enlist in the Union Army. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, the way was cleared for the Governor of Massachusetts, John E. Andrews, to establish the first all-black military unit, the 54th Massachusetts.

The story of the unit was told in the acclaimed 1989 motion picture, Glory, starring Matthew Broderick and Danny Glover. This segment details the fight against prejudice that these men experienced in attempting to prove that black soldiers were as brave as white soldiers. Douglass declared prophetically that, "First would be the cartridge box, next the jury box and lastly the ballot box." This was not just a fight for freedom, but a fight for citizenship as well.

The unit fought heroically in South Carolina against well-entrenched forces and earned the respect of the nation. This led to thousands of African-Americans enlisting in the U.S. Army and helped to change the entire social structure of America.

Without a doubt the important truths of America's past must be remembered and faced squarely no matter how ugly or difficult. Behind the usual heroic stories of Civil War fighting is the unconscionable goal of preserving slavery that the Confederate states subscribed to in seceding from the Union. It is hard to understand how this war could have been fought, and at such cost; yet to this day we still do not live up to those noble words in the Declaration of Independence that "...all men are created equal."

Series like this and others on The History Channel that analyze the brutality of America's treatment of Native Americans, the abuse of immigrants and the continuing struggle for civil rights are invaluable, essential tools toward a goal of restoring dignity and integrity to America.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Like most documentaries like this, the wide and varied range of source material goes from good to bad. Contemporary interviews and re-enactment footage is all sharp and clear; colors are displayed with fidelity. The transfer itself is a solid effort.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The sound is a well rendered Dolby Digital Stereo that gives a nice fullness to the soundtrack. Dialogue is clearly represented, and ambient sound and music seems well balanced overall.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Extras are not to be found on these discs. I can think of quite a bit of supplementary material that could enhance a history disc...but I won't go there and will just award a subpar grade.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

This look back at the Civil War provides a wealth of details about the people and events surrounding that crucial time in America's history. The barbarism of slavery, the misguided politicians and the ignorant American population are all captured in an objective exploration of a terrible era. Fans of historical documentaries will find this a fine addition to their collections.


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