Packed with nearly six hours of historical material, The Last Days of the Civil War provides a fascinating study of a nation in the painful throes of transition. The five History Channel programs compiled here effectively combine to form a multifaceted account of the pivotal events of 1864-65, when the bloodshed of civil war slowly brought forth a government (in the words of President Abraham Lincoln) “of the people by the people for the people,” that would define the United States as it progressed toward the 20th century. The cornerstone of this two-disc set is “April 1865: The Month That Changed America,” which thoroughly examines the most tumultuous month in U.S. history, encompassing Gen. Robert E. Lee’s ill-fated campaigns including carnage at Sailor’s Creek and eventual retreat from Richmond, Virginia, and Confederate surrender to Gen. U.S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Add the brutal efficiency of Sherman’s March, Booth’s plot to assassinate Lincoln, and administrative mistakes that put Lee at a strategic disadvantage, and you begin to see (with input from authoritative scholars, authors, and historians) how Union victory was purely a matter of circumstance.
While the factual details and expert interviews grow somewhat redundant (as does the repeated use of archival photos and documents), the sheer accumulation of historical detail makes this set a perfect complement to Ken Burns’s epic documentary The Civil War, which clearly influenced these programs. “The Tragedy at Cold Harbor” examines the war’s lesser-known catastrophic battle, while biographical portraits of Lincoln, Lee, and Confederate president Jefferson Davis reflect major events through the lives of the war’s most influential leaders, north and south. Geared toward viewers with a basic awareness of Civil War history, these programs depict the inevitable chaos of an erratic war, unleashed in a country that needed to rip itself apart before it could reunite to forge a new and brighter future. –Jeff Shannon