Aftershock – Beyond the Civil War
Americans have a maddening tendency toward shorthand. We give things nicknames. We shorten nicknames. We like our history in brief, bite-sized nuggets.
The danger in that is our history becomes skewed, sometimes outright wrong. Were the Pilgrims who came to America looking for religious freedom or the freedom to make their religion dominant?
Was World War II really about Adolph Hitler trying to take over the world, or did it have a little something to do with the aftermath of World War I, which left the country destitute?
And so, when people talk about the Civil War, we get that maddening shorthand again. Slavery, they say, was the cause for the war. And when all was said and the North had won, the slaves were free and happy and skipping around, possibly with ribbons in their hair.
For a look at the real history of the Civil War and it's bloody postscript, the History Channel's Aftershock – Beyond the Civil War is a fascinating look at the stories of the bloody and beaten America that limped away from the war between the states.
A 90-minute special on the Reconstruction, Aftershock uses dramatic reenactments, historic photos, dynamic maps and period editorial cartoons to illustrate the savage and depressing years that followed the Civil War with experts narrating the action.
Because the topic is so broad, the makers of the mini-documentary narrowed their scope to a few representative events.
The story of former slave owner Amos Black is one of the most dramatic, telling the tale of how he shot and killed the newly freemen to illustrate that he was still their master.
"Ain't no law against killing no niggers," he said as the slaves cower and cry.
The role of President Andrew Johnson, who took over the position after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, is explored. Though he was an abolitionist, Johnson was not for equal rights, and his inaction lead to the southern states return to pre-Civil War style government.
The clearest depiction of this is in the July 30, 1866 massacre in New Orleans, when a local police force beats and kills black soldiers asking for the right to vote and all members of their political party while nearby troops wait after word from Johnson not to interfere.
Another fascinating story is that of Parson "Bloody" Bill Brownlow, governor of Tennessee, and his face-off with the Ku Klux Klan. Aftershock seamlessly blends silent acting, voiceover narration and period photos to tell the story.
By far the most entertaining is the story with which the most liberties are taken, that of D.P. Upham, who took the fight to the KKK.
The narrator says details of a battle between Upham and his militia against Klan soldiers are unknown, which means the History Channel can put in an action-packed fight scene, full of gunshots and knife fights. It is fun to watch, but it seems silly alongside the expert who talks about how no one knows just what went on.
Presented in full screen, Aftershock looks good if for no other reason than you wouldn't expect historical pictures and video to be so visually appealing. The colors are bright and clear, when they're meant to be, but faded and jumpy during those scenes when we're transported to the past.
It's a sweet deal for the makers, as they can do whatever they want and we'll just assume it's supposed to look like that.
Nothing terribly special about the sound, which is Dolby Digital Stereo. Still, it gets the job done. Everything is easy to hear, if not a dazzling treat for the ears.
History Channel fans will be happy to know that Aftershock has them covered, with classic mini-docs "Images of the Civil War" and "Tales of the Gun: Guns of the Civil War" included. They're not quite as pretty or as engrossing as the main feature, but they are full of interesting tidbits.
History buffs who like politics, the Civil War or just well-done documentaries should really enjoy Aftershock – Beyond the Civil War. It's entertaining, informative and doesn't paint anybody with a particularly flattering brush.
This is Highly Recommended, especially for those whose dads are big History Channel fans.