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–by Joanna Hallac

This evening, we are holding our annual Freedom Award presentation, which we have done every year since 1993. The award, according to our website, is given “to recognize and honor individuals and organizations who have advanced greater public understanding and appreciation for freedom as represented by the U.S. Capitol and Congress.” This year’s award is being presented to documentary filmmaker and historian Ken Burns. Having taught American history to high school students, I often used his brilliant documentary, The Civil War, drawn heavily from the three- volume history written by Shelby Foote, when covering the war, as it was and still remains a wonderful way to help make conflict—and the people who fought it—real to them.

While Mr. Burns has created a number of outstanding historical documentaries, I would put forth that he is certainly best known for his series on the Civil War. There are so many memorable scenes depicted and stories shared throughout the documentary—the photographs and journals bringing to life the hardships of the slaves over whom the war was being fought; the soldiers who were dying in record numbers, regardless of which side they were on, and the families they left behind. It focused on the political and military aspects, as well as the human ones, painting a picture of how heavily the war hung on President Lincoln and other political leaders of the time, as they worked to save the Union; on the other side, the documentary did well to also tell the story of the Confederacy and what they believed they were fighting for, which of course, is a sign of a great documentary: an unbiased observation of events through the eyes of the people that lived them.

Speaking of the Civil War, it is worth noting that although we posted about Constitution Day on Monday, September 17th, it was also the anniversary of the deadliest single day that was fought in that conflict and in American history, the Battle of Antietam, which took place on September 17, 1862 not too far from here in Sharpsburg, Maryland. All told, that battle left over 23,000 men on both sides either dead or wounded; although the Confederate Army lost slightly fewer men than the Union Army, General Robert E. Lee lost a quarter of his total army that day. While there have been other horrific days in American history that have taken the lives of many of our citizens, none amounted to a greater, single loss than on this day.

A picture of the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862 (photo by Matthew Brady, courtesy of Associated Press)

I will be eager to hear what Mr. Burns has to say this evening, although I’m told he wants to use most of his time to answer questions from those in attendance, which I think will make it all the more interesting for everyone, especially for someone like me. Regardless of what is or isn’t said in everyone’s remarks tonight, it is clear that the Society is bestowing this award upon a worthy recipient in Ken Burns, who really has done a tremendous amount to make our history accessible to the masses in a way that makes you walk away feeling like you have truly experienced something, which is no small feat.