Ashokan Farewell/Sullivan Ballou Letter (from 1861)

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Ashokan Farewell/Sullivan Ballou Letter (from 1861)

Among the many remarkable documentaries which American filmmaker Ken Burns has helmed (Jazz, Baseball, those on various architects) the most outstanding and compelling is perhaps his series The Civil War.

To keep your attention over so many episodes was a feat in itself, but to do so with no moving footage -- just period stills -- was extraordinary.

Of course the story being told -- that of a young nation tearing itself apart on battlefields and within homes -- is an exceptional one. And throughout Burns and his team used period songs and tunes as well as extracts from letters written by generals, strategists and politicians.

But the series also never took its eye off those ordinary people caught up in the wheel of history and The Civil War was their story too, told again through readings from letters which could be bitterly moving.

As Burns notes, "The America that went to war in 1861 was perhaps the most literate nation on earth. Soldiers at the front and civilians at home left an astonishingly rich and moving record of what they saw and felt. From the voluminous writings of those witnesses, and with the help of a truly extraordinary team of scholars and consultants, we gleaned a stockpile of quotations to accompany our stockpile of images: descriptions, reflections, opinions, cries of outrage, cynicism, sorrow, laughter and triumph".

This piece -- read by Paul Roebling -- comes to us from more than a century and a half ago, but when it speaks directly from heart to heart it could have been written yesterday.

And, sadly, even tomorrow.

For more one-offs, songs with an usual backstory or oddities see From the Vaults.

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