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The Role of Historiophoty in the Construction of American Civil War History

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When employing historiophoty as a methodology to analyse the construction of history through images and films, it is evident that the American Civil War is insubstantially represented. This is due to the powerful influence of various director’s context, motives and personal bias, resulting in antithetical interpretations. Consensus history has constructed the American Civil war in a superficial manner lacking complexity by downplaying the conflict. American political historian, Howard Zinn asserts “Life informs scholarship and scholarship informs life,” implying that it is impossible for an historian to create completely objective works and ultimately remove themselves from their contextual prejudices. The War featured in 60,000 books and 126 films being one of the first major conflicts to be recreated through film and photography on a large scale. Due to the prominent role, media plays in society film concerning The Civil War has disseminated misleading information influencing the populous’ perception of American civil war propagating a romanticised consensus history. While film encompasses the potential to create an unfitting and potentially sensationalised representation of The Civil War, the debate arises that film is no more susceptive to the aforementioned biases than other mediums such as historical nonfiction. Discussion propagates regarding both the beneficial and adverse properties of film in history created by the variety of practises that histography encompasses. Therefore, despite the multitude of differing representations influenced by the composer’s context, purpose and biases, we cannot eliminate film and digital media from the process of constructing history as it prompts further investigation about the American Civil War through a different medium.

Historiophoty, the study of history through film, reflects the ever-changing approach to the construction of history namely that of the American Civil War. American historian Hayden White’s work ‘The burden of history’(1966) emphasises that in the present day historians are deceitful. Clarifying that by telling their perceived “historical truth” they create shallow depictions of events. White continues to say that the job of the present-day historian is 'to re-establish the dignity of historical studies' by stating fact and stepping back from the practice of making a judgment on historical events. This notion has been met with antagonism from academic historians such as American visual media historian, Robert A. Rosenstone who believe that Whites notion diminishes the worth of their works by lowering the standard of what separates academic history from any other historical piece. British historian and historical fiction writer Ian Mortimer promotes ‘free history’ which legitimises any interaction with the past as a historical one. Mortimer argues that “history cannot reasonably be defined in terms of what professional historians do” due to societies growing interaction with history. Zinn’s assertion “who controls the present controls the past,” encapsulates the political-socio discourse in contemporary society whereby digital media has a major influence on the construction of history and collective memory in American society. By conveying the War through Historiophoty, American Civil War media adopted the biases of the era it was created, such as the racial vilification in D.W. Griffith's ‘Birth of a Nation’ (1915), rather than reflecting a realistic representation of the Wars events. Historiophoty created a superficial depiction regarding the War, in turn affecting the reliability of digital media as a source for the conflict.

Due to technical advancements of film, such as high-resolution images and the verification process of authenticating film, historians are able to more critically analyse the representation of events by historiophoty. Rosenstone argues that historiophoty complicates and corrupts historical accuracy due to films ability to be staged and edited leading to the omission of fact for entertainment purposes. However, by offering historical investigation through an alternative medium digital media is highly valuable as it creates an ample understanding of events. Opposing this Rosenstone dubs Historiophoty 'a shaped' representation of history formed through biased representation of fact which rejects White ‘s concept of photography being an onlooker of events. This notion is evident through American director Ken Burns’ documentary ‘The Civil War (1990)’, whereby he utilises distressing archival footage to catalyse an “emotional truth,” captivating audiences through non-diegetic sound depicting the solemnity of the War. While Burns democratised American Civil War history due to the accessibility of film he instigated an emotionally charged representation of the conflict recording it as one of personal differences rather than a prejudiced confrontation. Consequently, Burns has impacted the discourse surrounding this event by portraying the War as “a bitter dispute over union and states’ rights” rather than constructing a realistic depiction of the American Civil War according to academic consensus. Therefore, while film In history is rapidly advancing in its ability to portray historical events in a realistic manner, the current state of the field is problematic when constructing American Civil War history as directors are able to manipulate footage, just like historians could manipulate archaeological evidence to support their preconceived ideas, “The facts speak only when the historian calls on them”.

According to Australian war historian Daniel Reynaud, film is the most popular and widely available historical source. Due to the influence of film and digital media, historiophoty has had a profound impact on consensus history which in the case of ‘The Civil War (1990),’ subverts academic knowledge. Robert Rosenstone questions how adequately historiophoty conveys the complex and critical nature of historical thinking, which, according to British historian and philosopher Ian Charles Jarvie is what makes any given “representation of the past a distinctly historical account”. Both Jarvie and Rosenstone argue that film undermines history portraying it as an unacademic field. This is furthered by the glorified representation of events presented by popular history which conveys 'sugar-coated portrayals of past events'. This notion does not comply with the in-depth analysis that is expected of academic historians thus, popular history and Historiophoty, when applied to the American Civil war present jejune portrayals of history, inadequately constructing an academic history and reliable. In regard to the American Civil War, historiophoty has portrayed the conflict as an economically motivated battle, rather than a conflict propelled by prejudice towards African Americans. D.W. Griffith's 1915 Film ‘Birth of a Nation' is 'Studied today as a masterpiece of political propaganda' due to its portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as Southern reconstructionist defending the Confederate states right to succession from the union. by depicting the conflict in this light, it has propelled a narrow focus of the War, rather than understanding the contextual long term causes such as racial prejudice and the abolitionist movement. Burns refers to himself as an “emotional archaeologist” due to his self-acknowledged use of sensationalised features such as the Ken Burns effect which engages audiences through slow panning and zooming across still pictures depicting various War experiences. This explicit contrast from the traditional aim of historical objectivity to Burns’ intention of commercial success, furthers the opinions of Rosenstone. Pierre Sorlin outlines how 'The director is a leader and an arbiter' of conversation hence, directors represent events to create an understanding of the factors which caused the event rather than the event itself. Consequently, history through films tends to be beneficial helping to democratize knowledge, develop new approaches to understanding multiple pasts and generate public debate about the function and relevance of history. Through creating interest, historiophoty has presented broad depictions of the War which target American nationalistic values of independence, democracy, social mobility and the American Dream. However, due to this American-centric focus, it hinders the reliability of Ken Burns ‘The Civil War’(1990) as it does not offer a balance between Northern and Southern perspectives, limiting the array factors which instigated the conflict. Therefore, from a contemporary and revised perspective, due to the wide scope of visual media Burns’ visual depiction of the Civil War fails to achieve the detached and objective tone strived for by historical scholars.

Historiophoty, according to White is a depiction of history in its most accurate sense as digital media is an “onlooker of events” while written history is a judgment with hindsight. His argument that 'historical data does not lend itself to free artistic manipulation' reinforces the difference between an artist and an historian demonstrating that history by nature constructs the story for you. Through white's understanding that 'historical fact' is what creates history, it is evident that historiophoty is the ideal way to represent events in a detached and objective manner as written “history can be infinitely redescribed” allowing it to be fictitious. Therefore, it is apparent that cinematic depictions of the American Civil War are no more burdened by limitations than any other historical source type.

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Rosenstone refutes White’s notion and presents that digital media as a source carries the same limitations as written history with the added biases that historiophoty encompasses.

Rosenstone recognises both the positive and negative aspects of historical film but ultimately declares it flawed by nature. He argues that Historiophoty is too detailed when directors incorporate actors and sets that don't resemble historical truth. Conversely, he exerts that Historiophoty can also portray events in a limited and jejune manner, whereby multidimensional historical events may be compressed into a three-hour presentation, undermining its usefulness in achieving a detached summary. According to Rosenstone, the way historians view films can be divided into two major categories; the explicit and implicit approaches. The explicit approach regards motion pictures as reflections of the social concerns of the era it was made, while the implicit approach essentially refers to the motion picture as a book transferred to screen. However, this secondary and more practical approach becomes problematic when one assumes that the current practice of written history is the only possible way of understanding the relationship between the past and present and that written history inherently mirrors reality.

Regardless of films impact upon the construction of history, no universal consensus has culminated on how to evaluate the contributions of film to historical study. American post-modern historian Gary Nash emphasises that “historians can never fully detach their scholarly work from their own culture”, therefore, regardless of the way a source is presented it is equally susceptible to biases of context evoking beliefs that digital media is no more prone to predispositions than any other source type. Ken Burns’ documentational series focuses on the emotional and political factors at play during the American Civil War providing a superficial account of the American Civil War depicting partial truths and avoiding historical fact in favour of telling a remarkable story. historians Vivian Rose and Julie Corley in ‘A trademark approach to the past’ 2003 state that Burns reduces “complex historical topics into simplistic stories” and “if burns’ intention is to deliver history to the public, he has done a great disservice”. The Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, Joy Damousi, asserts that it is not the responsibility of a director to portray objective historical fact, rather historiophoty prompts an individual’s interest into independent historical exploration. American screenwriter Frank Miller maintains this notion and states that in film 'almost all of them (inaccuracies), are intentional' and that 'the best result I can hope for is that they'll (people) go explore the histories themselves.' While burns had no apparent intent in creating and distributing inaccuracies on a large scale he actively relies on people to discover truths that are not always available to them due to consensus history that is created by lack of consistency and realistic portrayal in Digital media. Hence, the debate of whether historiophoty is useful in the construction of Civil War History lies at the centre of the discussion as to whether one considers historical truth to be based off a collective consensus of the Civil War or rather a literal and indisputable reflection of the past.

The American Civil War faced many boundaries in deciphering historical truth due to the utilisation of Consensus History. Consensus history is a style of American historiography that emphasizes the unity of American values and downplays conflict as superficial or lacking in complexity. This Is evident through the traditional discourse surrounding the War created by the Southern intellectual movement ‘The Lost Cause’, who intended to rationalise their loss as well as defend Southern honour by rewriting textbooks, creating informative films and building remembrance monuments. In their publication ‘the southerners' 1903 Southern authors and historians Edward A. Pollard and Jubal Early framed the Civil War as a “heroic defence on the Southern way of life” and in doing so depicted Confederate fighters as heroic, enslaved people as content and placed the root of the War on political differences rather than the abolitionist movement. Through mass analysis of Civil war sources, such as archival material from the ‘US Army military historical institute’, the general public has obtained a realistic view of the War which was a racially charged conflict based on a state’s rights to own slaves. Historiophoty actively politicised The Civil War affecting consensus history and creating opposing discourse between North and South that is present till this day. Through the utilisation of film as a tool for propaganda conflicting discourse is disseminated effecting consensus history. The 1915 Film ‘Birth of a Nation’ which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as “valiant defenders of society, struggling to fight the good fight against the evil blacks that marred the South” depicts an unrealistic version of the conflict in order to act as propaganda. Therefore, to comment on the usefulness of historiophoty in the construction of American Civil War history one must have an understanding of the effect digital media had on Consensus history during the post-Civil War era. Historiophoty allowed for the broadcasting of ill interpreted facts and the publicization of falsified information. With its inherent popularity derived from its visual nature Historiophoty is the most significant and influential historical source of our time due to its accessibility. Thus, “if we academic historians want our discipline to flourish in the new media world in which we find ourselves we will have to come to terms with Ken burns and the kind of history he is producing”. This need to recognise popularised media as a part of the construction of history is imperative for the furthering of historical thought. If academic historians exclude digital media from historical analysis society will receive less reliable and a lower quantity of historical information. Therefore, in order to democratise historical education historians must employ tactics of popular history to ensure that the consensus history is also a highly accurate history instead of disregarding historiophoty which has a major impact on societies perspectives.

In a final appraisal, Historiophoty has proven vital in understanding the American Civil War as it initiates exploration into the conflict through an alternative medium allowing for greater understanding of the War. Due to the prominent role, media plays in society historiophoty has perpetuated the distribution of misleading, politically charged information influencing the populous' perception of American Civil War history. Regardless of the mediums ability to be tainted by the creator's context, motives and biases film is no more susceptive to aforementioned predispositions than other mediums. Therefore, despite the various interpretations depicted in historiophoty one cannot eliminate digital media from the process of analysing history as it prompts investigation about historical events, namely the American Civil War, through diverse mediums. Thus, Historiophoty plays a highly significant role in constructing American Civil War history.

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The Role of Historiophoty in the Construction of American Civil War History. (2022, November 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2023, from
“The Role of Historiophoty in the Construction of American Civil War History.” Edubirdie, 25 Nov. 2022,
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The Role of Historiophoty in the Construction of American Civil War History [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Nov 25 [cited 2023 Dec 8]. Available from:
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