The BEST Episodes of The Civil War

Every episode ever - ranked by fan votes!

Last Updated: Sep 21, 2021

Network: PBS

Between 1861 and 1865, Americans made war on each other and killed each other in great numbers - if only to become the kind of country that could no longer conceive of how that was possible. What began as a bitter dispute over Union and States' Rights, ended as a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America.

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The Better Angels of Our Nature (1865)

#1 - The Better Angels of Our Nature (1865)

Season 1 - Episode 9 - Aired Sep 27, 1990

This extraordinary final episode of The Civil War begins in the bittersweet aftermath of Lee's surrender and then goes on to narrate the horrendous events of five days later when, on April 14, Lincoln is assassinated. After chronicling Lincoln's poignant funeral, the series recounts the final days of the war, the capture of John Wilkes Booth and the fates of the Civil War's major protagonists. The episode then considers the consequences and meaning of a war that transformed the country from a collection of states to the nation we are today.

star 9.18
119 votes
Directors: Ken Burns
Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, Ric Burns
War Is All Hell (1865)

#2 - War Is All Hell (1865)

Season 1 - Episode 8 - Aired Sep 27, 1990

The episode begins with William Tecumseh Sherman's brilliant march to the sea, which brings the war to the heart of Georgia and the Carolinas and spells the end of the Confederacy. In March, following Lincoln's second inauguration, first Petersburg and then Richmond finally fall to Grant's army. Lee's tattered Army of Northern Virginia flees westward towards a tiny crossroads town called Appomattox Court House. There the dramatic and deeply moving surrender of Lee to Grant takes place. The episode ends in Washington where John Wilkes Booth begins to dream of vengeance for the South.

star 9.17
123 votes
Directors: Ken Burns
Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, Ric Burns
Valley of the Shadow of Death (1864)

#3 - Valley of the Shadow of Death (1864)

Season 1 - Episode 6 - Aired Sep 26, 1990

Episode six begins with a biographical comparison of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee and then chronicles the extraordinary series of battles that pitted the two generals against each other from the wilderness to Petersburg in Virginia. In 30 days, the two armies lose more men than both sides have lost in three years of war. With Grant and Lee finally deadlocked at Petersburg, we visit the ghastly hospitals north and south and follow General Sherman's Atlanta campaign through the mountains of north Georgia. As the horrendous casualty lists increase, Lincoln's chances for re-election begin to dim, and with them the possibility of Union victory.

star 8.85
142 votes
Directors: Ken Burns
Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, Ric Burns
Most Hallowed Ground (1864)

#4 - Most Hallowed Ground (1864)

Season 1 - Episode 7 - Aired Sep 26, 1990

The episode begins with the presidential election of 1864 that sets Abraham Lincoln against his old commanding general, George McClellan. The stakes are nothing less than the survival of the Union itself: with Grant and Sherman stalled at Petersburg and Atlanta, opinion in the North has turned strongly against the war. But 11th-hour victories at Mobile Bay, Atlanta, and the Shenandoah Valley tilt the election to Lincoln and the Confederacy's last hope for independence dies. In an ironic twist, poignantly typical of the Civil War, Lee's Arlington mansion is turned into a Union military hospital and the estate becomes Arlington National Cemetery, the Union's most hallowed ground.

star 8.70
131 votes
Directors: Ken Burns
Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, Ric Burns
Forever Free (1862)

#5 - Forever Free (1862)

Season 1 - Episode 3 - Aired Sep 24, 1990

This episode charts the dramatic events that led to Lincoln's decision to set the slaves free. Convinced by July 1862 that emancipation was now morally and militarily crucial to the future of the Union, Lincoln must wait for a victory to issue his proclamation. But as the year wears on there are no Union victories to be had, thanks to the brilliance of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. The episode comes to a climax in September 1862 with Lee's invasion of Maryland. On the banks of Antietam Creek, the bloodiest day of the war takes place, followed shortly by the brightest: the emancipation of the slaves.

star 8.69
168 votes
Directors: Ken Burns
Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, Ric Burns
Simply Murder (1863)

#6 - Simply Murder (1863)

Season 1 - Episode 4 - Aired Sep 25, 1990

The nightmarish Union disaster at Fredericksburg comes to two climaxes that spring: at Chancellorsville in May, where Lee wins his most brilliant victory but loses Stonewall Jackson; and at Vicksburg, where Grant's attempts to take the city by siege are stopped. During the episode we learn of fierce Northern opposition to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the miseries of regimental life and the increasing desperation of the Confederate homefront. As the episode ends, Lee decides to invade the North again to draw Grant's forces away from Vicksburg.

star 8.65
156 votes
Directors: Ken Burns
Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, Ric Burns
The Universe of Battle (1863)

#7 - The Universe of Battle (1863)

Season 1 - Episode 5 - Aired Sep 25, 1990

This episode opens with a dramatic account of the turning point of war: the Battle of Gettysburg, the greatest ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. For three days 150,000 men will fight to the death in the Pennsylvania countryside, culminating in Pickett's legendary charge. This extended episode then goes on to chronicle the fall of Vicksburg, the New York draft riots, the first use of black troops, and the western battles at Chickamauga, Georgia and Chattanooga, Tennessee. The episode closes with the dedication of a new Union cemetery at Gettysburg in November, where Abraham Lincoln struggles to put into words what is happening to his people.

star 8.63
153 votes
Directors: Ken Burns
Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, Ric Burns
The Cause (1861)

#8 - The Cause (1861)

Season 1 - Episode 1 - Aired Sep 23, 1990

Beginning with a searing indictment of slavery, this first episode dramatically evokes the causes of the war, from the Cotton Kingdom of the South to the northern abolitionists who opposed it. Here are the burning questions of Union and States' rights, John Brown at Harper's Ferry, the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the firing on Fort Sumter and the jubilant rush to arms on both sides. Along the way the series' major figures are introduced: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and a host of lesser-known but equally vivid characters. The episode comes to a climax with the disastrous Union defeat at Manassas, Virginia, where both sides now learn it is to be a very long war.

star 8.16
337 votes
Directors: Ken Burns
Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, Ric Burns
A Very Bloody Affair (1862)

#9 - A Very Bloody Affair (1862)

Season 1 - Episode 2 - Aired Sep 24, 1990

1862 saw the birth of modern warfare and the transformation of Lincoln's war to preserve the Union into a war to emancipate the slaves. Episode Two begins with the political infighting that threatened to swamp Lincoln's administration and then follows Union General George McClellan's ill-fated campaign on the Virginia Peninsula, where his huge army meets a smaller but infinitely more resourceful Confederate force. During this episode we witness the battle of ironclad ships, partake of camp life, and watch slavery begin to crumble. We meet Ulysses S. Grant, whose exploits come to a bloody climax at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. The episode ends with rumors of Europe's readiness to recognize the Confederacy.

star 8.05
269 votes
Directors: Ken Burns
Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, Ric Burns