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'More Traumatic Than 9/11'? A Fresh Look at the Civil War 150 Years Later

Groundbreaking exhibit at National Archives reveals new secrets of the War.

ByABC News
April 27, 2010, 10:45 AM

WASHINGTON, April 28, 2010— -- Ask noted filmmaker and documentarian Ken Burns why the American Civil War still matters nearly 150 years after it started and he'll tell you it's the single event in U.S. history which matters most -- and in some ways is still playing out today.

"More traumatic than 9/11 by far," Burns said of the Civil War at the opening of a groundbreaking exhibit commemorating its sesquicentennial at the National Archives. "This is the searing event in our nation. Nothing comes close."

More than 2 percent of America's population, or 620,000 people, died in the four-year conflict that began in April 1861 over social, economic and political divisions centered on slavery. By comparison, 418,500 Americans, or less than one half of 1 percent of the population, died in World War II.

The Civil War led to the abolition of slavery, charted a course for the modern civil rights movement and defined the relationship between citizens, the states and their federal government, Burns said in an interview with ABC News.

"We found out how to be one thing -- a nation," he said. "We found out how to say the United States 'is' rather than the United States 'are.'"

Burns, the country's de facto "Civil War buff-in-chief," has been credited with educating generations of Americans through his Emmy Award winning PBS documentary "The Civil War," which has been shown in classrooms and community centers across the country for nearly 20 years.

He was also instrumental in developing the Archives' most extensive exhibit of war records to date and the first in half a century to focus exclusively on the Civil War. It debuts in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

Walking past colorful thematic displays that explore questions of how armies were raised, leaders were chosen, and resources were mustered, Burns reflected on the poignancy of the Civil War's legacy a time when today's America is gripped by partisan rancor, vitriolic ideological debate, and threats against government and some of its leaders.

"I don't think we're coming apart now," said Burns of the present political divide. "But it's a manifestation of some of the elements that came together in the Civil War."