As any new Civil War documentary must, Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War, Vol. I-III confronts the challenge of measuring up to Ken Burns’ highly praised 1990 PBS series. It does so victoriously, by concentrating on overall military strategy and tactics used in more than 35 individual battles. From the opening salvos in the April 1861 shelling of Fort Sumter, the tapes set the stage for each major conflict and then provide a blow-by-bloody-blow account of the ensuing combat. The tapes, which incorporate maps, period photos, and footage of reenactments, also feature commentaries by military historians and sidebars on such topics as the medical treatment of battle victims. Together with the profound insights of the Burns series (available from PBS Home Video), these 60-minute tapes (four other volumes are due out this spring) help drive home the enormous cost in human life and comity that the Civil War exacted from the nation. A

Originally posted February 5 1993 — 12:00 AM EST

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