Faust, Burns Debut Documentary

"Death and the Civil War" Screens at Harvard

Harvard administrators and faculty showed up in droves Tuesday night at the premier of the PBS documentary “Death and the Civil War,” based on University President Drew G. Faust’s book “This Republic of Suffering.”

For the learned crowd of professors, the screening and subsequent discussion moderated by Humanities Center Director Homi K. Bhabha served as an opportunity to engage in an academic dialogue about religion and the Civil War, the humanities, and the evolution of government’s role in society.

The panel, which included Faust, History professor Vincent Brown, and Ric Burns, who directed the documentary, was quick to take up the inquiries of their fellow academics.

Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, pointed out that the film highlights how the American government expanded as a consequence of the war.

“Amidst all this chaos and difficulty, the federal government sort of took on a new function and in the end was kind of heroic,” said Cohen. “In the world we’re living in today, where one doesn’t usually hear that message about federal government, how conscious [were you] about making that message?”


Cohen’s work in the field of U.S. history focuses on the expanding role of government during the 20th century, particularly during the New Deal.

Faust said the reach of the government in society—and the role the Civil War played in developing the extent of that reach—has been a “constant theme” in her discussions about the documentary and one that she had rarely considered before her book was made into film.

The question came up during Faust’s appearance on “The Colbert Report” Monday evening. According to Faust, she was told prior to the taping that the satirical host might ask her if the Civil War “led to Obamacare.”

Religion professor Diana L. Eck was also enthusiastic about engaging in an academic discussion on the Civil War related to her field of study.

She said the film evoked a “sense of American religiousness that is not linked to any particular religion.”

“I can’t help but feel that this really was foundational in a way that I had not anticipated when I came here tonight,” Eck said.

Faust was celebrating more than just the premiere of the documentary. The night ended with a surprise video of Yo-Yo Ma singing “Happy Birthday” to Faust, who turned 65 Tuesday.

—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at

—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at