Confederates In The Attic by Tony Horwitz

Even though I live not far from Gettysburg, the Civil War was never that interesting a subject to my mind. This book has definitely changed that opinion by pointing out the causes and effects of the War Between The States to the modern memory and response to that conflict, from reenactors to the various organizations who remember  and honor their ancestors who fought in the war.

Mr. Horwitz examines this subject with both humor and insight, approaching everyone with respect and attempting to see their points of view without disguising his own feelings about their own. This allows him to gain the trust and voice of a wide range of people in his travels across both the South and the years between the War and today.

It opens with his interviews with a group of Civil War enthusiasts, especially a particular group who approach the activity with an aim toward absolute authenticity, even going as far as losing weight to an alarming degree, careful recreation of uniforms down to the proper coloring agents and grime, and going without bathing for an extended period. These guys are interested in the War as a period of upheaval and trying to recapture the same feelings and experiences as their ancestors.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of a  very dedicated subculture, especially since there’s so much information about the day-to-day lives of people in that time period that they have a lot of information to consult, as opposed to people who reenact being, say, Roman soldiers. The Civil War guys don’t extend their passion to the larger issues of the conflict aside from making disparaging remarks about “damn Yankees.” The mystique in their minds is for the War itself, without seeing it as a rallying point or pining for the “good old days” apart from trying to have the same experiences as the average soldier.

The same can’t be said of other people Horowitz encounters on his travels. Their idea of the Civil War is as a Lost Cause, a mythical conflict or Holy War where the South was overwhelmed but not defeated, and will one day rise again, and the place of Southern generals is in a pantheon of noble heroes (a dark cousin of the legend of the sleeping champion such as King Arthur or Frederick in England and Germany), which sees the War as a case where the South’s superior military skill and passion were beaten by sheer numbers and industrial force. This is wedded to both religious feeling and racism, given slavery’s place as the economic and moral cause of the war.

The individuals Horwitz meets along the way include the Last Confederate Widow, the owner of the Tara movie set of Gone With the Wind members of the Daughters of the Confederacy. Along the way, he also visits the site of Andersonville prison camp, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Fitzgerald, Georgia (a town founded for Civil War veterans and populated by descendants of both sides.

Horwitz asks penetrating questions without being confrontational, and is honest about his place as a Northerner and a passionate student of the conflict itself. While he clearly disagrees with the ideas set forth by some of the people he meets who espouse the War as a more-than-historical event where the wrong side lost, he also tries to explain their motivations and backstories in a comprehensive way, as opposed to lazily painting them as the villains or caricatured “yokels”. For example, the question of how to advertise the Civil War for tourists without offending locals. Do you put a statue of Arthur Ashe along the same street as the generals of the South, many of whom were slaveholders? If you put him on a separate street, that’s another unfortunate message.

A flip side is the culture and ideas of people who celebrate the pre-War time as the “good old days” and slam Reconstruction and the current view of the South as lies and misinformation. The racism here is subtle in some places but heavily wedded to a semi-religious veneration of both the notable figures of the War and people who have lost their lives as “heroes,” such as Michael Westerman, a young man killed In Kentucky (which never joined the Confederacy) by black youths allegedly for having a Confederate battle flag on his truck. In the book he is gradually made a figurehead and example of a fallen soldier for the right to fly that flag and celebrate “white rights.”

There are several more people interviewed in the book, encompassing a wide variety of ideas and viewpoints, and their words are better read than repeated by me. I’d encourage anyone with an interest in history, civil rights, or past and present cultural clashes to read this book. It tackles a sensitive topic with both a writer’s clear-eyed analysis, humor and the passion of an amateur historian.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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