Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
1998. Vintage Books. Paperback. 406 pages.
Recommended by: my co-worker Kim
When author Tony Horwitz is awakened one morning by the gunfire of reenactors near his Virginia home, his childhood interest in the Civil War is reignited. He does a trial run of sorts: spending a chilly night and tiring day with some hardcore reenactors. And then he decides to spend a year exploring the Civil War: the places where battles were fought and also how the Civil War permeates the lives of people today. In particular, Horwitz hones in on the Southern perception of that history and of the Confederacy.
Confederates in the Attic is a thoughtful travel memoir that takes in the spectrum – from the ridiculous (Cats of the Confederacy) to the sobering (a Kentucky town is divided by a murder where the instigating factor was a Confederate flag).
I liked how Horwitz is honest about his reactions to the people he interviews, but at the same time lets them speak for themselves. The lady who started the Cats of the Confederacy isn’t turned into a caricature. Horwitz doesn’t simplify the emotional and societal complexities surrounding that murder in Kentucky: a young white man driving a pickup truck with a Confederate flag in the flatbed is pursued by four black teenagers in a car, one of whom shoots and kills the pickup driver. The teenagers claim that the man, Michael Westerman, shouted a racial epithet at them while at a gas station. Michael’s wife, passenger in the truck, denies that she or Michael said anything. In the aftermath, neo-Confederate and Southern pride groups claim Michael as a new Confederate martyr and hold rallies in their name. The local high school’s move to remove the Confederate flag as its mascot becomes a bitter battle. Horwitz interviews many of the people involved as well as other denizens of the affected town and exposes the town’s seemingly intractable societal and racial divide that surrounds this flashpoint.
One of my favorite chapters was “The Civil Wargasm”, where Horwitz and hard-core reenactor Rob Hodge haul themselves on an epic week-long tour of battle sites in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. At the conclusion of their trip, Horwitz joins in on the annual recreation of Pickett’s doomed charge in the battle of Gettysburg. He is on the brink of at last feeling the “period rush” the reenactors talk about, when the clamoring of observing tourists distracts him.
A lobster-red woman in a halter top matched Rob stride for stride, carefully studying his uniform.
“What are you guys?” she asked.
“Confederates,” Rob mumbled.
“Confederates,” Rob repeated.
“Oh,” the woman said, looking underwhelmed.
The chapter on the prisoner of war camps – specifically that of Andersonville – was also very interesting to me. When I was in eighth grade, our classes combined for a mock trial of Andersonville’s commander, Henry Wirz, who had been charged and convicted for war crimes after the Civil War. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure we found him guilty as well, though I’m not sure if the teachers let us decide on the sentencing. In his visit to the site of Andersonville, Horwitz finds several passionate people eager to defend Wirz and blame everything on the North. Horwitz tries to suss out the truth of the situation, some middle ground between Wirz as monster and Wirz as saint. But I was perhaps most struck by the tragic fact that after the war ended and the prisoners were released from Andersonville, hundreds of them died in a steamship accident as they were headed home. That’s the kind of history that is just heart-breaking.
I don’t mean to imply that the book is episodic in nature by highlighting specific chapters. Again and again, in different variations and faces, Horwitz describes how people and communities interact, reenact and repurpose history in the present-day lives. The penultimate chapter takes Horwitz to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, where Civil War and Civil Rights historical markers and sites share space, and this provides another angle on this theme.
I am definitely quite out of my element when it comes to Southern culture and ideas. I watched Gettysburg in middle school and cheered on the 23rd Maine, which was led by Joshua Chamberlain, future governor of my home state. I felt like reading this book gave me some additional insight into one aspect of the South, beyond what little I have experienced personally. And then overall, I found it an enjoyable thought-provoking book by an author whose work I would definitely pick up again.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
50 Books Project – “Read it if you like historical nonfiction or the Civil War. Otherwise, it may not hold your attention. I thought Horwitz´s writing style was similar to Bill Bryson”
Maggie Reads – “It is the friendship between Horwitz and Hodge that provides comic relief throughout Confederates in the Attic. Readers will find the humor sustains their disbelief during the racism encountered as an uncivil war between black and white emerges.”
Semicolon – “Another theme is the disappearance of many historic Civil War sites, overtaken by highways, office parks, and suburbs. Horowitz mourns the loss of these sites as he acknowledges its inevitability.”