- Confederates in the Attic – Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
- by Tony Horwitz
- Publisher – Vintage Departures
- Copyright 1998
- 390 pages
Rating – 9/10
Review – To its critics, the United States is a nation with a) little history and b) little appetite for remembering the history that we do have. Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic suggests that at least the “b” part might not be entirely true. Roughly 20 years ago, he revisited the Civil War’s old battlefields and spoke with many Americans to see why we are still so passionately divided about the war.
Vivid Portraits – People & Places
Perhaps the best thing about the book is that Horwitz can just flat write, introducing readers to colorful people and taking them to memorable places.
One of Horwitz’s best decisions was to examine the Civil War “reenactors” who like to stage mock versions of the old battles. He finds that the Confederacy remains wildly popular; at many reenactments “Rebels” outnumber “Yankees” 2 to 1, though the Yankees almost always had more soldiers during the original battles. Surprisingly, many of the Rebels are not from the states of the old Confederacy.
Perhaps the most-memorable person in the book is “hardcore” reenactor Robert Lee Hodge. “Hardcore” re-enactors try to live as much like Civil War soldiers as is possible. (If you’re not hardcore, you’re a “farb” and prone to “farbing out”). Among Hodge’s “super hardcore” activities are –
- Eating only foods that were available during the war,
- Wearing uniforms that are made of the same materials as the originals,
- Sleeping in fields, while “spooning” with other reenactors,
- Dieting down to a skeletal weight as Civil War soldiers were poorly fed and marched up to 1000 miles per year. (They weighed – on average – about 135 pounds).
- And bloating on demand – just like a real corpse – after “dying” in battle.
Hodge is kind of nutty, but the reader likes him anyway.
Horwitz’s portrait of Charleston, South Carolina, – “…the most agreeable piece of urban real estate I’d yet visited in America” (p. 50) – reveals a lot about the “culture war,” while making you want to visit. While in Charleston, Horwitz gets a tour of the city’s famous Battery district, which has many old mansions. His guide tells him that many of the Battery’s residents are from faded, old families, their decrepit mansions falling apart because their owners are “Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash” (p. 59).
Horwitz’s basic thesis is that people often see the war through the imperfect lens of the present. Visiting a high school class here in Alabama, Horwitz finds that many students know almost nothing about the war, including in which century it occurred.
Further illustrating Horwitz’s point is the Westerman case from Kentucky. In 1995, 19-year old Michael Westerman was driving with his wife, Hannah, in his pickup truck. Westerman’s truck had a large Rebel flag attached to a pole in the truck’s bed. As Michael and Hannah drove away from a convenience store, four black teenagers chased them and fired shots, killing Michael.
The case set of a firestorm over the meaning of the flag and what should happen to the four teenagers. Horwitz walked into the firestorm, going to Kentucky as the case unwound. As is often the case in Confederates, Horwitz finds that people’s perceptions vary – and are often driven by their emotions. (In one ironic twist, Hannah Westerman (Michael’s widow), says that James didn’t really care that much about the Rebel flag – he flew it because its red color matched the truck).
The opening scene of the Westerman chapter, in which Horwitz journeys into a low-rent bar called Redbone’s is unforgettable. He finds that the bar recently hosted a “Thank God for James Earl Ray” party on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. In the end, Horwitz is very lucky to get out of the bar without a severe beating.
Horwitz shows that the way that we interpret the past reveals as much about us as it does about the past itself. Whatever your view, if you care about the Civil War at all, you will enjoy Horwitz’s account and be left with a lot to ponder.