Ten years ago, after introducing Tony Horwitz to the world of “Civil Wargasms,” I ended up on the cover of his bestseller. Life has never been the same.
Time is an odd thing. It is strange to think it has been 10 years since Confederates in the Attic made its debut in America’s book-stores—with me on its cover.I never would have fathomed the public interest in the subject of Civil War reenacting or that the book would become a New York Times bestseller.And I certainly never would have imagined the impact it would have on my life.
We all know you can’t tell a book by its cover.The same goes for any reenactor who’d end up on a book cover.Each one of us who enters this peculiar world where you wear wool clothes in one-hundred-degree heat and shoot guns at each other has a different story to tell,starting with his or her own epiphany.
Mine occurred in 1976 on my first visit to Gettysburg. Before then I didn’t know reenacting even existed beyond the Civil War Centennial. I thought I was going to have to live to be 93 years old to see the Civil War Bicentennial; thus I became a health nut at 9 years old.But what I saw with my nose pressed up against the right-rear window of my dad’s Chrysler Cordoba were reenactors everywhere. I was floored.Reenacting became my goal.
In 1978 at Shiloh I saw National Park Service volunteers in Yankee uniforms. I finally got up the courage to ask them about all their gear,and they gave me the address of a local guy named Jarnigan in Corinth, Mississippi, who made their items. So I started a lawn mowing business in order to buy all the Civil War stuff I’d need to attend a reenactment.In 1980 I was at a reenactment as a spectator when I was told about a reenactor magazine calledThe Camp Chase Gazette. I started getting that, and it became much easier to make connections.
In my mid-20s, Ken Burns’ PBS mini-series The Civil War aired, and suddenly the Civil War was cool.Disgruntled with college in 1991 I left Kent State in Ohio to move closer to the past,to the epicenter of The War—The Old Dominion!—and into my brother’s basement.
Between waiting tables, I started exploring the Virginia countryside,and saw firsthand the plight of Virginia’s most important endangered species—its landscape and its culture.Soon I began interning with the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission,which was assessing the preservation status of all 384 major Civil War battlefields.Then I got into films,with a small role in TNT’s Gettysburg. That’s where I met the reenactors who would become my unit,the Southern Guard.
The next year, tapped to help with episodes of Civil War Journal,I found myself in the preserved Quaker village of Waterford in Loudoun County,Va. Waterford is where Tony Horwitz lived, and when we started filming, reenactors caught the veteran Wall Street Journal reporter’s attention. Apparently, I did too.
Horwitz told us he was interested in joining a reenactment group and writing an article about us for his newspaper. His Wall Street Journal piece hit the streets in June 1994. Initially, I thought the article would be positive, but when I read the piece I was disappointed. I never wanted any popularity or notoriety for mimicking a bloated corpse or urinating on buttons.The article really upset reenactors, many from the Southern Guard.And because I was the main focus of the piece,they felt I’d had some real influence on the story. I felt very naïve.
Some time later,Horwitz,who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on labor issues,decided to write a book on the memory of the Civil War from a Southern perspective.I was apprehensive about getting involved, for obvious reasons, but I was also very supportive of Horwitz because he supported battlefield preservation. Off and on, then, for more than two years, we would explore nooks and crannies of the South together.
Confederates in the Attic came out in 1998 and stirred up controversy the moment it hit the bookstores. Despite the fact that Horwitz walked a fine line between liberal and conservative, Southern and Northern views, many readers, including some of his friends,were mad at him for not making the standard attack on Confederate memory. Meanwhile,a lot of reenactors,including many in my own unit,were offended.He alluded to Confederates as disreputable, which bothered me. Named after Robert E.Lee and born on Stonewall Jackson’s birthday, I guess it makes sense I have a leaning towards the South.
Although the book covered much more ground than the reenactments Horwitz and I attended, reenactment became the media focus—and I became its poster child.I always felt bad about that,because there are hundreds of reenactors who bring a lot to the table and haven’t gotten the credit they deserve. But there I was, on the cover of the book.
I walked into all the attention blind and found it both humbling (a group of disabled children, for example, once asked for my autograph) and amusing (a number of strange women proposed marriage). One night Horwitz was on the “Late Late Show,” then hosted by Tom Snyder.I was floored that Snyder said he found me fascinating—and Tony said I was his mentor! Soon after that,ABC News’ Jay Shadler and a crew from “Primetime Live” followed us around at the 135th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Raymond in the Vicksburg Campaign.
When Horwitz hosted a book party at his home in Waterford and asked if my reenacting friends and I would come—in Confederate garb—I was reluctant, but some of my messmates were eager to go so we accepted the invitation.Amidst his pedigreed guests,I felt like a zoo animal in my butternut uniform. I remember a very chic young woman coming up and asking me for a light for her cigarette. I had matches that failed to ignite, but no lighter—it wouldn’t have been “authentic.” Senior National Public Radio correspondent Linda Wertheimer was there.She was very kind and asked me to dance,but I didn’t want to embarrass myself,or her,with my lead feet.The next thing I knew,my friend Johan was spinning her around the dance floor so fast that she flew off the stage and into Tony’s boxwoods.
On another outing, I spoke to 400 students at the University of North Carolina where Confederates in the Attic was mandatory reading for hundreds of incoming freshmen.A UNC professor took me to dinner, and we argued whether the Southern armies were,in simplistic terms, the good guys or the bad.
Michael J. Fox, Conan O’Brien, Glenn Close, executives at HBO, Demi Moore, Bill Paxton, and numerous businessmen and political figures have read “the book.”I have taken a Vogue editor on a four-day “Civil Wargasm.”Newt Gingrich got stood up for lunch because I was giving a battlefield tour to the executive he was to meet. I have had the honor of sharing the stage at Washington and Lee University with acclaimed writer Tom Wolfe. I have eaten squirrel, clad in Confederate gray, with Roger Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who.
Although the ride from the book has slowed down, I continue to enjoy the residual impact.I am one-third owner of Wide Awake Films, and I have an Emmy Award with my name on it.Recently,our work aired on the National Geographic Channel.
My life and mind have been enriched by my friends and experiences in reenacting.The same goes for Tony Horwitz and Confederates in the Attic,which introduced millions to our rather odd but very rewarding world. I have been lucky.And I try to remind myself of that every day.
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.