Confederates in the Attic, by Tony Horwitz, Pantheon Books, New York, 1998, $27.50.
The Civil War looms large in the minds of Americans. Diverse groups have immersed themselves in the literature and regalia of the war. In Confederates in the Attic, author Tony Horwitz sets out to discover the commonality of our Civil War lust.
The war became Horwitz’s constant companion during his two-year tour of battle sites and visits with various people keeping the war’s memory alive. The author was afflicted with the Civil War bug when he was a boy. His grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, would proudly show him a book of Civil Warera sketches that he had bought soon after his arrival in America in 1882. Horwitz himself took to drawing battle sketches on his bedroom walls. As an adult, he accompanied his father to an annual meeting on Civil War medicine, a conference dedicated to learning Civil War techniques for combating disease and war wounds.
Horwitz’s purpose is serious–he is out to test the temper of the country, where the outcome and effects of the Civil War still linger. But Horwitz wisely realizes that the strength of his narrative is in the characters he meets along the way and the stories they have to tell.
Most of the people in the book harbor Civil War obsessions, like the retired postman with a collection of Gone With the Wind memorabilia. He started by sending for translations of the book in a variety of languages, and now owns the original facade of Tara from the movie set.
On the advice of author Shelby Foote, Horwitz visited the battlefield at Shiloh on the April 6-7 anniversary of the fight. Arriving before dawn, he met a bus driver from Minneapolis who was tracing the steps of his ancestor at the battle. Later that day, Horwitz met a Southern lawyer, complete with briefcase, who was walking along the ground held by Rebel troops during the battle. Another visitor, a 35-year-old factory worker from Chattanooga, was making his eighth annual pilgrimage to the site.
The highlight of the book is Horwitz’s encounter with Robert Lee Hodge, a self-described hardcore re-enactor. Horwitz accompanied Hodge on a weeklong battlefield tour. The men wore the same uniforms for a week and slept out in the elements. One evening they slept on the porch of a house eight feet away from the bed in which Stonewall Jackson died. They immersed themselves in soldiers’ letters and reminiscences as they raced from one Civil War shrine to another. Like time travelers, they hoped that immersion in the clothes, food, language and literature of the 19th century would magically lead them to the door of another time.
Throughout the book, Horwitz returns to an issue that troubles anyone interested in the Civil War. How do we reconcile our romantic fantasies toward a war that claimed more than 1 million casualties? And how can we venerate a culture that enslaved millions of African Americans? While most of us prefer to avoid these issues, Horwitz bravely and thoughtfully drives us directly into the modern hornet’s nest.
In a sad chapter titled “Dying for Dixie,” Horwitz describes two young men, one white and one black, who had more than they believed in common. They were like many Civil War soldiers of the previous century–young, aggressive and itching to make a mark in the world. One raced through town in his pickup truck waving a Confederate flag; the other, affronted, raced after him. The white man died of a gunshot wound; the black man is in prison for murder.
Horwitz also viewed a memorial to Jefferson Davis in Vicksburg, Miss., where a plaque cites the “special relationship” Davis had with his slaves. Not only was he their master, the inscription asserts, but he was also their friend. As Horwitz described it, “My passion for Civil War history and the kinship I felt for Southerners who shared it kept bumping into racism and right-wing politics.”
Horwitz set out to learn why Americans are so intrigued by the Civil War. He did not discover a single prevailing reason. Our reasons are as varied as the interesting fellow pilgrims he met along the way. Anyone with an interest in the war will enjoy accompanying Horwitz on his journey.
Joseph F. Sweet