Confederates in the Attic – Review

Tony Horwitz. Confederates in the Attic. New York: Vintage, 1998. Print.

This may be a little different review from many I have written. I will be reflecting on the book Confederates in the Attic, but I may not be reviewing it in a thorough manner for two reasons: I left the book behind in the hotel where I obtained and read it, and it got me thinking about things beyond the scope of the book itself.

Confederates in the Attic was a popular book when it came out about 17 years ago, and it still has much relevance. It is first of all an entertaining read.

The author explains that he grew up in Washington DC and lives in Virginia, so he was conscious of the American Civil War most of his life. However, there was more to it than that. All of his ancestors came to America after the Civil War. He recalls one from his childhood, a great-grandfather who lived to be 100. Even though this man was born after the war in Russia and came to the US about forty years after the war, his great-grandfather loved and pored over a ten-volume illustrated history of the Civil War.

Horwitz’s father also became a Civil War buff, and Horwitz himself as a preteen read up on the Civil War and even painted battle scenes on the walls of the attic of their house (hence the title). High school and beyond got him interested in other things. He became a reporter and won a Pulitzer for his work covering the First Gulf War. After numerous years working and living overseas, he settled in Northern Virginia where every few miles there is a Civil War battlefield or memorial, and his interest was rekindled.

The beginning of the renewal of his re-interest involved connecting with Civil War re-enactors. It turned out the men he met were “hard core” re-enactors, those who tolerate nothing that would be considered outside of the period including the kind of socks they wear and the buttons on their shirts. They only eat food the soldiers would have eaten, and avoid any insect repellent or medical remedy while re-enacting that was not from the period.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to these people. He begins to see their perspective and understanding of the various battles and causes. The cover photo looks like an old period tintype, but it is actually a modern photo of one of the hard core re-enactors. Few of the soldiers on either side had enough to eat; any hard core re-enactor was always concerned about gaining weight so that he would no longer look the part.

One of the most entertaining parts of Confederates in the Attic describes Horwitz accompanying the man on the book’s cover for a week long adventure driving to ten different Civil War battlefields and then living like the soldiers did for the rest of the time and sleeping overnight at seven of them. Horwitz learned that the overnight camping is forbidden, but park rangers tolerate it because of the support and public interest they generate as long as they leave nothing behind. Since our hard core re-enactors were imitating Confederates from North Carolina in Virginia, they had virtually nothing anyhow, so there was nothing to be left behind.

There are a number of other fascinating items in the book, some serious, some humorous, some surprising: the shooting of a young father of twins in Kentucky because a Confederate flag flew from his truck; an interview with a still-living widow of a man who served in the Civil War; and descriptions of various Confederate descendant organizations.

The pro-Confederate organizations often have a very distinctive interpretation of things related to the war. Horwitz’s observation of a catechism for young descendants which attributes the victory at Gettysburg to overwhelming Union numbers (actually the numbers there were pretty equal) and the Yankee’s wealth goes like this:

Actually, Gettysburg was the rare clash in which the Confederates weren’t badly outmanned. If the battle proved anything, it was that Lee could blunder and that Northerners could fight as doggedly as Southerners. Reading through the rest of the [Children of the Confederacy’s] Catechism, I began to hear echoes of defeated peoples I’d encountered overseas: Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians, Catholics in Northern Ireland. Like them, Southerners had kept fighting the war by other means. (37,38)

Horwitz is certainly not the first writer to observe the difference between the two songs which characterized the two sides, but when he heard them played one right after the other, he could not help but make the following observation:

If “Dixie” was elegiac, a nostalgic evocation of cotton fields, buckwheat cakes and gay deceivers, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was its antithesis: apocalyptic, ironfisted, and almost industrial in summoning God’s legions to march forth and crush iniquity. It would be a stretch to suggest that the two songs offered a tuneful synopsis of what had separated North from South—and what had fueled the North’s triumph. But hearing the songs in such close succession, I couldn’t help feeling the emotional distance between the two causes. (42,43)

Horwitz notes a few cities which have tried to attract visitors for both Civil War remembrance and for the Civil Rights movement a hundred years later. Montgomery, Alabama, was both the first capital of the Confederacy and one of the launch pads for the nonviolent movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King.

Another Rev. King, a black pastor in Salisbury, North Carolina, complained about a 1909 monument in the middle of town with an angel, a Confederate soldier, and the motto Deo vindice (with God as our defender).

“What’s the message here?” King said. “God dispatched an angel to ferry this brave rebel to heaven. As a Christian pastor, I got a problem with that. The notion that God was involved with one race putting down another, that’s going against the grain of a Christian nation. God ain’t with racism or anything to do with subdividing people.” (43)

This Rev. King wrote a letter publicly objecting to the monument and received hate mail and more muted reactions saying it just honored their ancestors. Horwitz quotes him:

“The way I see it,” King said, “your great-grandfather fought and died because he believed my great-grandfather should stay a slave. I’m supposed to feel all warm inside about that?” (44)

This touches on one of the main themes of Confederates in the Attic. America is “subdivided.” Slavery was resolved, but racial differences continue to fester.

While I felt almost no ideological kinship with these unreconstructed rebels, I’d come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil War—race in particular—remained raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation? In 1861 this was a regional dilemma, which it isn’t anymore. But socially and culturally, there were ample signs of separatism and disunion along class, race, ethnic and gender lines. The whole notion of a common people united by common principles—even a common language—seemed more open to question than at any period in my lifetime. (386)

There are two things, though, that this book impressed on me. These were not necessarily themes that Horwitz analyzed in detail, but I believe they reflect things going on in our society today.

First is the impact of films. Horwitz notes,”Gone With the Wind had done more to keep the Civil War alive, and to mold its memory, than any history book or event since Appomattox.” (296) In the book we meet a Scarlett O’Hara (i.e., Vivien Leigh) lookalike and people who try to find locations of settings from the book in the Georgia county where most of the novel was set. Blacks and whites reflect on it. The idea that slaves were happy on the plantation among moderns usually traces its roots to the film. (If only they would read The Narrative of Frederick Douglass!)

But there are other films in the background, too. The Connecticut-raised owner of the Ruffin Flag Company that specializes in Confederate flags and memorabilia noted that their T-shirt depicting Robert E. Lee used to be their best seller. By 1998 they were selling five times as many Nathan B. Forrest shirts. Confederates in the Attic attributes this to increasing stridency among those who identify with the rebel cause—no gentlemanly surrender as displayed by Lee. However, from my experience, a lot has to do with the popularity of the Forrest Gump film. Gump, we are told, was named after the General. I noticed that after the film came out students studying the Civil War would talk about Gen. Forrest, when, frankly, before the film few had heard much about him one way or the other.

Horwitz also notes that among blacks the baseball cap with the letter X was popular at the time. Forrest Gump has come out in 1994 and Malcolm X had been released in 1992. I recall my students from the mid-nineties talking about Malcolm X and writing papers about him or his autobiography, but it has probably been fifteen years since I have read one. Horwitz quotes both blacks and whites in the South tolerating one another while agreeing to disagree by saying, “You wear your X, and I’ll wear mine.” (You wear your Confederate battle insignia, and I’ll wear my Malcolm X cap, or vice versa).

For better or worse, we get a lot of our education from Hollywood.

Perhaps the saddest part is that, with some exceptions, it appears that few students even in the South are learning much about the Civil War any more. One school principal said that it was no longer required in her state because it created too much controversy. Horwitz quotes white students who seem to believe the Gone With the Wind take on happy slaves, and black students who say that the whole war is irrelevant to them and even Abraham Lincoln was a racist slave owner. Very disheartening, but perhaps this is still another sign of the dumbing down of American education.

My parents lived near Torrington, Connecticut. If you ever go there by coming off the main state highway, you will be greeted by one of the typical welcome signs with logos from the various civic lodge organizations. It says, “Welcome to Torrington/Birthplace of John Brown.”

One time my parents were riding with a couple, a friend of my father and his wife. His wife, unlike the others in the car, was from the South. She was raised in Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s (Scout Finch?), and had been trained there as a history teacher. She reacted very strongly to that sign, and went on a twenty-minute rant about how John Brown started the Civil War and no one should honor him. None of the others with her agreed with her interpretation, but she certainly knew the facts surrounding the war and could discuss it in some detail. Now they are afraid to teach it.

I teach English, so I do not assume direct responsibility for this subject in my school’s curriculum, but some years I teach a quarter unit on Civil War Literature. After reading Confederates in the Attic, I think I may teach it every year. I don’t want my students sounding like the idiots Horwitz quotes in his book.

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