The Unfinished Civil War—A Place and A State of Mind

If there’s one book I’ve wished I’d written, it’s Confederates in the Attic. Of course, Tony Horwitz already wrote it, nearly two decades ago. Here’s a guy who wandered around the South, talking to people about the legacy of the Civil War. He asked questions, had conversations, observed, listened, and explored the landscape for himself. He immersed himself in the story.

This, I tell my students, is what good feature writers do. They take the time to do the story justice—and a story as complex as this one requires a lot of time if you’re going to be thorough and fair. That’s what I respect most about Horwitz’s work on the book: he takes the time to make an honest attempt at trying to understanding that which, I suspect, can never fully be understood.

I had to revisit Horwitz’s book as part of a project I’m working on for the doctoral program I’m doing, so this wasn’t just a random read of a book almost twenty years old. (I can’t believe it’s that old already!) I would argue, though, that Horwitz’s book is worth returning to any time you’d want. It’s an excellent piece of journalistic feature writing.

Horwitz had a lifelong interest in the war, but it had lain mostly dormant throughout most of his adult life. Then, one morning without warning, he awoke to the sound of gunshots in the street outside his home. A group of Civil War reenactors were filming a TV documentary on the battle of Fredericksburg, and during a break in the action, they collapsed in Horwitz’s yard. Horwitz brought them fresh coffee, and that’s when the questions began.

The “hardcore” reenactors “didn’t just dress up and shoot blanks,” Horwitz discovered. “They sought absolute fidelity to the 1860s: its homespun clothing, antique speech patterns, sparse diet and simple utensils. Adhered to properly, this fundamentalism produced a time-travel high….”

One reenactor brags about soaking his brass buttons overnight in a saucer filled with urine, which oxidized the brass to make it look like a button from the 1860s. “My wife woke up this morning, sniffed the air and said, ‘Tim, you’ve been peeing on your buttons again,’” the man told Horwitz. (Reenactor friends of mine have since told me urine doesn’t really work, but it sure makes a colorful story.)

What makes these men tick, Horwitz wondered. Why does the war hold such sway over them. In fact, he thought, why does the war hold such sway over so many people?

And thus begins one of the oddest of odysseys. Horwitz submerges himself in the South, since that’s where most of the war was fought, to find out for himself. The resulting exploration of place turns into a memorable cultural portrait of the South.

Horwitz decides to start in Charleston, South Carolina, at the site of Fort Sumter, where the war’s first shots were fired, but the War waylays him well before he gets there. On his way south, through North Carolina, he’s sidetracked into the world of the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, some of whom attend Civil War-related meetings seven nights a week. To commemorate “Lee-Jackson Day,” a holiday once widely celebrated across the South that combined the birthdays of long-dead Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the folks play Civil War trivia games.

At times, Horwitz acts as a fly on the wall as he takes in the things going on around him. But at his best, he is a full-blown participant, taking sides in the trivia games, dressing up for a reenactment, and offering his unique, submerged perspective on what he sees and experiences. Best of all, he strikes up conversations everywhere he goes, asking, asking, asking.

Horwitz tracks down the legend of Tara from Gone with the Wind. He meets the last living Confederate widow. He rushes through Virginia with a hard-core reenactor, Robert Lee Hodge, hitting as many Civil War sites as they can in a week, what Hodge calls a “Civil Wargasm.”

In one of my favorite encounters of the book, he talks with Shelby Foote, the Memphis writer who penned the sweeping three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, and who gained national exposure as a kindly grandfather-looking “Voice of the South” in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. “It’s the sort of experience we never forget,” Foote told him. “I was in a lot of fistfights, maybe fifty in my life. The ones I remember with startling clarity are the ones I lost.”

While Horwitz discovers that the Civil War is very much alive throughout the South, he also discovers that it’s a Cold War. The lines are no longer just geographic, either: they’re racial, social, and economic, too.

That’s what helps make Confederates in the Attic more than just a fascinating collection of eccentric people—although that is what makes it so captivating. Horwitz manages to write an intensely thought-provoking book. Every eccentric brings a new shade of meaning to the discussion. For every hardcore reenactor like Hodge, who can lay on the ground and “bloat” to look like the dead Confederates in wartime photos, there’s a Michael Westerman, the nineteen-year-old victim of a racially motivated murder, killed while flying a Confederate flag from the bed of his pickup truck. Citizens of Richmond who debate the placement of a statue to the late tennis great Arthur Ashe bring up incredibly nuanced arguments that transcend notions of mere “pro” and “con.”

Horwitz doesn’t shy away from any of it. Confederates in the Attic astutely explores racism, political correctness, national and regional identity, and the relevance of our own history as a way to understand ourselves. Like any good journalist, Horwitz doesn’t pretend to have any answers, but he lays out as many sides to the story as possible so readers can think for themselves.

Horwitz does get a few facts wrong, and sometimes his interpretation is shaky (I take particular exception to the way he tends to portray Stonewall Jackson as a total crackpot). He leaves a few things out, and he stirs up trouble, too. I know some of the people involved in some of the stories, so I have the inside scoop on a few things. Horwitz commits no unpardonable sins, though, and I can forgive much because he’s earnest about his quest. (Check out Jim Broomall’s review of Horwitz’s newest book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.)

“The present is just a split second,” Hodge tells Horwitz. “The past lasts forever. You can keep going back to it.”

Indeed, Confederates in the Attic is much the same. It stands as a landmark piece of feature journalism and was  easily one of the best books of the 1990s. Although almost twenty years old, I can keep going back to it, over and over.


Cross posted at Scholars & Rogues.

7 Responses to The Unfinished Civil War—A Place and A State of Mind

  1. It is a fascinating book. I’m a northern-born very proud Union supporter who grew up in rural Central Florida. I have been reminded often that when you win a war you can easily forget about it or put whatever spin you want on it, but when you lose a war it never ends; you keep fighting it forever. Therefore, it is not surprising that Horwitz spends most of his time dealing with the South or with deeply divided border regions like Southern Kentucky.

    1. He says, too, that his quest requires a southern approach simply because that’s where the war was primarily fought (Gettysburg, Chambersburg, St. Albans, VT, etc. not withstanding). what I always find most fascinating about the book is that Horwitz manages to uncover SO many shades of gray, both figuratively and neo-Confederately. It’s a great exploration.

  2. It is a fascinating book and the first to stir my abiding interest in the Civil War. As Shelby Foote and Mr. Albright above remind us, it is the fights we lose that haunt us. Thank you for reminding me to pull it off the shelf for another read.

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