I read a review of "Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz when it was first published last year and somehow got the wrong idea about what this book is all about. I passed over it initially because I didn't want to read about racist rednecks.
Now Vintage has issued a paperback edition and after glancing at the first page I read on, completely hooked.
Horwitz is a great writer. He has a clever touch that made me laugh out loud more than once and yet his subject, a look at how the modern South is dealing with the Civil War, is quite serious.
Part travelogue, part history, part social critique, Horwitz describes a 10-state adventure visiting Civil War battle sites, war memorials and out-of-the-way museums. He meets an array of quirky people along the way and, yes, some of them are racist rednecks.
But Horwitz' good nature and generous spirit kept me glued to the pages.
The most fascinating character in the book is a man named Robert Lee Hodge of Washington, D.C., a self-described happy loser who supports himself by waiting tables when he isn't re-enacting the war. No violence here. Rob's idea of re-enacting is the painfully authentic adoption of clothes and food of the 1860s and frequent visits to battle sites to achieve a "period rush," the phrase hardcores use to describe the high of traveling through time.
He crops up at several points in the book when Horwitz joins re-enactments.
"This is my true calling, a Civil War bum," Rob tells the author. Rob has an encyclopedic knowledge of the clothes worn during the war, the home-spun materials and dyes used. He insists that he and Horwitz don malodorous rags of the period, eat hardtack and sleep outdoors just like the Civil War soldiers.
"You're lying there listening to mosquitoes buzz in your ear, trying to sleep and thinking: 'This is what they experienced. This is the real deal,' " says Rob.
Yet, Horwitz muses, Rob has a perfectly ordinary and respectable girlfriend who says her guy isn't as weird as he appears.
"You just have to try hard to understand him," she said.
"Do you?" asked the author.
"A bit," she said. "But maybe that's because I'm a counselor for the mentally retarded."
Horwitz also interviewed historian Shelby Foote at his home in Memphis, the white mayor of Selma, members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and numerous ordinary folks, many with strong feelings about what it means to be a Southerner.
Horwitz toured a cemetery in Salisbury, N.C., filled with gravestones marking the deaths of Union soldiers who died in a Confederate prison camp.
"Their dying was my freedom, straight up," said James Connor, a young black man who accompanied Horwitz to the cemetery.
Horwitz, a Pultizer-Prize winning journalist who writes for The New Yorker magazine, sprinkles his narrative with nuggets of interesting, off-beat information.
For instance, one of the soldiers to die in the Salisbury prison camp was the teen-age son of David Livingstone, the famous missionary and doctor in Africa. Robert Livingstone dropped out of school in Scotland and caught a ship to America in search of adventure. He enlisted under an alias, was captured and shot during a mass break-out attempt.
Horwitz spends a chapter, "Dying for Dixie," trying to understand a murder that took place in Guthrie, Ky. A young white man who liked to fly a rebel flag on his truck was shot and killed by a black man. Those are the facts. But in death, Michael Westerman was elevated to the status of a Confederate martyr while his shooter, Freddie Morrow, 17 at the time, was sentenced to life in prison. The case was more complicated than it looked and Horwitz made an effort to understand both sides.
He also explores the "Gone With the Wind" myth and marketing fever that permeates Atlanta and Clayton County, Georgia. Ironically, Margaret Mitchell herself worked hard to avoid any confusion between reality and fantasy. She scoured the county to make sure no landmarks could be confused, however accidentally, with her fictional creation. But that hasn't prevented an entire "GWTW" industry from cropping up.
After a year's worth of travel, Horwitz admits that he failed to find the South he hoped still existed.
"The South had changed on me or I had changed on it," he muses. "My passion for Civil War history and the kinship I felt for Southerners who shared it kept bumping into racism and right-wing politics."
But in Selma, one of his last stops, after holding his temper with countless white supremacists, he lost it with a black woman whose passion he'd initially admired.
"I prefer to deal with someone who admits their racism than white liberals who hide it," she said.
Horwitz found no easy ways to explain the South today. But the subtitle of his book sums it up pretty well. "Confederates in the Attic" is a collection of "Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War."
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