When Amelia and I first moved to Massachusetts nearly two months ago, we noticed an odd headline in the local paper:
“Civil War re-enactment held: South still loses”
We were first mystified at the announcement – since there were no battles fought in New England, was it a recruitment reenactment? Confusion led to irritation. We were disappointed to have missed the opportunity to go cheer on the rebels.
I checked myself after that thought. We are recently displaced from the South, and though we love nearly every aspect of where we’re living now, we naturally identify as southerners up North. It’s not something the people we interact with let us forget (at least not yet), and we fully accept the label. So our knee jerk reaction to the battle was that we should of course support our confederate brethren, as they would have no one else cheering them on.
I should also note that my alma mater’s sports teams are called the Rebels. For the first time, I experienced what had previously been no more than head-knowledge – the power of that name and the blurred lines between a football game and the conflict between the States.
My post isn’t a critique of reenactments. It is one thing to remember and to recreate an experience, and it is another thing to idealize. For some, the war and its heritage continue to be a rallying cry for the way things used to be. But for a growing number of people, the Civil War is an event of ancient past that is remembered vaguely in a muddle of misinformed pop-history facts. Tony Horowitz explores these different dimensions of the South and its war in Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.
Horowitz’s approach is personal. Though he’s the grandson of eastern European immigrants, he grew up with a boyish fascination of the war. Living in the D.C. area put him close to the sites of many campaigns and battles, and when he encountered a group of reenactors in his front yard one morning, it started a story that would span three years in the South. Horowitz himself joins a group of reenactors who try to recreate the life of the average foot soldier during the war, to the last minute detail. There are no glorious scenes of battle. There are twelve mile marches in the middle of the night, three-day-old fatback that melts into a puddle of grease when cooked, and the unabashed enthusiasm of one Robert Lee Hodge, a lean historian with contempt for washing and anything less than authenticity. The resulting descriptions of the troop’s activities and the author’s reactions are hilarious.
The book really takes off when Horowitz hits the road and travels throughout the different states in the South. His goal is to see the sites, the cemeteries, the battlefields, the markers of events long passed. He does this, but it is soon apparent that his best moments are when he encounters the people of these different regions. He rubs shoulders with the rich and the poor, with old money and new; with the famous, and with the obscure; with city folk and country folk; with black people and white people, with the young and old alike. An exhaustive study of the South and its inhabitants would hardly be better. Horowitz doesn’t shy away from speaking to anyone, and he lets their words stand for themselves. He’s not afraid to point out misinformation, or to challenge conventional (or rather traditional) thought, of which there is enough to fill libraries. But he doesn’t come off condescending, a common trait of the outsider. He lets people speak their piece, and he moves on. He strives for factual accuracy, and that’s a great asset to the book. But more importantly, he often points out the development, both physical and mental, that tries, sometimes succeeding, to purge the war from memory and sight.
Over the course of the book, you began to see a picture unfold from Vicksburg to Gettysburg. It is by no means homogenous. People are different, and that’s one of the truest things we can know about people. Yet we own this common identity and we do still share the legacy of the war and its causes. The only question is our recognition of it.
This entry (and I feel the same about the book) isn’t about the causes of the war. Nor is it about who was right, who was wrong, and who was politically savvy. It’s about what we have inherited now, and how our perceptions (or lack thereof) of that time affect what we do now.
Confederates in the Atticis masterfully written. It testifies to the efforts of someone who is willing to listen and to look in both the uncommon and common places.
Pages: 432 FOA Pages: 4857 (The total number of pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)