Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz. Specifically, it will answer several questions regarding the book. “Confederates in the Attic” is not just a history book, it is an intriguing look into the hearts and minds of modern Southerners, and their continuing absorption in the Civil War and reenacting its battles in great detail. Horwitz attempts to discover just why the Civil War is so compelling to so many people, and in the process, learns more about the sociology and culture of the South. His book therefore, is more than a history text, or even a modern look back with sentimentality and nostalgia, it is a look into the hearts and minds of people who live vicariously through the history of their ancestors, and what that really says about all of us in America today.

Confederates in the Attic

Tony Horwitz clearly had several reasons for writing his compelling book, “Confederates in the Attic,” but the most important reason seems to be his own fascination and interest in the Civil War. Specifically, he is searching for the reason why reenacting the Civil War, particularly in the southern United States, has become such a common and undeniable lure for so many people. However, there is more to his book than just searching for reasons. His book is sometimes funny, sometimes depressing, and sometimes almost unbelievable. The people he meets on his journey through the South are people just like you and me, and yet, they have some glaring differences, and these differences are what Horwitz uses to create a lasting impression of people who simply cannot let go of their legacy and get along with their lives. It is easy for those who do not live there to say, “the war is over,” but for many in the South, the war will never be over, and this permeates the book with a deep feeling of sadness and wasted lives.

Ultimately, his thesis may not be only the importance history plays in the lives of the southerners he met, but the real absence of true history in their playacting and reenactments. His thesis involves the true absence of historical accuracy in much of their thinking, including the denial of racial tensions as part of the reason the war was fought in the first place. In a disturbing encounter, he sat in on a Civil War lesson in a Selma, Alabama classroom filled with black students who could not acknowledge race played a part in the Civil War. He writes, “In essence, the students were saying that the Civil War had nothing to do with race or slavery — much the same argument made by neo-Confederates who saw the War through the prism of states’ rights” (Horwitz 368). Clearly, there is more to Horwitz’s book than a group of people who are simply nostalgic for a time gone by. Underlying the history there is still hatred, racism, and an inability to look underneath the trappings of the Civil War to the underlying causes and emotions that triggered it in the in first place.

Horwitz does not need to call his topic an unfinished war; by the time the reader reaches the end of the book that is abundantly clear. From the very beginning of the book, the War seems very real both to Horwitz and the reenactors who he suddenly finds fighting the Battle of Fredericksburg on his front lawn one weekend morning. “We do this sort of thing most weekends anyway,’ said a lean rebel with gunpowder smudges on his face and the felicitous name of Troy Cool” (Horwitz 7). Thus, the reader is immediately introduced to this subculture that is sometimes strange, sometimes amazing, and sometimes disturbing. It is clear the Civil War lives on in the minds of these people who reenact the lifestyles and the battles, but it is also clear they want it that way. They want to continue living in the past and fighting a war that ended over 140 years ago. This war lives on not only in their memories, but also in their everyday lives, and while the attention they give to details is astounding, the fact that they cannot allow the war to die a final death is both disturbing and a bit weird.

Horwitz cites numerous examples throughout the book that suggest the Civil War lives on in the culture and memory of Americans, and especially Southerners, on an everyday basis. Early on, he mentions many students do not know what “D-Day” signifies (Horwitz 6), but most can identify the Civil War and most of its’ major battles. One reviewer of the book noted Horwitz said the reenactors are “tailoring or customizing history to suit their own needs in the present, making use of what they can scoop up from the Internet and other sources outside the ‘mainstream,’ rather than what comes down on high from the priestly class of professionals” (Rider), in an interview about the book. Throughout the book, one of the enduring symbols of the war is the Confederate Flag, which some see as a symbol of everything the South lost during the war, and others see as a blatantly racist symbol. In the South, the flag is revered as a piece of history consistently maligned by “Yankees,” (which they still call Northerners), and it was the contribution to the death of Michael Westerman, a man who insisted on flying the flag from his pickup truck, especially in black neighborhoods.

There are many other equally important symbols of what the South “lost” in the war that carry on today. For example, Horwitz writes, “Since my arrival in the Carolinas, hardly a day had passed without some snippet of the Civil War appearing in the newspaper: a school debated on whether to play ‘Dixie’ at ballgames; an upcoming Civil War reenactment; a readers’ forum on the rebel flag” (Horwitz 71). Thus, the Civil War is not only an unfinished war in the eyes of most Southerners; it has great impact on what they do almost every day of their lives. This may seem foreign to those of us who have little connection to the Civil War, but in the South, the residents still remember the men they lost, and how almost no family was untouched by the fighting, and they hang on to their losses with the resolve of a mother bear guarding her cubs.

In is not difficult to see that history shapes people’s lives. What would our lives be like if the German’s had won World War II, or we the South had won the Civil War. However, Horwitz’s writing clearly illustrates just how much history pervades the lives of so many Southerners today. He writes, “Chris chomped into the jerky, adding, ‘I think there’s a lot of people like me who want to get back to a simpler time. Sandlot baseball, cowboys and Indians, the Civil War'” (Horwitz 16). This may be true, but this compulsion with the war clearly shapes people in every facet of their lives, from the reenactors who spend at least a quarter of their income on their “hobby” to the people who love them. In this case, history is doing more than shaping people’s lives; it is clearly taking over their lives. While some people may believe this is simply a way to “get back to a simpler time,” ultimately, this dependence on a history that is long gone seems somehow much more sinister after reading this book. This dependence on history certainly is shaping lives in the South, but it is not shaping them into more decent or meaningful lives. Instead, this dependence on history is only perpetuating the hatred, racial tension, and misunderstandings that have permeated the area since long before the Civil War began. The Southerners still hate the Yankees and the blacks, and they hang on to the men they lost like drowning men hang on to a life preserver. This is not healthy for anyone involved. To perpetuate hatred is to perpetuate ignorance and fear, and this is all this dependence on history and living in the past seems to promote. Ignorance and fear are no ways to look back at history, and they are no way to live our lives in what are supposed to be far more “enlightened” times than those of our ancestors.

In conclusion, Horwitz’s book is an enlightening and disturbing look into a subculture of America that at first seems harmless, and to many of the lesser practitioners, it is simply a harmless fascination with the past. However, for those who become obsessed, this never-ending War Between the States becomes simply another excuse for hatred and bigotry, and this shaping of people’s lives is a bit too extreme for many reader’s tastes, including mine.

Works Cited

Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon, 1998.

Rider, Shawn. “Coping Through History: Tony Horwitz’s ‘Confederates in the Attic,’ History, and Reconciliation.” Personal Web Page. 1999. 21 Nov. 2003.

< http://www.wdog.com/rider/writings/horwitz.htm >

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