Thursday, April 3, 2014

Confederates in the Attic

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
© 1999 Tony Hortwitz
432 pages

          For most of the United States, the Civil War is like any other entry in the history books, of interest but not very consequential. . For the South, however, the war was and is a conflict that left deep scars across its fabric. Long after the surrender of the Confederacy, its flag still flies from countless homes throughout the region; old arguments and symbols continue to be reinterpreted and invigorated through new arguments. In Confederates In the Attic, Tony Horwitz builds on his lifelong interest in the Civil War to take an extensive tour through the old Confederacy.  Spanning at least three years, his visits take him from the study of Shelby Foote to the trenches of the Antietam battlefield,  sojourning with ‘hard core’ reenactors.  He visits with the not-quite-so-obsessed, as well, citizens black and white, about the lingering legacy of the Civil War. The result is a triumph, a book entertaining to read, and balanced to book, providing both laughs, reflections, and twinges in spades.

          Confederates is essentially a travel diary with meaning; as Howitz moves through the south, he attempts to absorb the experiences of the war through its museums and battlefields, as well as the attitudes of the people who live with this history. Most of the people recorded tend toward the eccentric, like the aforementioned ‘hardcore’ reenactors who purposely march for days on blistered feed scarfing hardtack and staining their woolen uniforms to go for the ‘authentic’ look. There are more moderate voices, like that of Shelby Foote, who illustrate why the Civil War remains so visceral for southerners, especially whites. In an era of tumultuous social and political change – when jobs vanish, cities are destroyed,  and families riven apart --  the glory days of the Old South, and its Confederacy, are something to hold on to. They symbolize resistance to change, defiance of pushy outsiders. The Civil War, in storied memory, was an age of flamboyant heroes defying the odds in style.  The Confederacy’s dramatic attempt at defending its autonomy serves as a source of inspiration to working class guys being antagonized by their bosses or ‘the system’; on a larger level it inspires libertarians and conservatives who wish to keep the Federal government within certain constitutional limits.

          For all the remembrance, however, the Civil War was not a feud fought on principle between gentlemen over ‘rights’. It was an economic battle, the doubly misguided defense of slavery by the planters and their armies against the armies of the north. That slavery, based on race, continues to enslave the minds of black and white southerners alike. Although many of Horwitz’s experience tend toward the humorous, there are dark passages here.  Strife between the black and white people of the nation continues, driven by ignorance and the time-honored custom of one generation poisoning another with learned hatred.  In one chapter, Horwitz visits a town that saw a murder when a carload of young black men gave chase to a truck flying the rebel flag and fired shots into the truck, killing him. When interviewed, the chief suspect said he knew little about the Civil War, only that he’d been told that flag was flown by whites to antagonize blacks.  Before moving to the South, he said, he only knew it as the Dukes of Hazzard flag.  Where poorer whites are acculturated to see the Confederate flag as a symbol of self-defense, blacks are raised to see it as a symbol of antagonism. People continue to fight over the meaning, and literally, as Horwitz sees a school coalescing into two race-gangs wearing shirts to provoke the other into fistfights. It is tragic, and if the ethnic brawling in the Balkans and the middle east are any indicator,  the tragedy may continue for centuries hence.

          Although Horwitz is a self-professed Yankee, and his account takes tragic turns, as a southern reader I found it fair. Of course, most southerners are not as extreme as the ones the author mentions; I know of no one who submits their children to learning a Southern Catechism, like the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Veterans do in one chapter, so readers living in the south might object to the slightly exaggerated take of most of his subjects. Racial tension exists throughout the nation, not simply in the South, and the battle flag’s symbolic power is appreciated or despaired over likewise across the United States.  But even the craziest of characters in Confederates in the Attic is treated with respect;  Horwitz never breezes by anyone; they receive extensive time to tell their story, and they do. Horwitz is perfectly respectful of the issues at hand’s complexity, and his work is a standout.

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