Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz was on my reading list for a while. This would be an enlightening read at any time since the book’s publication in 1998, but seemed especially relevant now in 2020, a tumultuous period of national reckoning.
After nine years working abroad as a foreign correspondent, Tony Horwitz returns home to the US and is struck by national fascination with the Civil War. This interest grew significantly over the last decade, prompted by Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary, and many films and publications that followed. But the War raged beyond books and film. Heated debates continued regarding confederate monuments, the rebel flag, and the meaning of states’ rights.
Reflecting on this phenomenon, Horwitz feels inspired to revisit his own childhood obsession with the War:
It seemed as though the black-and-white photographs I’d studied as a child had blurred together, forming a Rorschach blot in which Americans now saw all sorts of unresolved strife: over race, sovereignty, the sanctity of historic landscapes, and who should interpret the past.
Horwitz’s encounter with Civil War reenactors adds another layer to his investigation. After witnessing their mock battle filmed for a documentary, he speaks to these men, soon learning of the fine line between mere Civil War hobbyists and “hardcores,” historical interpreters committed to as much period accuracy as possible:
Hardcores didn’t just dress up and shoot blanks. 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, or what hardcores called a “period rush.”
All of this inspires the question – why are Americans so obsessed with this particular period of history?
A few weeks later, while attending a hardcore drilling event during the battle reenactment off season, Horwitz plots a hardcore undertaking of his own:
To spend a year at war, searching out the places and people who keeps memory of the conflict alive in the present day.
The book chronicles this endeavor, exploring Civil War history and public memory across ten states. This adventure includes lots of time among “hardcore” historical interpreters, but also takes him beyond the battlefield. He encounters passionate rebel flag defenders, meets the writer Shelby Foote (famous from the Ken Burns documentary), and attends meetings of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Many white southerners he meets are interested in the past because of their personal connection to it – the memories of their ancestors kept alive from generation to generation. This legacy is so intense it’s as though the war was only yesterday. They perpetuate the belief that the war was a matter of states’ rights and defending “the southern way of life.” The issue of slavery is frequently disregarded or downplayed. This all contrasts sharply, of course, with the perspective of African Americans:
Everywhere, it seemed, I had to explore two pasts and two presents; one white, one black, separate and unreconcilable. The past had poisoned the present and the present, in turn, now poisoned remembrance of things past. So there needed to be a black Memorial Day and a white Veterans Day. A black city museum and a white one. A black history month and a white calendar of remembrance. The best that could be hoped for was a grudging toleration of each other’s historical memory.
This battle of memory, so to speak, comes head to head during his visit to Richmond, VA. Horwitz’s visit coincides with a public hearing regarding adding a statue of black tennis star Arthur Ashe to Monument Avenue, a boulevard lined with confederate figures. The meeting concerned not just an appropriate way to honor Ashe, but arguments for and against Monument Avenue in general. Such a heated debate is especially relevant as I write this in July 2020, with removal of confederate monuments happening across the country and Mississippi finally redesigning its flag. 22 years since this book was published and more Americans are critically addressing the past. As for the statue of Arthur Ashe, the city council voted to place it on Monument Avenue after all:
A councilwoman explained that the gesture was a necessary evil, to exorcise Richmond’s historic demons. “Ghosts still haunt us, and we haven’t resolved that,” she said.
Naturally this metaphor resonated with me, as I believe we are haunted by our collective past in many ways (hence the name of this blog). 2020 brought on an exorcism of sorts, long overdo – Monument Avenue is being cleansed of its confederate ghosts and the city is in the process of reimagining a new Monument Avenue.
In his concluding chapter, Horwitz reflects:
The issues at stake in the Civil War — race in particular — remained raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation? In 1861, this was a regional dilemma, which it wasn’t anymore. But socially and culturally, there were ample signs of separatism and disunion along class, race, ethnic and gender lines. The whole notion of a common people united by common principles — even a common language — seemed more open to question than at any period in my lifetime.
Here we are, 22 years later, still grappling with this unresolved past. The recent removal of confederate monuments offers some consolation, but this nation remains very much haunted. It’s time we face our ghosts.
This is the only book I’ve read by Tony Horwitz and I’m eager to read more. Sadly, he passed away in 2019 in the middle of a book tour for his latest work, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide – another timely read!
July 22, 2020 at 4:52 pm
I first read Confederates in the Attic back in middle school after encountering it in the library when researching a project on the Civil War (which must have been not too long after it was published, since I was 13 in ’98), and I’ve been obsessed with it and Tony Horwitz ever since. I own all his books, and was constantly checking to see if he had a new book out, so I was so excited when Spying on the South was finally published. I only found out that he had died after I read it and went to review it on Goodreads, and I was genuinely really upset since I looked forward to his new books so much, and I felt like I’d gotten to know him and his family a bit through his work. Glad you enjoyed it too, and hope you’ve been doing well!
July 23, 2020 at 10:58 am
I am so late to the Horwitz party! So sad that he died just as I’m discovering him. Like I said in the post, this book had been on my reading list for a while and wish I had read it earlier. I can’t wait to read Spying on the South. Have you read anything by his wife? What a literary power couple! I was so excited to learn they were married because I read Year of Wonders a while ago and absolutely loved it. I don’t usually read historical fiction, but this novel is really well-researched and nicely written. And yes, thank you, doing well! Worked remotely during the lockdown (and continue to be mostly remote). It was so unsettling to see NYC become a ghost town back in March. And I know this is the least of our problems right now but I’m sad about the state of the arts and hope we can figure out a safe way to make them accessible again. And I hope all is well with you! I’ve been catching up on your posts and really enjoying reading them.
July 24, 2020 at 7:37 pm
I thought I had read something by Geraldine Brooks because I distinctly remember picking one of her books up and thinking, “Oh, that’s Tony Horwitz’s wife,” but after looking at what she’s written, I don’t actually think I have. I might have just spotted it at a bookshop.
Glad you’re doing well! I do kind of regret not going into central London when everything was in full lockdown mode, because I think it would have been quite creepy to see it so empty, but I had no way of getting there without taking public transport (since I live about twelve miles away from Waterloo – easy by train, but not so much by walking, unless you’re Charles Dickens!) and I didn’t think it was worth taking the risk for leisure purposes. I’m still working from home as well, and definitely in no rush to go back, though it sounds like I might have to at least part-time from September.