In Maryland, one naturally associates historical reenactment with the Civil War. Yet the only reenactor I know eschews the Civil for the Revolutionary War because, he says, “I don’t reenact events where the people are still fighting the war. They might use live ammunition!” Tony Horwitz’s account of the South’s continuing preoccupation with the War Between the States suggests that this concern is not completely unwarranted. Hard-core Civil War reenactors will go to extravagant lengths for authenticity, from soaking brass buttons in urine to produce just the right patina to crash dieting in order to achieve the gaunt look of the veteran soldier to sleeping on cold wet ground with nothing more than a tissue-thin blanket and “spooning” for warmth; a few do actually consider, wistfully, what it would be like to “go the whole way.”
The champion of total reenactment has to be Robert Lee Hodge of the Southern Guard, who possesses the singular ability to “bloat” like a days-old corpse. Introduced in the first pages of Confederates in the Attic, Hodge provides a connecting thread throughout Horwitz’s perambulation of the Southern war territory, while his adventures with the author make for some of the best moments in the book. These include reenactments large and small as well as a “Civil Wargasm ” (an intense, week-long pilgrimage to Civil War memorials). Adhering to wartime exigencies of dress and sleeping on site, the two men steep themselves in period lore, reading aloud from war diaries and letters throughout the day and again each night by candlelight.
Snippets from diaries, letters, and histories, as well as interesting tidbits, are woven throughout the book and provide poignant expressions of, and commentary on, the war as it was actually fought. while helping to explain the passion that reenactment can elicit. In a Marylander’s Civil War journal describing passing Confederates as “a ragged, lean and hungry set of wolves” who nevertheless had “a dash about them that the Northern men lacked . . . [t]hey rode like circus riders,” Horwitz discovers the image that enthusiasts seek to replicate: “threadbare, famished, lice-and-dysentery-ridden, and for all that romantic.”
From the fact that most Civil War reenactors prefer grey over blue, Horwitz concludes the motivating impulse to be largely sartorial, having more to do with image than ideology. Yet by signing up with the Confederacy, these men seem to be choosing ideals (which are clear and straight forward) in preference to ideas (which are often murky and circuitous). The South’s chivalric ideals, combined with the purifying element of physical suffering, obviously provide an irresistible alternative to the virtual reality of modern-day life. Southern or otherwise.
Mr. Horwitz shows that much of the vitality of the South lies in its unyielding resistance to defeat. Amid the blight of franchise restaurants and shopping centers, rootlessness, and homogenization, the war continues to offer dignity and grandeur. As Mr. Horwitz discovers early on in his journey, enthusiastic bastions of Southerners descended from the generation that fought the War Between the States remain firmly entrenched in Southern landscape and culture. Taking a break from the monotony of interstate driving, Horwitz happens upon Salisbury. North Carolina, a hotbed of Civil War remembrance and ancestral pride. In Salisbury, Horwitz meets Ed and Sue Curtis, who introduce him to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Children of the Confederacy. For the Curtises, the War represents family, “knowing who’s once removed and six times down.” Members of these organizations are, it seems, a mixed group. In the SCV alone, Horwitz finds a doctor, pastor, rose grower, gun-shop owner, state employee, several farmers, and a textile worker. The last of these, living with his second wife in a cramped, book-lined trailer surrounded by tract houses and strip malls, often slips out of bed in the middle of the night to read Civil War history by oven light. “It’s an escape,” Mike Hawkins explains. “When I’m reading, I feel like I’m there, not here. And when I finish I feel content, like I’ve been away for a while.” For him, the SCV is important because it “brings people together, like the War did. I sit in a room with a doctor and pastor and such. . . . We’re all together for the same reason.”
Just south of Atlanta in Clayton County, by contrast, the Old South means money. This, the fictional territory of Margaret Mitchell’s 1930’s best-seller, is a mecca for Japanese tourists who come in droves seeking “Gone With the Window.” Here, amidst Tara Auto World, Tara Baptist Church, Tara Trophies, and so on, Horwitz finds entrepreneurs like Melly Meadows, a Scarlett O’Hara impersonator, and Betty Talmadge. Mrs. Talmadge, former wife of U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge and self-proclaimed owner of both GWTW plantations, is catering dinners for businessmen at “Twelve Oaks” until she can figure out how to create a theme park from her collection. (Her meals feature Scarlett carrots, Rhett Butler biscuits, and Abraham Lincoln.)
A fictive “Old South” may be good business, but the actual historical event of war still engenders powerful, even violent, controversy. In this context Horwitz discusses at length the status of Commander Wirz of Andersonville, the placement of Arthur Ashe’s statue in Richmond, and the Rebel Flag-related shooting death of Michael Westerman in Guthrie, Kentucky. More disturbing is Horwitz’s discovery that Civil War history has been completely expunged from the public school curriculum in Alabama â€” one way to avoid disagreement over the heritage of the Old South being to remove the issue altogether from contemplation. While Horwitz wonders whether “ignorance might prove a blessing,” in every classroom he visits he finds the black children sitting on one side of die room and the white ones on the other.
In spite of the singularity of Tony Horwitz’s approach and the richness of his reporting, Confederates in the Attic is seriously flawed by its author’s inability to get beyond the issue of slavery as the cause of the war. Thus, while often surprised by what he finds, Horwitz’s essential understanding of the big picture remains stubbornly unchanged from his original preconception of it. Mr. Horwitz has an obvious affection for the South, and he does attempt to be fair. His effort at objectivity, however, is compromised by a troubling problem with tone. In his descriptions, particularly where his choice of detail is concerned, Horwitz now and again conveys a subtle condescension toward his subject, quietly betraying individuals who have opened their doors to this outsider by making them look mildly ridiculous. As unreliable as Selma’s Mayor Smitherman may be, his parting words to Horwitz are prophetic: “Y’all always do the same, come in here smiling and then go home and write a dig at us.”
Perhaps Mr. Horwitz, not being a Southerner himself, simply doesn’t know any better, his sense of etiquette being only slightly more developed than his understanding of Southern regional politics. It was Tony Horwitz, after all, who (in the Wall Street Journal) described Michael Hill, president of the League of the South, as wearing a fie instead of a hood, and charged that “much of what passes for ‘antigovernment’ or ‘states rights’ sentiment is actually racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, wrapped up now in fashionable anti-Washington rhetoric.”
[Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz (New York: Pantheon Books) 406 pages, $27.50]
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