Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Book Review-"Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War"

 UPDATE: I apologize for the typos, I am in the process of revising this post.

Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. (New York: Vintage Books 1998). 432 pages.

            There is an existing element, especially with those from the Southern United States that comes with the remembrance of the Civil War. This anomaly exists separate from scholarship, instead being reinforced by oral tradition, propaganda, nostalgia, romanticism, personal belief, cultural adherence and many other reasons. This seemingly infinite amount of possibilities directing memory can be negative, positive, and absolutely radical. This memory however, is very much real, dividing, and manipulative. This remembrance of the Civil War and how it affects some Americans, is the object of study in Tony Horwitz’s exciting novel Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.  In the novel, Horwitz goes on a pilgrimage that takes him from the holiest of holy Civil War sites, the most obscure of Civil War shrines, and some of the most unscrupulous towns and people. In this ‘holy march’ through the South, Horwitz takes the time to reflect on the people, the culture, and the sites of the Civil War; not only what they are, but how they affect us today.
            Horwitz’s book is divided into fifteen chapters, which each chapter designated around the events of a particular trip or event. The majority of Horwitz’s chapters, are the detailed descriptions of Horwitz’s trips through southern states. Among these states are South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. Maryland and Pennsylvania are the exception here. Each trip comes with its own small towns, with characters too big to fit inside the city limits. Whether these characters are the most luxurious of southern belles, or the most psychotic of bikers, and radical of Alabama school teachers Horwitz’s encounters provide in-depth knowledge and objective observance of the diverse population of the Southern United States. Horwitz comes across those that believe in conspiracy theories to the extreme and radical racists rallying around the slaying of a young man that adhered to neo-confederate tendencies. 
            Probably the most interesting parts of Horwitz’s journeys came from his friendship with a hardcore reenactor. This reenactor, known as Robert Lee Hodge, allowed Horwitz to become one with the culture he was merely observing (whether he liked it or not). Hodge, is by far the most colorful character in the novel and is whoem Horwitz becomes most attached to in his journeys. So much so that Horwitz often partakes in re-enacting events such as marches and camp of instruction or COI. COI is a simulated camp in which re-enactors march and train as the soldiers of the 1860’s would have. Horwitz and Hodge’s relationship takes a new direction when Hodge convinces Horwitz to accompany him on the “Civil Wargasm.” These two men traveled in 19th century unforms, whool pants, kepis, brogans, and other garb to as many civil war sites as they could possibly see. The gasm represents an escape from the 20th century and an attempt to experience what Hodge calls, ‘the rush.’ The “rush” is the closes simulated experience one can feel, as though they are actually there. From the outside looking in this may seem like an odd, perhaps fanatical thing, but as Horwitz writes about the encounters, readers can see the purity and beauty in remembering History. Of course this realization comes as a result of direct conflict with obscured History, and those that have commercialized it.
            Horwitz’s journey takes him to Stone Mountain, Georgia where he sees firsthand, the commercialized view of history. The enormous carving on the granite rock is shrouded in commercialism from the laser show accompanied by music from different walks of life.  Other towns such as Montgomery, Alabama are cashing in on the stories of the past advocated Civil War and Civil Rights tours. Horwitz shows some condemnation of the “New South,” and only then realized the beauty of what Hodge already knew. Of course this did not depreciate the fact that there is a difference between passion and radicalism. This radicalism was evident in Todd County Kentucky early in the book just as it is in Rose Sander’s Classroom, a small black school in Selma, Alabama. Horwitz highlights the notions of “you keep your ‘x,’ and I’ll keep mine.” This is a reference to the confederate flag and the ideology of Malcolm X. Horwitz is confronted with a different aspect in this classroom, and a different type of history that is radical and anti-Civil War. The teacher felt Civil War figures on the South were criminals. In this,  Horwtiz realized after private discussion with the teacher, he had found the opposite end of the spectrum.
            Confederates in the Attic is an incredible tale of ideology. It is a handbook of remembrance for some because it gives an outside perspective to the common practice of some people’s everyday lives. Horwitz realizes there are different sides of the argument with validity and in the end even comes to respect the passion of some. His closing statements seem to call out as to why Americans see this conflict as such an important part of their lives, quoting from a Robert Penn Warren Essay he states, “A high proportion of our population was not even in this country when the war was being fought. Not that this disqualifies the grandson from experiencing to the full the imaginative appeal of the Civil War. To experience this appeal may be, in fact, the very ritual of being American,” (389). The Civil War is a part of the ideology, perhaps it is a badge of citizenship. Or maybe it is just the grandeur of the stories.

North Georgia College and State University

Robert L. Baker


  1. It's a book - not a novel. A novel is a fictional narrative.

  2. What are the major themes in this book?

    1. One: this is the author's account of moving into semi-rural Virginia and encountering person after person and business after business where the War Between the States is still alive


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