In this sparkling book, Tony Horwitz freshens our culture of remembrance with humor and a sharpshooter's eye, exploding myths with the irreverence of a small boy hurling snowballs at a beaver hat.
Good natured and generously funny: moving, chilling, and beautiful.
Richmond Times Dispatch
The best bookwritten on the Civil War.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The first book the author's Russian grandfather bought on emigrating to the U.S., though he neither read nor spoke English, was about the Civil War, a book he still pored over into his 90s. And when Horwitz was a child, his father read him tales of the Civil War instead of fairy tales and children's literature. The powerful hold of that conflict on a diverse assortment of Americans translates into more than 60,000 books on the subject, according to the author; for some Civil War buffs it is an obsession that generates a startling number of clubs whose members regularly reenact the battles, playing out once again the logistics, problems, hardships, leading characters, losses and victories. Horwitz (Baghdad Without a Map), on a year-long exploration of these groups throughout the South, participated in some of their activities and came to know the lives and personalities of several of their members. His vivid, personal account is a mesmerizing review of history from a novel and entertaining angle.
Like many Americans, Wall Street Journal senior writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Horwitz (Baghdad Without a Map) is obsessed with the Civil War. In his new book, he journeys to battlefield sites and joins Civil War reenactors. Horwitz finds that most reenactors glorify battlefield valor and that white Southerners remember mostly the sense of lossthe war, the antebellum era, and the agrarian way of life. He also understands that many black Southerners want Americans to remember that slavery caused war and that race is the war's legacy. As Horwitz demonstrates, the Civil War is alive, raw, and poignant, and his entertaining dispatches remind us that our memory of it is concerned more with symbolism and today's values than with an accurate understanding of the American culture that made the war possible. -- Charles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State University, University Station
School Library Journal
Fascination with the Civil War runs in Horwitz's family. His Russian immigrant great-grandfather continued to pore over books on the subject at age 101 and his father read to the author each night from a 10-volume photographic history. Years later, the author and his wife awoke one morning to the sounds of a mock Civil War battle being filmed in front of their Virginia home. Subsequent conversations with the participants rekindled this enthusiasm and launched Horwitz on a year-long quest to determine why the Civil War continues to enthrall so many Americans. He journeyed throughout the Old South, visiting battlefields and museums. He joined "super hardcores" such as Robert Lee Hodge, learning about "farbs," "spooning," and "period rushes." He conversed with the only living Confederate widow and witnessed both the "Catechism" taught to Children of Confederate Veterans and the attitudes of black teens in Selma, AL. While his encounters ran the gamut from amusing to infuriating to positively frightening, this Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter relates them all with clarity and honesty. Read Confederates simply for the engrossing, well-written account of contemporary American culture that it is or choose any chapter to spark or enliven class discussion. Don't miss this one. -- Dori DeSpain, Herndon Fortnightly Library, Fairfax County, Virginia
When I was single and living in New York, I used to go out with an expatriate South Carolinian. His name was Bo. We're talking Southern here. Cab drivers would strain to understand his accent, then ask him, "Where you from? England?" Instead of going out for lunch on our first date, Bo decided to spend the afternoon recounting the entire Battle of Gettysburg, complete with troop movements and sound effects, including one Confederate general bellowing, "Give 'em the cold steel, boys!" I was a Yankee, and this was Bo's way of introducing himself. The battlefield, quiet for the past 115 years, was as much a part of this Southern boy's identity as his hometown and his family name.
I'm telling you this because it explains why I enjoyed Confederates in the Attic" so much. I kept shaking my head in recognition as Tony Horwitz described his expeditions to landmarks of the Civil War and, concurrently, the outer limits of the Southern mind. The War Between the States lives on in the South, where, as William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." The phenomenon is summed up nicely early in this book when the Oklahoma-born director of a national cemetery in Maryland says, "In school I remember learning that the Civil War ended a long time ago. Folks here don't always see it that way. They think it's still halftime."
Of course, this isn't news to anyone who has spent time in Dixie. But Horwitz manages to find fresh ways to tell the old story. He offers a panoply of characters who serve as tour guides into the mentality of undefeat, including iron-haired ladies from the Daughters of the Confederacy; Shelby Foote, gentle raconteur and oracle of the Lost Cause, who turns out to be sort of grumpy; and Manning Williams, an artist and latter-day secessionist from Charleston who endlessly labors at a Bosch-like painting he calls "Lincoln in Hell." But the centerpiece of the book is Horwitz's adventures with a hard-core Civil War re-enactor and carpenter named Robert Lee Hodge. Total authenticity is Hodge's Holy Grail. He wears genuine uniforms (and never washes them), starves himself for a more accurate look and is widely admired for his ability to bloat his body like a Confederate corpse. Hodge recruits Horwitz for a demented weeklong blitz of Civil War battlefields dubbed the Civil Wargasm. Here Horwitz discovers one problem with writing about the South: Your material tends to upstage you. But the author makes the best of the situation. He is a skillful, sometimes hilarious writer with a keen eye for the absurd.
Horwitz argues that even as the South outwardly becomes more like the rest of America, white Southerners in their guilt and dismay cling ever more tightly to the romantic myths of the past. Blacks generally have a different attitude. One older man Horwitz meets at a Martin Luther King Day service has some advice for white Southerners who can't get past the Civil War: "I got one word for those folks -- Appomattox," he says. "The game's up, you lost. Get over it."
Horwitz, a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, tells us that in writing this book, he is serving his own childhood obsession with the Civil War. It's a fascination passed down through the males in his family, even though when the war was actually fought, Horwitz's own ancestors were escaping the Czarist pogrom in Russia. He presents the Civil War as the ultimate American -- and Americanizing -- experience, for better or worse.
This argument doesn't wash with the students in an Afrocentric history class Horwitz visits in Selma, Ala. To them, the Civil War was irrelevant -- just one bunch of white racists fighting another for power. "It's his-story," says one teenager, "as in his story, the white man's, not mine." Horwitz realizes with growing gloom that these black students were using the same rhetoric as neo-Confederates, who maintain the war wasn't about slavery, but state's rights. From these Selma kids and their Farrakhan-admiring teacher, the author learns that when it comes to clinging to self-defeating myths, no culture has a corner on the market.
Salon March 10, 1998
The Washington Post
Roy Blount, Jr.
Splendid....A rattling good read.
The New York Times Book Review
Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Horwitz (Baghdad Without a Map) takes an eye-opening turn in the South, where his childhood obsession with the Confederacy collides with hard adult realities about race and culture in America. Growing up in Virginia, Horwitz painted rebel heroes on the walls of his attic bedroom. Returning home after a decade spent covering foreign wars, he launches a year-long ramble through the landscape of the Civil War, traveling from Virginia to Alabama in search of explanations for his (and America's) continuing interest in the conflict. Horwitz accompanies a hard-core reenactor obsessed with authenticity (and whose gruesome specialty"bloating" in imitation of a corpseputs him in demand with artists and filmmakers) on "the Civil Wargasm," a whirlwind seven-day tour of battlegrounds. He visits Shelby Foote and lesser known historians like Jimmy Olgers, an eccentric storekeeper whose folk museum sports a life-size statue of Robert E. Lee made from sheetrock. Trading notes with park rangers, Horwitz discovers that much of what he knows is more myth than fact and that historical misrepresentation at federally maintained battlefields is frequently abetted by local boosterism. Nowhere is the tension between past and present more raw and divisive than in Richmond, where proposals to honor Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue, the city's cavalcade of Confederate heroes, spur protests from whites and blacks alike. It's remarkable how much strong emotion the war still evokes (especially in the local taverns and gunshops Horwitz wisely seeks out) and how stubbornly it divides the country along racial linesa division summed up bluntly by a redneck T-shirtthat challenges blacks with a rebel battle flag over the caption "You wear your X, I'll wear mine." Horwitz's reflective odyssey uncovers a profoundly disaffected nation, where battles over the Confederate flag, virulent antigovernment sentiment, and enduring ignorance and bigotry invite some dispiriting conclusions about the prospects for black/white rapprochement.
From the Publisher
"The freshest book about divisiveness in America that I have read in some time. This splendid commemoration of the war and its legacy . . . is an eyes-open, humorously no-nonsense survey of complicated Americans." —Roy Blount Jr., New York Times Book Review
"In this sparkling book Horwitz explores some of our culture's myths with the irreverent glee of a small boy hurling snowballs at a beaver hat. . . . An important contribution to understanding how echoes of the Civil War have never stopped." —USA Today
Horwitz's chronicle of his odyssey through the nether and ethereal worlds of Confederatemania is by turns amusing, chilling, poignant, and always fascinating. He has found the Lost Cause and lived to tell the tale a wonderfully piquant tale of hard-core reenactors, Scarlett O'Hara look-alikes, and people who reshape Civil War history to suit the way they wish it had come out. If you want to know why the war isn't over yet in the South, read Confederates in the Attic to find out." —James McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom
Read an Excerpt
The Southern Guard remained vigilant against even accidental Farbiness; it had formed an "authenticity committee" to research subjects such as underwear buttons and 1860s dye to make sure that Guardsmen attired themselves exactly as soldiers did. "Sometimes after weekends like this, it takes me three or four days to come back to so-called reality," Young said. "That's the ultimate."
As we talked, other Guardsmen trickled in, announcing themselves with a clatter of hobnailed boots on the path outside. Rob Hodge arrived and greeted his comrades with a pained grin. A few days before, he'd been dragged by a horse while playing Nathan Bedford Forrest in a cable show about the rebel cavalryman. The accident had left Rob with three cracked ribs, a broken toe and a hematoma on his tibia. "I wanted to go on a march down in Louisiana," Rob told his mates, "but the doctor said it would mess up my leg so bad that it might even have to be amputated."
"Super hardcore!" the others shouted in unison. If farb was the worst insult a Guardsman could bestow, super hardcore was the highest plaudit, signifying an unusually bold stab at recapturing the Civil War.
Many of the Guardsmen lived outside Virginia and hadn't seen their comrades since the previous year's campaign. As the room filled with twenty or so men, greeting each other with hugs and shouts, it became obvious that there would be little attempt to maintain period dialogue. Instead, the gathering took on a peculiar cast: part frat party, part fashion show, part Weight Watchers' meeting.
"Yo, look at Joel!" someone shouted as a tall, wasp-waisted Guardsman arrived. Joel Bohy twirled at the center of the room andslid off his gray jacket like a catwalk model. Then, reaching into his hip-hugging trousers, he raised his cotton shirt.
"Check out those abs!"
"Awesome jacket. What's the cut?"
"Type one, early to mid '62, with piping," Joel said. "Cotton and wool jean. Stitched it myself."
Rob Hodge inspected the needlework, obviously impressed. He turned to me and said, "We're all GQ fashion snobs when it comes to Civil War gear."
"CQ," Joel corrected. "Confederate Quarterly." The two men embraced, and Rob said approvingly, "You've dropped some weight." Joel smiled. "Fifteen pounds just in the last two months. I had a pizza yesterday but nothing at all today."
Losing weight was a hardcore obsession, part of the never-ending quest for authenticity. "If you look at pension records, you realize that very few Civil War soldiers weighed more than a hundred thirty-five pounds," Rob explained. Southern soldiers were especially lean. So it was every Guardsman's dream to drop a few pants' sizes and achieve the gaunt, hollow-eyed look of underfed Confederates.
Rob had lost thirty-five pounds over the past year, leaving little or no meat on his six-foot-two frame. Joel, a construction worker, had dropped eighty-five pounds, losing what he called his "keg legs" and slimming his beer-bellied waist from forty inches to thirty. "The Civil War's over, but the Battle of the Bulge never ends," he quipped, offering Rob a Pritikin recipe for skinless breast of chicken.
Unfortunately, there was no food--diet or otherwise--in sight. Instead, the Guardsmen puffed at corncob pipes or chewed tobacco, interspersed with swigs from antique jugs filled with Miller Lite and rimmed with bits of each other's burley. Eavesdropping on the chat--about grooming, sewing, hip size, honed biceps--I couldn't help wondering if I'd stumbled on a curious gay subculture in the Piedmont of Virginia.
"I've got a killer recipe for ratatouille. Hardly any oil. Got to drop another five pounds before posing for that painter again. He loves small waists on Confederates."
"Do you think we should recruit that newbie who came to the picket post? He looks real good, tall and slim."
"Ask him, 'Have you got a Richmond depot jacket? Do you sew?' A lot of guys look good at first but they don't know a thing about jackets and shoes."
The sleeping arrangements did little to allay my suspicions. As we hiked to our bivouac spot in a moonlit orchard, my breath clouded in the frigid night air. The thin wool blanket I'd been issued seemed woefully inadequate, and I wondered aloud how we'd avoid waking up resembling one of Rob Hodge's impressions of the Confederate dead. "Spooning," Joel said. "Same as they did in the War. "
The Guardsmen stacked their muskets and unfurled ground cloths. "Sardine time," Joel said, flopping to the ground and pulling his blanket and coat over his chest. One by one the others lay down as well, packed close, as if on a slave ship. Feeling awkward, I shuffled to the end of the clump, lying a few feet from the nearest man.
"Spoon right!" someone shouted. Each man rolled onto his side and clutched the man beside him. Following suit, I snuggled my neighbor. A few bodies down, a man wedged between Joel and Rob began griping. "You guys are so skinny you don't give off any heat. You're just sucking it out of me!"
After fifteen minutes, someone shouted "spoon left!" and the pack rolled over. Now my back was warm but my front was exposed to the chill air. I was in the "anchor" position, my neighbor explained, the coldest spot in a Civil War spoon.
Famished and half-frozen, I began fantasizing about the campfire stew I'd naively looked forward to. Somewhere in the distance a horse snorted. Then one of the soldiers let loose a titanic fart. "You farb," his neighbor shouted. "Gas didn't come in until World War One!"
This prompted a volley of off-color jokes, most of them aimed at girlfriends and spouses. "You married?" I asked my neighbor, a man about my own age.
"Uh huh. Two kids." I asked how his family felt about his hobby. "If it wasn't this, it'd be golf or something," he said. He propped on one elbow and lit a cigar butt from an archaic box labeled Friction Matches. "At least there's no room for jealousy with this hobby. You come home stinking of gunpowder and sweat and bad tobacco, so your wife knows you've just been out with the guys."
From a few mummies down, Joel joined in the conversation. "I just broke up with my girlfriend," he said. "It was a constant struggle between her and the Civil War. She got tired of competing with something that happened a hundred thirty years ago."
Joel worried he might never find another girlfriend. Now, when he met a woman he liked, he coyly let on that he was "into history." That way, he explained, "I don't scare her off by letting the whole cat out of the bag."
"What happens if you do tell her straight?" I asked him.
"She freaks." The issue wasn't just weekends spent away; it was also the money. Joel reckoned that a quarter of his income went to reenacting. "I try to put a positive spin on it," he said. "I tell women, 'I don't do drugs, I do the Civil War.'" He laughed. "Problem is, the Civil War's more addictive than crack, and almost as expensive."
The chat gradually died down. Someone got up to pee and walked into a tree branch, cursing. One man kept waking with a hacking cough. And I realized I should have taken off my wet boots before lying down; now, they'd become blocks of ice. My arm was caught awkwardly beneath my side, but liberating it was impossible. I'd disturb the whole spoon, and also risk shifting the precarious arrangement of blanket and coat that was my only protection from frostbite.
My neighbor, Paul Carter, was still half-awake and I asked him what he did when he wasn't freezing to death in the Virginia hills. "Finishing my Ph.D. thesis," he muttered, "on Soviet history."
I finally lulled myself to sleep with drowsy images of Stalingrad and awoke to find my body molded tightly around Paul's, all awkwardness gone in the desperate search for warmth. He was doing the same to the man beside him. There must have been a "spoon right" in the night.
A moment later, someone banged on a pot and shouted reveille: "Wake the fuck up! It's late!" The sky was still gray. It was not yet six o'clock.
The pot, at least, was an encouraging prop. I hadn't eaten since lunch the day before, and then only lightly in anticipation of a hearty camp dinner. But no one gathered sticks or showed any signs of fixing breakfast. I saw one man furtively gnaw on a crust of bread, but that was all. Recalling the hunk of cheese I'd packed the day before--the only item of mine that had escaped confiscation--I frantically searched my jacket pocket. The cheese was still there, hairy with lint and nicely chilled.
The Guardsmen rolled up their bedrolls and formed tidy ranks, muskets perched on shoulders. As a first-timer I was told to watch rather than take part. One of the men, acting as drill sergeant, began barking orders. "Company right, wheel, march! Ranks thirteen inches apart!" The men wheeled and marched across the orchard, their cups and canteens clanking like cowbells. In the early morning light, their muskets and bayonets cast long, spirelike shadows across the frost-tinged grass. "Right oblique, march! Forward, march!"
The mood was sober and martial, nothing like the night before. Except for a hungover soldier who fell out of line and clutched a tree, vomiting.
"Super hardcore!" his comrades yelled.
I spent an hour watching the men march and wheel as the drill sergeant called out his monotonous orders. "Shoulder arms. Support arms. Carry arms." The field was skirted by a split-rail fence. Just beyond stood the plantation house, a handsome brick edifice ringed by stately oaks; I'd been told the night before that the Confederate guerrilla John Mosby had once climbed out a window of the house and down a tree to escape capture by Federal cavalry. To the west loomed the Blue Ridge, gentle and azure in the morning sun. There wasn't a single modern intrusion. Looking at the scene, I thought about Mathew Brady's black-and-white photographs, and the false impression they conveyed. The War's actual landscape was lush with color and beauty. The sky, always a featureless white in Brady's photographs, was a brilliant, cloud-tufted blue.
The sergeant broke my reverie, handing me his musket and suggesting I practice the drill steps behind the other men. At first, the maneuvers reminded me of learning to square-dance, with the sergeant acting as caller and soldiers taking turns as the lead dancer. The main difference was that a misstep here could result in a rifle butt to the chin instead of a step on the toe. The moves were also crisp and angular, lacking the fluid motion of a reel or do-si-do. "On the right by files, into line, march!"
Finally, after several hours of nonstop drilling, the Guardsmen stacked their weapons and sprawled under a tree. Reaching into their haversacks, they began wolfing down cornbread, unshelled peanuts, slabs of cooked bacon. One of the Guardsmen, a new recruit named Chris Daley, offered me what looked like a year-old piece of beef jerky. I asked him why he'd joined up.
"I work as a paralegal on Long Island," he said. "This is escapism. For forty-eight hours you eat and sleep and march when someone else tells you to. There's no responsibility."
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."
Rob Hodge agreed. "When you get into the grim details of the War, you realize you've lived a soft life. I think we all have some guilt about that. Doing this is a way of making things a little hard for a change."
This prompted debate about just how hard a hardcore's life should be. Rob favored total immersion in soldierly misery: camping in the mud, marching barefoot on blisters, staying up all night on picket duty. If he caught ticks and lice, so be it. "If that happened, I'd feel like we'd elevated things to another level," he said. "It would suck, but at least I'd know what it was like to scratch my head all day long."
A Guardsman named Fred Rickard went Rob one better. "There's something in me that wishes we could really go the whole way," he said. "I'd take the chance of being killed just to see what it was really like to be under fire in the War." He paused, munching on salt pork and biscuits. "At least then we'd know for sure if we're doing it right."
Fred leaned over to spit out a bit of gristle and noticed something in the grass. "Rob's bloating," he announced. Rob lay splayed on his back, cheeks puffed and belly distended, eyes staring glassily at the sky. Joel walked over and poked a boot in his ribs. "Suck in your gut a bit," he said. "It looks like you sat on a bike pump." Fred rearranged Rob's hands. "They don't look rigor mortal enough," he said. Then the two men returned to their meal.
Rob sat up and wiggled his fingers. "Hands are a problem," he said. "It's hard to make them look bloated unless you've really been dead for a while."
I stuck out the drill until late afternoon. The temperature was dropping fast and another night of spooning loomed ahead. Better to farb out, I decided, than to freeze or perish from hunger. Rob urged me to come out with the Guard again when the battle season got under way, and I said I would. But there was something else I wanted to do in the meantime. Lying awake in the night, pondering Civil War obsession, I'd plotted a hardcore campaign of my own. Super hardcore.