Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil Warby Tony Horwitz
Propelled by his boyhood passion for the Civil War, Horwitz embarks on a search for places and people still held in thrall by America's greatest conflict. The result is an adventure into the soul of the unvanquished South, where the ghosts of the Lost Cause are resurrected through ritual and remembrance. In Virginia, Horwitz joins a band of "hardcore" reenactors who… See more details below
Propelled by his boyhood passion for the Civil War, Horwitz embarks on a search for places and people still held in thrall by America's greatest conflict. The result is an adventure into the soul of the unvanquished South, where the ghosts of the Lost Cause are resurrected through ritual and remembrance. In Virginia, Horwitz joins a band of "hardcore" reenactors who crash-diet to achieve the hollow-eyed look of starved Confederates; in Kentucky, he witnesses Klan rallies and calls for race war sparked by the killing of a white man who brandishes a rebel flag; at Andersonville, he finds that the prison's commander, executed as a war criminal, is now exalted as a martyr and hero; and in the book's climax, Horwitz takes a marathon trek from Antietam to Gettysburg to Appomattox in the company of Robert Lee Hodge, an eccentric pilgrim who dubs their odyssey the "Civil Wargasm". Written with Horwitz's signature blend of humor, history, and hard-nosed journalism, Confederates in the Attic brings alive old battlefields and new ones - classrooms, courts, country bars - where the past and the present collide, often in explosive ways.
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 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.
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