Confederates in the Attic

This is a book by Tony Horwitz about his journey of discovery regarding the Civil War. The staff at the Gettysburg National Military Park conducted a discussion of this book over the month of January. We had a great discussion of the book. Each session was an hour long, but we could easily have gone four or five hours each week.

I had read the book several years ago when it first hit the shelves, and in preparing for the discussions I reread it. I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time, and I was struck by how many of the things he wrote about almost twenty years ago were still issues today.

In the first chapter he tells us how he came to embark on his discovery of the war. He had been a war correspondent, covering conflict in Bosnia, Iraq, and Northern Ireland, “where memories were elephantine.” [p. 5] “Serbs spoke bitterly of their defeat by Muslim armies at Kosovo as though the battle had occurred yesterday, not in 1389. Protestants in Belfast referred fondly to ‘King Billy’ as if he were a family friend rather than the English monarch who led the Orangemen to victory in 1690. Returning to America, I found the background I lacked wasn’t historical, it was pop-cultural. People kept referring to TV shows I’d missed while abroad, or to athletes and music stars I’d never seen perform. In the newspaper, I read a government survey showing that 93 percent of American students couldn’t identify ‘an important event’ in Philadelphia in 1776. Most parents also flunked; 73 percent of adults didn’t know what event ‘D-Day’ referred to. Yet Americans remained obsessed with the Civil War. Nor was this passion confined to books and movies. Fights kept erupting over displays of the rebel flag, over the relevancy of states’ rights, over a statue of Arthur Ashe slated to go up beside Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Richmond. Soon after my return, the Walt Disney Company unveiled plans for a Civil War theme park beside the Manassas battlefield. This provoked howls of protest that Disney would vulgarize history and sully the nation’s ‘hallowed ground.’ 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.” [p. 6] He and his wife then awoke one morning to loud popping noises just outside their window. It was a reenactment of a battle for a TV documentary on Fredericksburg. That was the day he met Robert Lee Hodge, a “hardcore” reenactor who would serve as a guide for Tony along his journey, and his reenactor group, “The Southern Guards.” Hodge and the Guardsmen were obsessive about getting every detail as accurate as possible. “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.” [p. 12]

After participating in one of the Guardsmen’s reenacting weekends and spending a night “spooning” with them, Tony hit on the idea of traveling to find today’s echoes of the Civil War. “Historians are fond of saying that the Civil War occurred in 10,000 places. Poke a pin in a map of the South and you’re likely to prod loose some battle or skirmish or other tuft of Civil War history. The first pin I pushed turned up the town of Salisbury, North Carolina. The scheme I’d plotted while spooning in the night was to spend a year at war, searching out the places and people who kept memory of the conflict alive in the present day. As my territory I’d take the actual ground over which the Civil War raged. This dictated a Southern strategy; apart from Gettysburg and stray Confederate raids on towns like Corydon, Indiana, the War occurred below the Mason and Dixon line. Given my mission, a Southern tour made sense. ‘We have tried to forget the Civil War,’ Edmund Wilson observed. ‘But we have had the defeated enemy on the premises, and he will not allow us to forget it.’ ” [p. 18] Salisbury had been the site of a prison camp where captured Union soldiers had been held, and several had died. ” ‘The official figure’s eleven thousand seven hundred dead, but we’re really just guessing,’ ” the director of the National Cemetery in Salisbury, Abe Stice, told him. “If the guess was correct, over a third of the inmates perished, making Salisbury among the deadliest of all Civil War prison camps, including Andersonville.” [p. 21] As he does in all the chapters, in Chapter Two he gives us a sprinkling of history along with his travelogue. “Oddly, not all the prisoners were Yankees. There were also Southern deserters, Carolina Quakers jailed for being conscientious objectors, and convicts imprisoned for petty theft, drunkenness, or ‘trading with Yankees and inducing Negroes to go to Washington D. C.’ The roster also listed the teenaged son of David Livingston, the famous missionary and doctor in Africa. Robert Livingstone dropped out of school in Scotland and caught a ship to America, apparently in search of adventure. Fearing his family would disapproved, he enlisted under an alias. ‘To bear your name here would lead to further dishonoring it,’ Robert wrote his father from Virginia, adding, ‘I have never hurt anyone knowingly in battle, having always fired high.’ Confederate guards at Salisbury weren’t so kind; they shot Livingstone dead during a mass break-out attempt. Hundreds of other inmates also died while trying to escape. ‘Our men will Shoot them now On every Occasion,’ one rebel guard wrote his wife. ‘I saw one shot Down yesterday like a Beef.’ ” [p. 21] Stice had been a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War and said that while he couldn’t forget that war, he hoped the next generation “won’t be hung up on it the way mine is.” “The same sentiment didn’t extend to the Civil War. Stice had worked in Salisbury a year, long enough to recognize that memories endured here much longer than in his native Oklahoma. ‘In school I remember learning that the Civil War ended a long time ago,’ he said. ‘Folks here don’t always see it that way. They think it’s still half-time.’ ” [p. 22]

From Salisbury, Tony goes to Charleston and Kingstree, South Carolina. He goes to Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and back to Virginia, Maryland, and, of course, Gettysburg. He attends a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting where he notes the members pledge allegiance to the United States Flag, then salute ” ‘the Confederate flag with affection, reverence and undying devotion to the Cause for which it stands,’ the men said, effectively contradicting the pledge they’d just made to ‘one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.'” [pp. 23-24] He finds out about the Children of the Corn Confederacy and their “Confederate Catechism” that brainwashes teaches the children to believe the classic tenets of the lost cause myth, and we find out something else they’re taught: “Her son sat quietly completing a connect-the-dot picture of the rebel flag and filling in a coloring-book map of America: gray for the Confederacy, blue for Union, green for border states. ‘Warren,’ his mother said, ‘tell this nice man from Virginia, is there anything you hate more than Yankees?’ ‘No sir! Nothing!’ he shouted. Then he dove under the table,  yelling, ‘Someone told me there’s Yankees around here! They hate little children!’ ” [p. 39]

He also met Michael King, an African-American pastor in Salisbury. The two men walk past the town’s confederate monument. ” ‘The Bible says, if eating meat offends your brother, eat meat no more,’ he said. ‘Worship of the Confederacy offends me.’ When I asked why, he walked me to the Confederate monument, which occupied a median strip on Salisbury’s busiest street. The 1909 memorial depicted a bronze angel cradling a dying rebel soldier and holding forth a laurel crown. Chiseled on the granite base was the Confederate motto, Deo Vindice. With God As Our Defender. ‘What’s the message here?’ King said. ‘God dispatched an angel to ferry this brave rebel to heaven. As a Christian pastor, I got a problem with that. The whole notion that God was involved with one race putting down another, that’s going against the grain of a Christian nation. God ain’t with racism or anything to do with subdividing people.’ The monument bothered King for another, subtler reason. ‘It’s idol worship. I feel sorry for folks who feel like they have to put up idols to feel good about themselves.’ King had lived in Salisbury his whole life. He knew his was a minority view. Most blacks were apathetic, he said, or didn’t want to ruffle Salisbury’s racial calm by talking about old monuments. He had done so publicly once, questioning at a public meeting why the monument–owned by Sue Curtis’s UDC chapter–should stand in the middle of a busy street where ‘I got to worship it every time I’m stuck at a red light,’ King said. In reply, King had received hate mail. His protest also prompted an avalanche of letters to the local paper stating that the monument wasn’t racial, it was just a symbol of great-grandfathers who fought and died for their beliefs. ‘The way I see it,’ King said, ‘your great-grandfather fought and died because he believed my great-grandfather should stay a slave. I’m supposed to feel all warm inside about that?’ I asked King if there was any way for white Southerners to honor their forebears without insulting his. He pondered this for a moment. ‘Remember your ancestors,’ he said, ‘but remember what they fought for too, and recognize it was wrong. Then maybe you can invite me to your Lee and Jackson birthday party. That’s the deal.’ ” [pp. 43-44]

Tony visits Fort Sumter, the Shiloh battlefield, and even Shelby Foote. He visits Antietam and Gettysburg. In Kentucky he meets people involved in occurrences surrounding the aftermath of Michael Westerman being shot while displaying a confederate flag on his truck. He documents the evolution of Westerman’s image from a historically ignorant teenager who was somewhat of a bully with some racist tendencies and who only displayed the flag because he thought it looked good to someone who was devoted to his “southern heritage” and displayed the flag because he was a true believer in honoring the confederacy, an image crafted by the SCV and other confederate heritage liars.

We’re still arguing about many of these issues–displaying the confederate flag, confederate monuments, the SCV and UDC promulgating a phony version of history. While the southern landscape changed over the years, with small restaurants along the highways being replaced by IHOPs, McDonalds, and other national chain restaurants, there are quite a few ideologies that remained constant.

On January 30, 2016, Tony Horwitz was nice enough to come to Gettysburg and meet with us to discuss his book. I took the opportunity to get my copy signed.

Confederates in the Attic-1

Tony spoke with Rangers Chris Gwinn and Dan Vermilya and was kind enough to answer questions from the audience. Here are a couple of excerpts:

And

It was a terrific talk and the book program has been a smashing success.

This book is really outstanding, and if you haven’t read it yet I highly recommend you do so. If you’ve already read it, you might find it interesting to read it again and note how many things haven’t changed.

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2 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    Tony’s short discussion on the “New NEW South” is the key to all of the changes taking place regarding monuments. The demographics of the South are shifting so rapidly that we may live to see the long held symbols of oppression finally laid to rest. His (Tony’s) observations about 1812 reenactors made me laugh; he seemed like an entertaining speaker.

  2. […] Mackey has put up an interview with Tony Horwitz, author of the 1990s best-seller Confederates in the Attic. Horwitz’ depiction of the […]

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