So, turns out some of those Civil War reenactors aren’t just pretending. I’ve never lived below the Mason-Dixon line, so this book is a bit of a shock. Confederates in the Attic is Tony Horwitz’s first-person account of his journey through the South, exploring Civil War battlefields, visiting memorials and museums, and taking part in reenactments with a “hard-core” group (hard-core here meaning they throw away the apple he wanted to eat because that particular kind didn’t exist in the 1860s, confiscate his sleeping roll, and take enormous pride in looking as thin and bedraggled as possible).
It starts off pretty comically, as he recounts his first reenactment (led by Robert Lee Hodge, the guy on the cover–I didn’t realize that wasn’t a legitimate Civil War photo until I looked on Wikipedia). They spend the night on the cold ground, no blankets, no tents, and his description of a whole battalion of men laying in a line, spooning each other, and turning to the other side every twenty minutes on command is pretty great. However, the book quickly takes a horrifying turn when Horwitz heads to a small town in Kentucky where a white man was recently murdered by a black man for waving around a Confederate flag. Later, he visits Shiloh National Park, Fort Sumter, and Andersonville, the notorious prison camp in Georgia. He chats with the oldest living widow of a Confederate soldier, explores Confederate and civil rights history in Selma, and observes Lee-Jackson Day in North Carolina. Reading about his experiences, I really felt at times that I was reading about another country. Try as I might, I’ll never understand the devotion some Southerners feel to long-dead ancestors–a devotion so deep that they keep fighting a war that ended 150 years ago and defending ideas that are offensive and sometimes downright scary (one guy in here seriously defends the Klan as a neighborhood watch-type organization).
This book is full of casual racists and anti-Semites who appear to have never encountered anyone who disagrees with them. They have no problem using the n-word or talking about how slaves didn’t really have it so bad. They dismiss the idea that slavery had anything to do with the War and many of them seem to think the South should try seceding again. The mind, it boggles. Confederates in the Attic is almost 20 years old, and I found myself wondering if things have gotten any better or worse in the South, but with our current political climate, I’m a little afraid to find out.