Tony Horwitz, |
Confederates in the Attic
After covering such hot spots as the Middle East and Bosnia, freelance journalist Tony Horwitz thought he was finding peace and quiet when he moved into a farmhouse in Virginia. He discovered otherwise the morning he heard gunfire on the road outside his house. It turned out to be a group of Civil War reenactors, decked out in Confederate uniforms, filming a scene for a documentary. Conversation led to an invitation to join the reenactors and Horwitz, with an interest in the Civil War dating back to his childhood, accepted.
Before long, things got completely out of hand and Horwitz began traveling the American South looking for contemporary traces of the Civil War. He didn't have to look hard. Horwitz visited with Daughters of the Confederacy, historians and ordinary people across the South. His investigations and travels are interwoven with the tale of his involvement with the Southern Guard, in particular Robert Lee Hodge. Hodge's unit takes pride in being "hardcore," which is the term for those reenactors obsessed with getting every detail correct. Hodge is always on the lookout for new recruits and he welcomes Horwitz to the unit, although Horwitz suspects that he is really a farb at heart. ("Farb" is the hardcore putdown for reenactors who are in it more for the fun than for the authenticity.)
Horwitz is perceptive and funny. He has a knack for talking with all sorts of people, many of whom wouldn't be caught dead in the same room with each other. No matter what part of the political spectrum readers call home, they are sure to have the disquieting experience of liking someone in the book as a person while being appalled by the person's political views. Much of what Horwitz finds on his travels is amusing and disturbing at the same time. Although he is a journalist by profession, most of the book reads like a travelogue. The most journalistic part of the book is the chapter about a Kentucky man who was murdered for flying the Confederate battle flag on his pickup truck. Once Horwitz starts digging into the facts and talking to people the story turns out to be more complicated than it first appears.
On the other hand, that could be said of many episodes in the book. A trip to Shiloh winds up questioning conventional historical wisdom about how the battle was fought. The most surreal episode in the book may be Horwitz's quest for the original Tara (from Gone With the Wind), which may or may not exist depending on whom one asks. Then there is the Civil Wargasm, an annual weeklong trip where Hodge hits as many Civil War sites as he can; he wears his Confederate uniform for the trip, of course. He says, "The Gasm's a Bohemian thing, like a Ken Kesey bus tour, except that we're tripping on the 1860s instead of the 1960s." The hardcore reenactor's ultimate goal is the "period rush," the feeling that one is actually alive in the 1860s.
At the beginning of the book, the reenactors seem like mostly harmless eccentrics, but as Horwitz chronicles the difficult legacy that the Civil War has left the South, the chapters featuring the reenactors become almost a respite from harsh reality. The South's scars from the Civil War and its slavery days are all too apparent, no matter how some people in the book attempt to downplay or ignore them. One battlefield tourist from Wisconsin that Horwitz meets at Shiloh puts it like this: "I wanted to say, 'I've been to Canada and everyone talks and seems pretty much like me. But down here, it's like a foreign country.'" The search for the elusive period rush culminates in a reenaction of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, with the Southern Guard striding across the battlefield while tourists scramble to snap photos of them. Despite the absurdity of the experience, it is in some ways the most uplifting part of the book as Horwitz catches his own period rush marching with them.
This book is a must for anyone interested in southern culture, in the ways that long-past events can influence modern life or just in a terrific literary road trip. Horwitz takes the reader on a fun ride that leaves plenty to ponder when the ride is done.