I think it was a friend/coworker in college who recommended that I read this book because he knew my degree was in America history. When I finally did read it several years later, I saw why he thought I would like it.
This book is part investigative journalism and part travelogue as the author treks through the South asking everyone he meets about the Civil War and what it means to them. This takes him to Shelby Foote, a Klan meeting, Selma, Alabama, to name just a few and he meets many colorful people along the way, from the Last Confederate Widow who didn’t get what all the fuss was about to Robert Lee Hodge, who posed for the photograph on the cover of the book.
A Yankee at heart, his travels take him through cultural, racial, and historical territory not easily accessible to Northerners. (Horowitz grew up around DC, which is vaguely Southern but is transient in nature and has changed so much in the past 30 years that his DC and mine are probably animals of totally different stripes.) I put the book down with the impression that Southern heritage is mostly community, connection to the earth (from its farming roots), a lot of pride when the North didn’t leave them much else, and a bit of racism but not what or how we would think.
This book was a bestseller when it was published in the late 90s, when I was an oblivious kid navigating school uniforms for the first time. The first time I read this book was probably around 2009, when it was still fairly recent. Today, however, it’s nearly 20 years on and a lot has happened since then. I’d be interested to read a sequel because while the book was published in 1998, he spent three or four years collecting research for it. And just recently, there have been all these protests/riots between the police and African American communities, I’m sure the people he interviewed will have different perspectives. A lot of the people he interviewed might actually be dead, so all of the museums, cultural/racial organizations, and towns would be presented by a different generation.
Anyway, enough rumination on that.
This book has influenced how I approach all these living history events I attend. Horowitz asks a lot of people a lot of questions. One of the questions he asks nearly everybody is how they got into their line of work. How did they end up forming the Cats of the Confederacy, or how did they end up as a reenactor, or what brought them to run a little shop of kitsch in the middle of nowhere. This is a habit I’ve tried to assume and I have pages of renactors’ personal stories, like the lawyer from Florida who’s been Hancock longer than Hancock was Hancock. I could probably compile a book of their stories, but it wouldn’t add much to the main topic of North vs. South.
Perhaps I feel like this because I generally don’t see the Civil War personality portrayed but the actor behind it. The only exception to this is Al Stone as Robert E. Lee. I have yet to meet a convincing Lincoln and I wouldn’t talk to anyone like I was actually talking to the person. For example, I would definitely not ask “Grant” what his hobbies were like, “What are your hobbies?” If I was to ask that, it would be “What were Grant’s hobbies?” It’s a subtle difference.
Come to think of it, I don’t actually know the protocol to that one, or if there is a protocol.
I recognize that these reenactments and such do not present the full story or whole perspective of whatever it is. Civil War reenactments are usually, at their heart, about the army, army life, camping with the army, army weapons, army ranks, etc. And 98% are white. Any wives/girlfriends/daughters that tag along then present the women’s side of things – cooking for the army, sewing, twelve layers of petticoats. Any talk of “freeing the slaves” is done in the abstract, because for one, there aren’t any slaves to be freed nowadays. These events generally make more sense in the broad context of “The Civil War was fought over States Rights” than “The Civil War was fought explicitly to free the slaves.”
Confederates in the Attic gave me a context around which to frame my reenacting exploits. I’ve even met Robert Lee Hodge, the eccentric reenactor who reached moderate celebrity status after the publication of this book. Actually, I was invited to his birthday party in Alexandria (VA) and declined because probably I had to work the next day. One of the biggest history regrets of my life because they lit a bonfire in the middle of yuppie ville and sat up with the historian Ed Bearss all night. Then he randomly moved to Tennessee to work on his film company. If I could grow a beard and bloat like a dead person, I’d say our lives were eerily parallel.
(Mom, Dad – Mr Hodge was 29 and still waiting tables in the book before he figured out what to do with his art and history degrees. Just saying.)
To conclude: I highly recommend the book. It’s well researched, humorous, informative. And the chapter on the Civil WarGasm is one-of-a-kind. In fact, other reenactors from other time periods hold this book up as a factual account of life in the day of a reenactor. Which has to be worth something in somebody’s book. Like this one.