Toward the conclusion of Tony Horwitz's splendid Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, his odyssey through the South reaches Atlanta, or what some who cling to an ideal of Southern character refer to as "the anti-South." Horwitz chronicles the multiplicity of meanings affixed to the old Confederacy in the New South, and Atlanta provides an example as to why memories of the rebel yell are still so precious outside the metropolis' beltway. The "New York of the South" is one of the few places in the region that has sloughed off its Confederate heritage, but it has found little to replace it but the dull monoculture of Anywhere, U.S.A. "It was impossible to travel the South without getting trapped in Atlanta's tentacled airport," Horwitz writes, "or being blitzed by TV images of the city's bland skyline, its relentless boosterism, its bloodlessly efficient baseball team. Atlanta loomed in my imagination like a blimp-sized smile button." Horwitz quotes Southern observer John Shelton Reed, who best depicts the contrast Atlanta poses to those places that still honor the gray-clad rebel: "Every time I look at Atlanta, I see what a quarter million Confederate soldiers died to prevent."
After reading Horwitz's expository travelogue, even those alarmed by the resurgence of Confederate-flag logos and T-shirts that display those stars and bars with an itchin'-for-a-fight slogan "You wear your X and I'll wear mine" might begin to understand, if not admire, the appeal of Johnny Reb in an increasingly homogenized America, however dubious that appeal becomes when the encrusted myth begins to dissolve and "states' rights issues" are spelled out as "the preservation of slavery."
In Horwitz's march through the South, he expresses the profound, tragicomic complexity of the issues surrounding the Confederate-heritage pose. He doesn't do this from the comfort of an air-conditioned car or the Holiday Inn, either. Horwitz sleeps in dew-dampened fields with Civil War re-enactors or, as they prefer to be called, "living historians" or "historical interpreters" huddled close together in an authentic configuration known as "spooning" to maintain warmth. He goes on a "Civil Wargasm," a one-week high-speed trek to battlefields North and South dressed in fetid soldier costumes with hardcore re-enactor Robert Lee Hodge, who is known for among other "hardcore" acts "doing the bloat," a re-creation of the grotesque attitude of death captured in Matthew Brady photographs. Horwitz visits Shiloh and finds that the myths surrounding such romantic battle zones as Hornet's Nest and Sunken Road may indeed be little more than myths. He meets with Shelby Foote at the writer's home in Memphis, where the star of Ken Burns' Civil War series lives in a kind of historian's purgatory, forever answering phone calls from those in need of some snippet of lore from the master. He arrives in Guthrie, Ky. (birthplace of the late poet laureate Robert Penn Warren), where a shooting incident has left a white boy dead and a black boy in jail. The fact that the white boy flew a Confederate flag turns a tragic circumstance the result of all-too-common male-adolescent stupidity into a magnet for the KKK and other hate groups posing as guardians of the South. Guthrie, a town that was pro-Union during the Civil War, becomes the burial place of yet another Confederate "martyr."
Confederates in the Attic is a fascinating collection of such ironies, as Horwitz tells of the complexities of history that are all far more intriguing than the stereotypes. During a telephone interview, Horwitz decries "history being left to either Hollywood or companies like Disney that want to use theme parks to as they put it "make the Civil War fun with a capital F.' There are the inevitable distortions and sanitations that come with that. But also, what I found visiting Shiloh and other battlefields is that you don't need to give people bells and whistles and propeller hats, the way Disney seems to think, if you give them the real thing. In that sense I was also encouraged. There's actually a tremendous appetite out there for authentic history, but unfortunately, by and large, our educational system isn't providing it. Nor is our entertainment industry."
At the far end of the historical spectrum from Disney are the re-enactors, especially hardcores such as Hodge, with whom Horwitz shares a mosquito-infested shelter on a rain-drenched night on the Wargasm. Horwitz has a respect for people who go to such extremes to resist the proliferation of virtual experience. "I admire anybody who is that passionate about the past in a culture that's so forgetful of history. They're almost bohemian in some ways in their quest for authentic history, authentic material culture, authentic experience in a time when most people only want to experience the past on the computer screen or in the movie theater or in some packaged, franchise way."
Many re-enactors are rebelling against the 20th century more than they are upholding the honor of the glorious Lost Cause, but Horwitz observes that those so drawn to the Civil War also approach it with selective blind spots. "The mantra of the re-enactor is "We're not here to debate slavery or states' rights. We're here to remember the experience of the common soldier, North and South.' It's really the war as spectacle, which in one sense is a worthwhile exercise in terms of understanding what it was like to be a soldier. But you can't deal with the Civil War without also dealing with the passions and many real issues underlying it."
Throughout Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz maintains a passionate ambivalence toward his subject matter. He recognizes how the national, and international, love of the Confederacy, for the most part "isn't really tied to the politics. It's because of popular culture this image of the romantic rebel has come down to us through the ages. A lot of people latch onto that, and that's why you see truckers with rebel flags on their bumpers. They're not, in general, making a regional or racial statement. They're just sort of saying, "I'm a badass.'"
But he sees the less romantic implications of the Confederate revival as well. "There's this resurgent pride in the South that's reflected in this reclaiming of Confederate heritage. White Southerners are looking around and saying, African- Americans, Jewish Americans, Italian-Americans everybody is taking pride in their roots, and we have some roots we're proud of, too. The danger is that pride becomes prejudice."
Horwitz leaves his re-enactor friends, and this exploration of the Civil War, behind at Gettysburg to "put away childish things" and return to his wife and newborn son. That son is 3 now, not yet old enough for toy soldiers stained gray and blue. Horwitz has taken his son on a visit to Gettysburg, though. "He kept asking, "Who are the bad guys?'" says Horwitz. And, true to the approach he takes in his book, he reports, "I wasn't sure I wanted to take sides."
Tony Horwitz discusses Confederates in the Attic at Left Bank Books at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 29.
Eddie Silva Tony HorwitzSHADES OF GRAY