Confederates In The Attic

Dispatches From The Unfinished Civil War

By Maryanne Vollers

Published March 10, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

When I was single and living in New York, I used to go out with an expatriate South Carolinian. His name was Bo. We're talking Southern here. Cab drivers would strain to understand his accent, then ask him, "Where you from? England?" Instead of going out for lunch on our first date, Bo decided to spend the afternoon recounting the entire Battle of Gettysburg, complete with troop movements and sound effects, including one Confederate general bellowing, "Give 'em the cold steel, boys!" I was a Yankee, and this was Bo's way of introducing himself. The battlefield, quiet for the past 115 years, was as much a part of this Southern boy's identity as his hometown and his family name.

I'm telling you this because it explains why I enjoyed "Confederates in the Attic" so much. I kept shaking my head in recognition as Tony Horwitz described his expeditions to landmarks of the Civil War and, concurrently, the outer limits of the Southern mind. The War Between the States lives on in the South, where, as William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." The phenomenon is summed up nicely early in this book when the Oklahoma-born director of a national cemetery in Maryland says, "In school I remember learning that the Civil War ended a long time ago. Folks here don't always see it that way. They think it's still halftime."

Of course, this isn't news to anyone who has spent time in Dixie. But Horwitz manages to find fresh ways to tell the old story. He offers a panoply of characters who serve as tour guides into the mentality of undefeat, including iron-haired ladies from the Daughters of the Confederacy; Shelby Foote, gentle raconteur and oracle of the Lost Cause, who turns out to be sort of grumpy; and Manning Williams, an artist and latter-day secessionist from Charleston who endlessly labors at a Bosch-like painting he calls "Lincoln in Hell." But the centerpiece of the book is Horwitz's adventures with a hard-core Civil War reenactor and carpenter named Robert Lee Hodge. Total authenticity is Hodge's Holy Grail. He wears genuine uniforms (and never washes them), starves himself for a more accurate look and is widely admired for his ability to bloat his body like a Confederate corpse. Hodge recruits Horwitz for a demented weeklong blitz of Civil War battlefields dubbed the Civil Wargasm. Here Horwitz discovers one problem with writing about the South: Your material tends to upstage you. But the author makes the best of the situation. He is a skillful, sometimes hilarious writer with a keen eye for the absurd.

Horwitz argues that even as the South outwardly becomes more like the rest of America, white Southerners in their guilt and dismay cling ever more tightly to the romantic myths of the past. Blacks generally have a different attitude. One older man Horwitz meets at a Martin Luther King Day service has some advice for white Southerners who can't get past the Civil War: "I got one word for those folks -- Appomattox," he says. "The game's up, you lost. Get over it."

Horwitz, a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, tells us that in writing this book, he is serving his own childhood obsession with the Civil War. It's a fascination passed down through the males in his family, even though when the war was actually fought, Horwitz's own ancestors were escaping the Czarist pogrom in Russia. He presents the Civil War as the ultimate American -- and Americanizing -- experience, for better or worse.

This argument doesn't wash with the students in an Afrocentric history class Horwitz visits in Selma, Ala. To them, the Civil War was irrelevant -- just one bunch of white racists fighting another for power. "It's his-story," says one teenager, "as in his story, the white man's, not mine." Horwitz realizes with growing gloom that these black students were using the same rhetoric as neo-Confederates, who maintain the war wasn't about slavery, but state's rights. From these Selma kids and their Farrakhan-admiring teacher, the author learns that when it comes to clinging to self-defeating myths, no culture has a corner on the market.

Maryanne Vollers

Maryanne Vollers is the author of "Ghosts of Mississippi." She lives in Montana.

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