Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Notes: Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

Tony Horwitz' book about the ongoing significance of America's Civil War manages to be fast-paced, educational, incisive, and thought-provoking whilst being a hugely entertaining romp through American landscapes, history, and culture. The title of the book is in itself worth commenting on. The 'attic' refers not merely to the sense that the Confederacy is present but hidden within America (like 'reds under the bed'!), but also more literally to the attic bedroom adorned with Civil War memorabilia that Horwitz occupied as a youngster, prior to coming to public attention as an award-winning international journalist. The sub-title of the book, "Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War" may come as a surprise to anyone who assumes that the South lost its cause when Lee surrendered to Grant or with the final fall of Richmond, VA. Horwitz' travels demonstrate that the iconic battles of 1861-5, remain psychologically and politically potent forces in the lives of many Americans today.

While in Europe, the victors of wars over the last century have developed a potent folklore and iconography of the conflict, the losers have sought to forge a new identity for themselves (don't mention the war, I did once, but I think I got away with it - Basil Fawlty). In Horwitz' estimation, the opposite has happened with the American Civil War. In the North, the 'American Civil War' has assumed a normal place in the history of the nation. However, for many of the Southerners he meets, 'The War of Northern Aggression', or the 'War Between States' - The Lost Cause still has remarkable cultural potency. Names such as Gen. Robert E. Lee, the patrician warrior, Stonewall Jackson the consummate soldier and 'martyr', and even the fearless, dangerous and psychopathic Nathan Bedford Forrest inspire awe. They also inspire legions of re-enactors, (like the chap on the book's cover, Robert Lee Hodge), some of whom take their re-enacting so seriously that they imitate the precise clothing, hardship, cold and malnutrition of Lee's outgunned, out-manned, outnumbered and under-supplied army. Huddled together for warmth on the precise place where the regiments camped, and fought, at precisely the right hour of the right day of the year, Horwitz travels with the hard-core re-enactors as they seek to relive something of the horrors of 1860s army life, and the terrors of battle at Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Wilderness, and Vicksburg.

In his travels through the battlefield of the South Horwitz meets the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, who at the soft end of the movement seek to honour fallen great-grandparents - but at the more sinister end espouse openly racist ideas. He meets the last surviving Confederate Widow (!), investigates the myths surrounding Gone With the Wind, and tells the appalling story of Andersonville the Confederate concentration camp in which 13,000 Union troops perished in the 'care' of war criminal Henry Wirz. He recoils at the way that the museum seeks to water-down or justify the genocide, and watches in disbelief at the Wirz memorial service. He also encounters African Americans who don't believe the war achieved anything, and espouse separation of races, as well as the family of a young man shot for displaying a Confederate flag.

While he does describe much of the history of the Civil War, Horwitz is as concerned with what it means now. He finds many intriguing and worry things as he goes. The young white man shot by Blacks 'for' displaying the Confederate flag both may have been provoking them in other ways and personally had little or no understanding of the meaning of the flag he displayed. The fact that racist groups have given money to the family and sought to make him the last Confederate martyr - demonstrates more about the ongoing potency of the Civil War imagery in contemporary interracial strife than it does about the actual incident.

Horwitz also explores whether it is possible to celebrate the Confederacy today without endorsing a white, right-wing, semi-fascist agenda. Confederate apologists like to re-cast the conflict in terms of a struggle for States rights in which they the underdog, the victim were overwhelmed by the overbearing power of the advancing Federal government (Tea-party, anyone?!). Northern attempts to portray Lincoln's war as an act of self-sacrifice from the North on behalf of its oppressed Southern Black citizens are equally spin-doctored. Horwitz describes himself as a Northern Liberal Jew - but yet as a child he had huge admiration for the dashing Confederate troops who fought so bravely, in such dreadful conditions in an unwinable war of attrition against a superior enemy. Despite the Southern romantic legend of Stonewall Jackson - and standing where he lost his arm in his final fatal injury, Horwitz can't face wearing the Southern Uniform with the re-enactors. The war may have been about 'States Rights', but the 'right' in question they wished to exercise was that of oppressing millions of people into the savagery of indentured servitude. He continues his trip with the hard core re-enactors, but in the dark-blue of the North.

He finds other people too who struggle handle the legacy of the Civil War. In Richmond, Virginia, from where Jeff Davis ruled the doomed Confederacy, Horwitz finds statues of him and the great Generals of the slave-state, like Lee, Jackson and JEB Stuart, all built while whites were reclaiming the South after Reconstruction. To some Virginianians these are great symbols of Southern Pride - and a statement of defiance against Northern Federal dominance. To others they represent the memories of fallen ancestors. To others they represent the twisted aspiration to reverse the progress of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s & 60s and restore a Jim Crow system. When Horwitz was there a debate was raging about these statues. Should they be pulled down in honour of Black-equality and political power in the contemporary city - or left as historical markers. More potent than that - the suggestion had been made to cast a statue of local Black hero, tennis legend Arthur Ashe and place it in Monument Avenue. Arthur's statue was to be much smaller than Jackson, Davis or Lee - but would his presence there be a sign of progress or would it demean his legacy by placing him in the shadow of those who would have oppressed his grand-parents? More significantly - would placing Ashe there play-down the crimes of the Confederacy's racist war? Today Ashe stands proudly in Richmond. The past may not be reconciled, but its complexity is represented.

This is a really, really good read. Horwitz is an astute observer, and a very good writer. His storytelling from history is as good as his interactions with the present. He is as solid in his rejection of bigotry as he is in his good-natured appreciation for people with all their eccentricities, and history. The book is actually more amusing because he resists the obvious writer's temptation to mock or ridicule people who want to lie in wet-trenches dressed in 1860s battle fatigues (etc); but lies with them, smiles with them and seeks to enter their world and experience. The nod to the 'real world' of friends and family who thinks such weekend pastimes are ludicrous, is then not condemnatory, but shared with his friends lying with him in the Gettysburg field

I recently blogged about how much I had enjoyed reading Stuart Maconie's book about Britain, in which he mixes travel-writing, autobiography, history, culture and politics by travelling around key British historical sites and examining how their legacy interacts with the present. I hadn't come across anyone else writing in that strange intersection of genres - but when I got to the States and stumbled across Horwitz, I was delighted. This is great stuff.

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