“Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz

I initially thought the photo on the cover was a Civil War soldier, but actually he’s Robert Lee Hodge, a particularly “super hardcore” (vs “farb-y”) reenactor — or “living historian,” if you will. These guys spend lots of time and money getting period-specific gear, down to the correct stitching on shirts and semi-edible rations of slightly rancid pork-belly. They camp out in open fields in freezing weather and revel in tick bites and going hungry, all to achieve the “period high,” a sort of communion with what their forebears (usually, but not always) endured during the Civil War. (They don’t usually participate in actual battle reenactments though; it’s kind of hard to be authentic in that regard without real bullets.)

Why the Civil War fosters such devotion, and how the War is remembered today, are the focus of this book.  Tony travels throughout much of the South looking for answers.  As one individual he meets states, “The North has forgotten the War but the South is still fighting it.”  The book is a good 15 years old or so now; but I think a lot of the reporting is still true.

The controversy over displaying the Confederate battle flag seems to embody a lot of the attitudes surrounding the remembrance of the war. Some white southerners rightly regard it as a symbol of their heritage. Even more often, though, it seems to have become a symbol of continued rebellion against the system: “The banner seemed instead to have floated free from its moorings in time and place and become a generalized ‘F You,’ a middle finger raised with ulceric fury in the face of blacks, school officials, authority in general – anyone or anything that could shoulder some blame for [their] difficult lives.”

In 1995, 19-year-old Michael Westerman was shot by a group of black teenagers after displaying the flag on his truck. Flag supporters and white supremacist groups hailed him as “the last Civil War martyr,” dying for honoring the Cause of his great-grandfathers.  But really, as Tony found out from his girlfriend, he just thought the flag looked good on his red truck.  The shooter didn’t know anything about the War either; just that for some reason whites knew that blacks hated the “Dukes of Hazzard” flag and like to rub it in their faces. Funny, but sad.

White and black Southern history has yet to be integrated.  “You Wear Your X, I’ll Wear Mine” — meaning the Confederate battle flag “X” and the “X” symbolizing Malcolm X.  However, ironically enough, each group honors more or less the same ideals of sacrifice, courage, and honor.  At a Civil Rights memorial, the speaker “urged the audience to remember the martyrs and the ’cause for which they fought.’ I realized I’d heard all this before…Almost every sentence began to carry familiar echoes…marching all day and sleeping in the fields between Selma and Montgomery – just as rebel soldiers had done in Virginia. She recalled other hallowed fields of battle – Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Little Rock – which resonated with her audience as powerfully as Sharpsburg and Shiloh did for many white Southerners.”

The passages on Civil War reenactors are a bit more lighthearted:

“Casualties are a problem. Nobody wants to drive three hours to get here, then go down in the first five minutes and spend the day lying on cowpies.”

“Suddenly, drums began banging to our rear. I turned and saw about a hundred tourists marching behind us, evidently inspired by our example….’Sir, the Tourists of Northern Virginia are close on our rear.'”

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