Many people all over the country, not just Northerners and Southerners, are fascinated by the Civil War. This is evident in Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. As a child, Horwitz had a passion for all things related to the Civil War and most especially the underdog Rebel soldier.
As an adult, Horwitz resumes his childhood passion shortly after moving to Virginia. Horwitz is awakened one morning by Confederate and Rebel soldiers firing muskets in the road in front of his house. He steps outside and becomes acquainted with a group of “hardcore” Civil War reenactors (fundamentalists, if you will). These people (mostly men although there are some women and children participating) travel the Civil War circuit, from one battlefield to another, reenacting and reminiscing the lives of soldiers who fought in the war. We get to see soldiers “spooning” to keep warm on cold nights as they try to sleep on the cold, hard ground with no shelter. We see them marching, with real blisters on their poorly shod or bare feet, for miles and miles as the soldiers did during the war. We also see them falling on the battlefield—one soldier in particular having perfected the art of bloating to mimic a fallen soldier whose body would have lain on the battlefield for a couple of days before being buried. And Horwitz spends a whirlwind week in a “Civil Wargasm” with one of the reenactors—a week packed with as many battlefields as they can physically get to while also reading and learning about many of the soldiers who fought and died there.
Horwitz spends more than a year traveling throughout the South, visiting battlegrounds and cities affected by the war, talking to people whose sympathies lie on one side or the other, although occasionally both. We see people mourning the loss of a way of life that they didn’t even experience in their own lifetimes. We see people resentful of black people who have the audacity to believe they are equal to white citizens. We also see insensitive, Confederate-flag-waving Southerners who refuse to consider the impact their actions have on others. And we see obnoxious, loud and rowdy, disgruntled Southerners getting the attention of the rest of the nation, while giving the South a bad name.
You might think you understand the Civil War and what it was about, for the most part. You might also think you understand how the people of the South must feel about losing the Civil War. You probably think that the war was a terrible time in the country’s history, with many lives lost, but it’s over now and the country has moved on. Think again. Many Southerners still think of the Civil War as the War Between the States, and they also believe that it is still going on. There are people in the South who have a good grasp of reality and know that the South lost the fight more than 140 years ago, and they have come to terms with that history, but there are also plenty of people in the South who refuse to believe that the fight is over.
Horwitz ends his book as he began it—still trying to pin down the feelings and motivations of the people of the South as they relate to the Civil War so that he might understand them better. Although we see that many people (both black and white) have managed, for the most part, to leave the past in the past where it belongs, we are left with the feeling that there are still way too many people in the South who won’t let go of that past. It feels as if they are waiting for an opportunity to prove to the rest of the country (particularly the North) that they can, and will, whup somebody's *** if given the chance.