3rd Oct 2005

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Blog :: What do you have in your attic?

The most amusing book I've read recently is Confederates in the Attic.  Tony Horwitz impressively captures the, well, just plain oddness of many American's reaction to the Civil War.  I myself am only a very mild Civil War buff: I devoured the 11 hour Ken Burns documentary The Civil War at least two or three times as child.  Since then I've read enough popular history (the excellent Shelby Foote Trilogy also entitled The Civil War) as well as historical fiction (the Shaara trilogy, for instance) to be able to argue about the course and causes of the war, the decisions of the generals at major battles, and to speculate about the life and death of the ordinary soldier (does the name "Sullivan Ballou" send chills down your spine?)

This is enough obsession about a war that was fought nearly a century and a half ago that some have occasionally thought me strange.  I must say, after reading Confederates in the Attic, that they have no idea what they're talking about.  Tony Horwitz started on a journey to the major monuments of the Civil War and discovered the world of the hardcore re-enactors. Dress only in period clothing, starve yourself to approximate the physical condition of people of the time and go out in the woods to march for a few days with other hardcore reenactors all to get a "period high".  Be sure to keep warm by spooning with your comrades, unless of course it's your turn on guard duty, and you've discovered hardcore reenacting. Strange doesn't begin to describe it.

Horwitz covers his star struck interview with a funny and profane Shelby Foote (the book is worth it for this story alone), with a southern artist specializing in pictures of Lincoln in hell, and with the Daughter/Sons of the Confederacy (complete with Confederate Catechism). He details some of his near violent experiences with people who take the Civil War very seriously.  (little tip for you: don't try to answer difficult Civil War Trivia at an annual Jackson/Lee Confederacy Birthday party when slightly drunk.  Sample Question: General Lee's most famous mount was Traveller.  Name another.  Dangerously drunken answer: Mary Custis Lee?...)

Eventually Horwitz is able to examine issues of politics and race, as some americans still do, through the lens of the remembrance and history of the Civil War.  While veering into more politically liberal answers to some of the questions he raisies than I would prefer, Horwitz deals with the real, complicated, and multifaceted people who still react passionately to the Civil War. I heartily recommend Confederates in the Attic to two kinds of people: those who are Civil War buffs, and those who are not.

Posted on Oct 3rd 2005, 12:37 AM