On one of the hottest days last summer, Nathan and I went on an excursion to Gettysburg National Military Park. Despite the 90-degree-plus temperatures, I remember getting goosebumps when we stood at the marker denoting the location of the Union line when thousands of Confederates plunged across a mile-wide field in the infamous Pickett's Charge. When I closed my eyes, I could imagine a sea of bedraggled gray rushing across the bare field to almost certain death.
I wish I had written down the quotation that was on the plaque at that spot, spoken by one of the Union soldiers who survived the battle; this is the best that I can reconstruct it: "Watching those soldiers cross that field, I couldn't help but be proud that these brave men--rebels or not--were my countrymen."
For this reason alone--that countryman fought countryman--the Civil War will never cease to fascinate. But there are other reasons--some subtle, some obvious--why the Civil War still romances us. In Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, Horwitz explores the idea that the South is still obsessed with the War by traveling the former Confederate States of America, interviewing strangers, cozying up to reenactors (that weird-looking dude on the cover is a hardcore Rebel reenactor), touring battlefields and other historic sites, and attending weird meetings of groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans. What he discovers is at times disturbing and tragic, other times intriguing and amusing.
Tony Horwitz beautifully intertwines history and sociology into a respectful, fact-filled book. He writes about the details that I like best: not battle statistics or military strategies, but the humanity of the Rebels and the Yankees and of the Americans who still feel its echoes today, nearly 150 years after the last battle was fought.
The Civil War has been so romanticized that it is jarring to realize that more than a half a million men died fighting in it. If the Civil War itself is romanticized, the Rebels and the Confederate way of life are doubly so... and this is one of the conclusions that Horwitz draws about the South's continued obsession with the War. The fact is that those Johnny Rebs were a romantic image: they fought to defend their way of life, they were often astonishingly brave in battle, they were country boys from the land of belles in hoop skirts standing on porches of antebellum homes. And of course, they LOST the war. All these things lend themselves to the idea of a romantic "lost cause." (Of course, Gone with the Wind helped to perpetuate the romantic Rebel image worldwide.)
By the end, Horwitz, I think, draws the same conclusion that I would. It's one thing--an admirable thing, even--to revere history and to celebrate the bravery of one's Confederate ancestors, and yet quite another to live stuck in the past of oppression. There's a fine line between celebrating history and perpetuating racism.
Grade: 4.5/5 stars
This is Nathan (right) and his brother, Grant, at Gettysburg when they were wee lads. Ironically, though I've lived in Pennsylvania all my life and have been to all 50 states, I'd never been to Gettysburg before. These little Buckeyes beat me to it.