War Stories

There has been no dearth, in the past 133 years, of reading material on the Civil War and its continued reverberations. But in recent months an unusually large number of books have been published that deal with the causes, the meaning and the effects of the war on our social relations.Among the most readable of the recent crop is Tony Horwitz's "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War". Alternately hilarious and heartrending, "Confederates in the Attic" takes the reader on a lengthy, purposeful wander through the territory of the former Confederate States of America. Passing through the South old and new, we visit with an amazing array of people, white and black, of diverse beliefs and opinions about the South, its symbols and emblems, its history and possible future.Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the "Wall Street Journal", spent nearly 10 years overseas covering wars in Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, Beirut, Palestine, Israel, Sudan, Northern Ireland and Romania. "It was very exciting," he told me when he was in town for a reading, "but less and less so."Tiring of what he calls "a young person's game," Horwitz returned to the States with his Australian-born wife, also a journalist. They were intent on finding a quiet country home from which they could telecommute, so they settled into a tiny village in the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia."Then, early one morning, the Civil War crashed into my bedroom," he tells us. "A loud popping noise crackled just outside our window. 'Is that what I think it is?' Geraldine asked, bolting awake ... I went to the window and saw men in gray uniforms firing muskets on the road in front of our house. Then a woman popped up from behind a stone wall and yelled 'Cut!' The firing stopped and the Confederates collapsed in our yard. I brewed a pot of coffee, gathered some mugs and went outside."In that peaceful village that had once been a battlefield, Horwitz' childhood obsession with the Civil War flared again. And he discovered that, while he was overseas, many Americans had caught the same bug. "It seemed as though the black and white photographs I'd studied as a child had blurred together, forming a Rorschach blot in which Americans now saw all sorts of unresolved strife: over race, sovereignty, the sanctity of historic landscapes, and who should interpret the past," Horwitz writes, prefacing his tale. Of course, this is not a really a new thing: We've all been obsessed with that war ever since it started. But what with Ken Burns' PBS documentary and movies like "Glory" and "Gettysburg", even people who have never picked up one of the 60,000 or so books extant on the period know enough to be dangerous. The Civil War, its lead-up and continuing aftermath have always been more than history to us. We array the legends, marshal the facts, deploy the symbols of this great and terrible time in as a way of both pondering the mystery of our identity and boldly asserting it. We mix together what we know, what we wish, what we long for, into brews of explosive potential.It is this mix of history, fantasy and nostalgia that Horowitz explores during his turn in the South. As anyone who's ever been in the South knows, we -- white and black -- are a bunch of intricate and paradoxical characters. Horwitz is no more able to unravel the paradoxes than we are ourselves, but he sure shows us a good time trying.Horwitz sets his tone early in the first chapter with the description of the battle scene in his yard. He is ever curious, always ready to walk into the unknown and start asking questions and talking to folks, and he is equally ready to appreciate the humorous, not to say totally absurd, situations he come across -- like the "hardcore" Civil War re-enactors in his yard that day. These latter-day Confederates are part of a surprisingly large subculture that goes way beyond dressing up and playing army."They sought absolute fidelity to the 1860s: it's homespun clothing, antique speech patterns, sparse diet and simple utensils. Adhered to properly," Horwitz tells us, "this fundamentalism produces a time-travel high, or what hardcores called a 'period rush.'"Horwitz uses this culture, and especially one extreme practitioner of it, Robert Lee Hodge (he's the man on the book's cover), to help explore the South's Civil War history and contemporary actuality as seen through the lens of myth and memory. What he finds is by turns deeply encouraging, enraging, horrifying and depressing. Horwitz himself becomes intermittently dispirited, his enthusiastic curiosity waning as he grows a little more identified with the South and a little more entangled in the intractable racial problems that Civil War remembrance often brings to a head.Throughout his trip, he listens over and over to the same refrain pass for tolerance: "My history and his-story. You Wear Your X, I'll Wear Mine. Both races sealing themselves off from each other." He finds an armed detente with symbols as weapons: the X of Malcolm and the X of the Confederate battle flag.Horwitz also discovers other things besides racism and right wing politics, distrust and self-segregation. He finds many good-hearted people wrestling with important questions, like how do you respectfully remember your ancestors for what was good in them, yet not deny or make light of the wrong they did? Is there a way to honor the Confederate soldier without offending the descendants of slaves? Can my story and your story add up to our history?"Confederates in the Attic" beguiles with its blend of vivid, empathetic journalism, lucidly told history, and travel-adventure story. Horwitz does incredible research and shapes his epic gracefully, beginning and ending with personal revelations and meditations. He weaves his strands together well, letting his subjects reveal his themes to us with their own stories.I wish in the end, though, that he had done a little more analysis, a little more to tell us what he thought it all might mean. But that is a small quibble. I learned a great deal (who knew there were Neo-Confederate Websites?) and took pleasure in following Horwitz's eager mind through this ambiguous and confusing terrain to the central question he expresses so clearly near the book's end."The issues at stake in the Civil War -- race in particular -- remain raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation?" If you care about that question, you will find much to consider in this fine book."Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War," by Tony Horwitz, Pantheon Books, $27.50

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