Confederates In The Attic Summary

Tony Horwitz

Confederates In The Attic

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Confederates In The Attic Summary

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Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Tony Horwitz published Confederates in the Attic in 1998. In it, he examines the connections that American citizens still have to the controversial Civil War that took place more than one hundred years earlier. He looks into and analyzes the feelings people still hold about the pivotal event in United States history as well as how information about it is passed on to new generations.

Horwitz is no stranger to environments of battle. He covered the Middle East and Bosnia as a war correspondent before his Civil War investigation. It is after his experiences overseas and returning to his homeland that his interest in the Civil War is rekindled and he goes in search of people who are still passionate about the topic. His quest takes him through the South where he finds what has come to be known as “The Lost Cause of the Confederacy” alive and well. The Lost Cause refers to an intellectual and literary school of thought which views the cause of the Confederacy to have been a heroic movement even though it was defeated. It downplays or ignores the role of slavery.

In the state of Virginia, the author spends time with a group that reenacts the war, going as far as to use starvation-like diets to appear as gaunt as some Confederates did. While in Kentucky, he sees rallies staged by the Klan and hears cries that encourage race riots. Continuing his research, Horwitz discovers that, at Andersonville, a prison commander executed for being a war criminal has risen to martyr status. Venues that the author uses to show the scope of the war’s legacy and the conflicting viewpoints surrounding it include the actual battlefields, but also courtrooms, classrooms, and ordinary local bars where the present and the long ago past do not necessarily coexist peacefully.

Horwitz presents the text in fifteen chapters that are organized by state. In the Carolinas, he came across people who continue to honor the Confederate flag at meetings and who believe the Confederacy will eventually, once again, become viable. In Tennessee, he meets with writer Shelby Foote, a respected Civil War historian and novelist, who suggests that Horwitz visit the Shiloh battlefield. In the states of Alabama and Georgia, he delves into the similarities between how the Civil War and the civil rights movement are viewed. He also goes on a tour of Civil War sites for a week, complete with clothing from the era, with Rob Hodge, a reenactor, as his guide.

One of the things the author finds out about the Civil War is that it remains a source of pride for various reasons in the minds of many United States citizens. To people like Rob Hodge, it has become part of the core of one’s own persona. Some see it as a link to their family heritage. Still, others hold the rebel flag and other representations of the Confederacy as reminders of the present day struggle to overcome feelings of oppression by the government and prevailing economic conditions. He discovers, not unexpectedly, that race is directly connected to symbols of the Confederate system, and he compares the viewpoints of blacks and whites with respect to the Civil War.

Horwitz does not ignore his personal connection and ideas about the war. He thinks about his own lifelong interest in the battle.  He is a liberal Jew from the North and his ancestors did not arrive in America until after the Civil War. As a young boy, he developed an interest in the story of the war that was shared with his father. He assumed at first that it was an attempt to bond with his father that led to his interest in the war, but he realizes it was more than just that simple explanation. He sees the battle as a turning point event, a defining American period, and a divisive time that paradoxically served to unify.

As Horwitz sees his interest in the Civil War as more than just a simple desire to connect with his father, the New York Times also finds a deeper meaning in the work he produced about it. “Nostalgia tinges Confederates in the Attic but seldom. One of the ironies of this book is that Horwitz is clearly a deep-dyed peace seeker. His judiciously balanced sympathies make him uncomfortable at times, caught between two camps fighting over turf. He longs for roots in the land. What he has is roots in intellectual honesty.” Publishers Weekly adds of the author, “He also mulls over his own theories about the lasting legacy of the war, arguing that it was as much a cultural battle between the mores of North and South as a military one. Horowitz’s rambling first-person narrative takes constant sidetracks and is made human with its self-effacing descriptions of his own foibles.”