Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

 

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Tony: Welcome to the first joint book review by Tony and Cash. I decided to say Tony and Cash instead of Cash and Tony because the first sounded like Tango and Cash, and that is a good reason to do anything.

Cash: I’ll allow you to lead this time since you finished your review first and I’m much too lazy to type out anything to take the place of what you put there.  Basically, we’re going to review a book and then Tony will throw three questions at me and I’ll throw three at him.  Then the review will end.  Because that’s what reviews ultimately do.  So, without further delay, here’s the first review for Two Guys, One Book!

 
Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

 
Tony: “I abhor the idea of a perfect world,” Foote said. “It would bore me to tears.” There were a lot of quotes that jumped out at me in this book, but this one really encapsulated a lot about of the themes brilliantly presented by Horwitz. As Tony (great first name by the way) travels throughout the old Confederacy, he taps into many of the big issues still percolating from the Civil War. From people who love re-enactments to disagreements in how the war is taught and discussed to raw feelings about slavery and race from the 1800’s and the perhaps even more raw feelings surrounding race in the present day, Horwitz shows that remembering the Civil War and moving past it are not simple things at all.

Civil War re-enactments are a big deal as business and culture in the mid 1990’s when this book was published, and I presume still today. To the outsider, this seems silly, and let’s not pretend that it doesn’t have some innate silliness to it, but through just a few meetings in this book, you begin to empathize with some of the way of thinking. Looking back on the 1800’s, life seemed simpler, even if it was harder. In the 1990’s, people had to deal with a barrage of challenges, including rent, phone, cable, water, electric and other bills and endless news and information from print and TV media that connected the world, making it smaller but also more complex. Since this book was published, life has gotten only more complicated with the internet, Facebook and Twitter shoving the world in your face.

It’s no wonder some people might want to get away to a simpler time.

Tony Horwitz asked Mike Hawkins, whom he meant at a Lee-Jackson meeting celebrating the Confederacy, if life back then was better. Hawkins says: “Not better… I mean, my great great grandpap got his leg shot off. But I feel like it was bigger somehow. At work, I mix dyes and put them in a machine. I’m thirty six and I’ve spent almost half my life in Dye House No. 1. I make eight dollars sixty-one cents an hour, which is okay, ‘cept everyone says the plant will close and go to China. I just feel like the South has been given a bum deal ever since that War.”

There we have what sums up so many of the pro-Confederacy views. Hawkins isn’t just an aww shucks great guy mind you, he’s full of paranoid conspiracy theories, obsessed with the Civil War, and, well, let’s just say he’s not the biggest fan of racial equality. But still you understand why people would share his views. As one person points out in the book, people generally say that the US has never lost a war, but they don’t feel that way in the South. And with the romanticized remembrances of mansions and wealth in pre-Reconstruction South, people who are working shit jobs for shit pay can look back at history and say “hey, things used to be better for people like me and this isn’t fair.”

Of course, it wasn’t fair then either. As Horwitz points out, very few people in the South had multiple slaves and life really wasn’t all the great for the majority of people. The so-called 99% of the confederacy didn’t have it any better than the 99% of today, but while history books are written by the winners, it is also remembered with rose colored glasses by the losers. There’s a lot of talk of “what might have been” if the South has just won one more battle and an unwillingness to move on as if it is a preposterous idea. But it’s not always easy to move on when you feel slighted, no matter when or if it really happened the way you think.

Horwitz goes into terrific depth on race and how it is not as simple as “white people are still racist and that is ruining the South.” When he visits classrooms, you see that it’s not just white people who seem to cling to the idea that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Black students look around at the great inequality and say “see? We’re still getting a bad rap, it isn’t any better now than then!” The irony of course being that they are saying that IN A CLASSROOM, something that wouldn’t happen in the 1860’s.

The look back at the Confederacy is a lot like the end to the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. In that movie, the US had helped the Afghans defeat the Russians and then decided not to invest in schools, government, and infrastructure in Afghanistan. Sure the major threat had been extinguished, but the underlying issues took just too much effort for anyone to fix. After the Civil War, slavery ended and the union was preserved, but the major issues of economic inequality and racial justice never really got resolved and now white people still feel separated by the federal government and black people still feel like they are in chains, the feeling exasperated on all sides by a rosy view of a not so rosy time.

I gave this book five stars because there was a lot of depth, the writing was strong, and it was thoughtful and thought provoking. Whether you know much about the Civil War or not, it is highly recommended.

 

Cash: When I was in eighth grade, my history professor arranged for some re-enactors to come to our school.  They set up in the big field with their tents and such and even had a cannon that they later fired off (unloaded of course).  They entertained the questions of a young group of kids that had limited knowledge of the Civil War, but I kind of stayed quiet through the whole deal.  The Rebels did not talk with an accent at all and it was just strange to me to see how they acted.  Maybe I should inform you at this point that this was at Anacapa Middle School in Ventura, California.  My name is Cash Melville and I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to parents from the South.  I’ve been back since I was in ninth grade and I do not have much of the California Kid left in me nowadays.  I do  not hear the term “Civil War” very often.  “War Between the States”, “War for States Rights”, and “War of Northern Aggression” are not uncommon things to hear when people are talking about the domestic conflict between the North and the South.

Confederates in the Attic is both a problematic book for me and a book that I think every person in the country should read that has ever said anything like, “Damn Yankees!” (and are not talking about the baseball team) or “Stupid Backwater Racist Southerners!”  The author, Tony Horwitz, captures so many perspectives in the book that I really believe that any person who reads the novel will see the ideas they have in their head both confirmed and challenged.  Do you think that Southerners are racist?  You’ll see them in full force here!  Do you think that Northerners kind of have a detachment from the reality of being in the modern South?  You’ll meet them here.  You’ll also see Southerners that are anything but racist and Northerners who are well informed and have some empathy for the perspectives Southerners might have.

If you’re from the North, why should you read this?  The way Horwitz handles the South (which he travels through for the majority of the book) gives people multiple perspectives on the reasons that Southerners have the perspectives they do about the country.  You see why people from the South like to preserve the Confederate Battle Flag and how they actually seem to have quality logic behind their reasons… but then you see why they are flawed in their ability to see why it might bother the black people that live a few streets over or even right across the street.  This book will confirm every stereotype you have ever seen written about Southerners.  Uneducated by choice?  In places.  Selective memory?  Yep.  Racist white people?  You bet.  But then you see the other side towards the end of the book.  When Horwitz travels through Alabama, he encounters a classroom of black kids that are aged around sixteen and seventeen.  When he asks them what the Civil War meant to them, he gets this in response:

“Nothing,” […] “It’s his-story,” a teenager named Percy said.  “As in his story, the white man’s, not mine.”

I pointed out this wasn’t really so.  “Blacks fought in the War and slavery ended because of it.”

“No it didn’t!” a girl named Ni’key declared. “We just don’t call it slavery anymore.”

I changed tacks.  “When I say the words ‘Abraham Lincoln,’ what’s the first thing that comes into your head?”

“Benevolent racist.”

“Just racist.”

“He had slaves.” (Horwitz 367)

This is just one example, but it shows that it is not just one side working against the other.  Later on in that section, the teacher actually reasons out with the students that just because someone fought in that war they should not be scorned and forgotten and uses Vietnam as an example… and then immediately follows this up with a proclamation that the “Civil War is still going on.” […] The Only difference is that the Union army has betrayed us too.  So we’re fighting a confederacy up North and South.”  This is the dangerous line of thinking from both sides in the South that I really would like people to see.  Horwitz shows that everyone is flawed in the argument in some way.

So… why should you read it if you are from the South?  Are you confused as to why people think that you are backwards and uneducated?  Ever wonder why they might think you are a racist?  Confused as to why the Confederate battle flag argument is viewed as being a race issue in places?  The answers are in this book.  There’s always been the argument that “it’s part of our culture and part of our vernacular” for using the same terms.  If I told you that I had never called a Brazil nut by the slang name for it, I’d be telling you one hell of a lie (and let it be known that my parents were very good about not using any ‘isms like that around me when I was growing up… other relatives… not so much).  Do I need to ultimately strike that from my vocabulary?  Of course!  Will it take time?  Sure.  That’s the thought that a lot of Southerners have when they are pressured by Northerners to change.  Our answer is always, “Change takes time…”  I think that if a Southerner read this book, they would probably understand that maybe we should move a little bit faster in our changing of some things.  As I said earlier, I am not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.  I tend to think that there are trashy white people just like there are trashy black people and just trashy people in general.  Have I been guilty, even recently of focusing too much on one of the groups mentioned?  Yes.  After reading this book, I can already see a little bit of a change in my reactions.  I think that is the best reason for a person from the South to read this book.  It forces you to have some self-reflection on your own culture.  I love Southern culture, I really do… but a lot of the times, the good parts are not focused on and only the bad is pointed out.  Horwitz balances it so that as a Southerner, you see the good, the bad, and the very very ugly of Southern life.  Maybe even realize that what you were taught in school might be a liiiiitle bit biased.

The sections where he talks about the battlefields and visiting them are incredibly vivid and really made me want to go and visit a lot of those places.  I am personally jealous that Tony lives close enough to Gettysburg to get to it easier than me.  My fiancé and I have already planned a trip to Vicksburg to see that area.  I think that the uniting reason for all Americans to read this book is to see how suburbia is swallowing up the history of the War.  That was probably the most depressing aspect of the whole book to me.

I’ve had the luxury of living in a few different places throughout my life.  I’ve lived in central and southern California, southern Texas, and both southern and northern Louisiana and that gives me a really interesting perspective on race/ethnic relations.  A friend from California has told me how he cannot believe the way Southern society treats black people and then in the next sentence talk about how the “damn Mexicans” are taking jobs and so on and so forth; Northerners who do the same with a wide variety of ethnicities due to it being such a melting pot up there.  Prejudice exists everywhere.  When people ask me about how we (Southerners) can have so much segregation in our society it really presents a quandary.  If I was unable to articulate to them the reasons why it exists (I personally think that we segregate ourselves in society and it is absolutely stupid), I would want to hand them this book.  I think that is the largest amount of praise that I could possibly heap on a book.  You want understanding?  You want to laugh at wackos on both sides?  You want perspective?  Here you go.  Horwitz is incredibly unbiased in how he handles everything.

If the purpose of a non-fiction book is to learn about a subject from as unbiased a perspective as you possibly can… this book hits on every level.  That being said, I’m giving it FIVE STARS and it’s one of my favorite books of all time.
That being said.  Southerners are more polite and hospitable.  That’s no stereotype!

 


Three Questions
:

 

Tony:  Since it’s been about 15 years since this book came out, do you see any differences today? Are things more entrenched or less?

Cash: I think that things are mostly the same.  Interestingly enough, I think there is more venom now that President Obama is in office.  It just really heightened the issues around the area that I live and made it really feel uncomfortable for awhile.  I think that it is hard for me personally because you can quiz someone about issues and when you tell them that they just agreed with everything on (back then) the McCain ticket, they still go, “Well, I’m voting for Obama because he’s black.”  On the flip side, you can get people to agree with something Obama has done and then tell them and they will still go, “Well, he’s just a _____ and I don’t like him!”  Tensions feel high to me, but I think that is because I work in a retail store and you see a LOT when you work in the public.

Did this change your opinion on some of the people in the South and what they actually are trying to accomplish in places?

Tony: Yes and no, but probably more no. That’s because the book shows how people don’t have the same goals or ideas and because I already felt some of the themes touched on here. It’s interesting, because a lot of the problems in the South about race in present day aren’t much different in the rest of the country. There is still self segregation and tensions, except now instead of black/white, there are tensions between white, black, latino, Indian, hell even Sikh! Eric Holder got a lot of crap in 2009 for saying we were cowards when it came to talking about race, and I think he’s right and nobody is truly innocent there.

Anyway, I can definitely empathize with re-enactors and history buffs looking back happily on this time period. I bristle when I hear people really do want to go back in time or to “take our country back” to some mythologized time period, because you can’t just take the good, you have to accept the bad too. That said though, today’s world is clearly more complex. Every nation is connected, we’re constantly in communication with the Internet and cell phones, and we have to pay a dozen bills a month, plus pay to fuel our cars. Whether you like the Civil War time period, or just like to go fishing, there’s a lot of reasons to long for a simpler time.

It seems like everybody is afraid to really delve into the complicated issues of history. The textbooks in the South even minimized the Civil War. Why do you think that is and could it change?

Cash: I was actually surprised to read about textbooks minimizing the Civil War because we spent a LOT of time on it in school.  I will admit that what I was taught was that the war was really started mostly over tariffs.  My teacher always told us that, accompanied by the issue of slavery being brought to the forefront was the perfect storm of what wound up happening.  I think that in other places it is minimized because nobody likes to talk about something they lost.  Athletes clearly hate going into those press conferences after they have just lost a championship to talk about what they did wrong.  People still feel the sting in the South and I really could not tell you how long it will take for that to go away or if it even will in my generation.  If more people read this book that are in charge though, they would probably have a change of heart about their curriculums.

Have you ever been to a re-enactment?

Tony: The closest I’ve come is to go to a famous cemetery nearby that had actors “rise from the grave” to tell their stories, including someone from this time period. I’m in Pennsylvania, so I could go to Gettysburg, but that’s not really that convenient to get to and I have no real desire to either watch something like that all day or spend the time participating. It sounds cool enough though, and who am I to judge how people enjoy their days? I watch pro wrestling for crying out loud! People at re-enactments are at least living history.

Was there a topic that you think Tony Horwitz missed discussing that deserved more attention?

Cash: I am personally biased, so I wish there had been some stuff about Louisiana.  I also wish he had maybe talked about what started some of the battles because honestly, that is some of the most interesting stuff.  Gettysburg was partially started because of shoes.  That is the stuff legend is made of.

Was it as depressing to you to read about the loss of battlefields and grounds as it was to me?  Is there any way to stop the absorption of areas like that into suburbs?

Tony: Again, yes and no. I think it is bad to lose our history, but Horwitz points out that there are tons of places with connections to the Civil War, so I can see the value in not dwelling SO much on it. However, history is important, and the Civil War period defines the country in good ways and bad. I think battlefields are worth preserving. It’s interesting in that since the Civil War, our battles have really been beyond our borders. Our soldiers have died in big numbers in Europe, the Pacific, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. The horrors of war are “out there.” Seeing battlefields and being able to absorb that very real, rich history, puts war into perspective. It puts a face on people who are killed and doing the killing. It shows that there are serious, honorable people of both sides in a conflict and that sometimes people die for silly reasons in battle. Maybe if more people took in history like this, they would be more hesitant to rush into the next war?

I honestly think one of the best ways to preserve that history so that it is not absorbed is to be a bit open about racial issues and not get so wrapped up in the stars and bars. There is very good reason to keep battlefields protected, at least the big ones, but when people see defenders of these fields as folks who have their blood boiling over the Confederate flag needing to be raised or thinking the President is a Muslim from Kenya, it turns people off from a worthwhile cause. Unfortunately, we focus too much time on the crazies in this world.

 

Cash: And that brings us to the end of the review.  I really enjoyed doing it and thanks to Tony for joining with me on this and being patient while all the little details were ironed out.  We’re going to try and do these as much as we can and now that we’ve got the first one under our belt, I think we’ll probably have the bugs almost ironed out for the next installment!

Tony: Let us know what books we should review next! Fiction, Non-Fiction, serious or silly, the best way to have an open mind is to open a book.

Cash: We take suggestions any way we can take them.  E-Mail us at OratoryTwoGuysOneBook@gmail.com, tweet it to us @2GuysOneBook, Private Message on the forums, or just post them openly on the forums.  If there’s something you want us to review, we’ll at least entertain it before belittling you and your choice!

For Tony, I’m Cash and thanks for reading!