Over the last couple of days I found myself re-reading the excellent Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz (Vintage). It was published in 1998 and is still in print – we try to keep a couple of copies on the shelf in the Travel Writing section all the time. It is so good: well written, fascinating and original. I re-read it every two or three years, it is so startling and satisfying, the coils of history still lying around, tripping up the unwary.
See this guy on the cover? This isn’t a photo of a soldier from the American Civil War, 1861 – 1865, this is Robert Lee Hodge, in 1997, a civil war reenactor, a really hardcore one: some of the clothes he is wearing are originals worn by soldiers during that war, some are the closest modern thing he can find. He tramps for days following the routes the soldiers took, eating hardtack, following the same hygiene practices as they did (or didn’t), sleeping in the open, and then re-enacts the battle on the actual battlefield. All of which helps him feel a deep spiritual and physical connection to the long dead troops – he is scathing of the reenactors who just turn up at the site at weekends to join in. Hodge is famous for his bloat, for just how very dead he can look on the field and has appeared in films, set during the Civil War, doing just that.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Horwitz was fascinated by the Civil War as a child. When he and his wife (acclaimed Australian writer Geraldine Brooks) moved to Virginia he decided to find out more, to look for the remnants and consequences of the divisive and bitter war in the late 20th century, particularly in the South – Robert Lee Hodge was just one of many people who explained their own fascinations, their theories about the War and its causes, its meaning in their lives now. Horwitz joins Hodge’s ragtag group of reenactors, meets with Sons, Daughters and Cats of the Confederacy, investigates the symbolism and charge of the Confederate flag, explores various battle sites and national monuments and immerses himself in the ways popular culture has created, mythologised and forgotten the Civil War.
Horwitz is acutely observant, sincerely respectful and interested in what people have to say to him. By turns puzzled, amused, horrified, sympathetic to and sometimes moved by the people and institutions he comes across, Horwitz is honest about what he thinks and about what he thinks all this means for the modern USA – as with all good travel writing you learn about the writer as much as the written about. The reenactors spend a lot of time re-creating a version of history, Horwitz exposes how for many people their lives now (well, in the late 1990s) are somehow the direct result of their states’ past and there doesn’t seem to be much of the distance, the healing or dispassion that time might be expected to bring – in all sorts of ways the War feels like it is rumbling along, here in the lands where most of the fighting took place.