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Metro Pulse Rebel Knell

With "Confederates in the Attic," journalist Tony Horwitz punctures the myths of the Confederacy -- and what it means to be Southern.

By Tracy Jones

APRIL 20, 1998:  You might call them Civil War buffs. Civil War enthusiasts. Amateur historians of the War between the States. Writer Tony Horwitz's wife has a harsher term: Civil War bores.

Horwitz, a New Yorker contributor, Wall Street Journal staffer, and the author of a couple of light-hearted travel memoirs, readily admits that his move to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia a few years ago turned him into one of those creatures, as he dragged his patient Australian wife to cemeteries and battlefields near their new home. Most writers turn their obsessions into currency, but what more was there to say or write about that war? The loud pop of reenactors' guns roused Horwitz from bed one morning and gave him his answer. He would pen a travelogue of the South, home to hard-core reenactors, professional Scarlett look-alikes, and men and women who feel more kinship with their Rebel ancestors than they do with their own neighbors. His book would avoid the darker underlying issues of the War in favor of a more whimsical look at the mind of the new Confederate South.

As Horwitz learned, it is not possible, not yet, to write that book. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Pantheon) is sometimes funny, sometimes light-hearted, but Horwitz says he couldn't pretend current controversies didn't exist. While he was following make-believe "Johnny Rebs" on the battlefield, for instance, Southern governors were loudly proclaiming that the Rebel battle flag would continue to fly from statehouses. Instead of the book he imagined, he has written something better: an account that punctures many of the myths of the war and one that takes a fair and honest look at what it means to be Southern today.

"Much of what I grew up with, and what I thought I knew about the Civil War, I found out was myth," says Horwitz. Recently in town to sign copies of his book at Books-a-Million, Horwitz chatted affably about the journey that took him from Alabama to the Carolinas and parts above, below, and in-between. In addition to debunking several myths about the war and its modern followers, Horwitz talked about the South he'd found in his travels.

"Look, we're sitting here in a strip mall in West Knoxville, and this could be Anywhere, America," he says, gesturing toward Kingston Pike. "Unfortunately, I think the South, since it's had so much growth in recent decades, maybe has more of this franchise sprawl than other parts of the country. But underneath that neon skin, I still think the South is very distinctive. If nothing else, there's this sense Southerners still have of being distinctive."

Myth Number One: Sherman ravaged Georgia beyond repair.

No, that would be the Georgians themselves, who have let Atlanta's suburban sprawl take much of what Sherman spared. "We were all taught to think that Sherman was like Attilla the Hun. In fact, many of the houses they claimed were burned down are still standing," Horwitz says. "In the Carolinas he did get quite a bit meaner. He burned Columbia to the ground, for example. But in Georgia, where you have this image of all this terrible devastation, the reality was much tamer. If you read post-war history, he quite liked the South. He lived there before the war, and he was welcomed back after. He's more villified today in the South than he was a hundred years ago."

Although a self-confessed Northerner himself, Horwitz says he is surprised at the Southern stereotypes that still linger. "There's this tendency to always assume the worst about the South. We saw it with the church burnings. Everyone immediately assumed there was some sort of racist conspiracy at work. Well, it turns out it's a lot more complicated than that. On the other hand, I often found a tendency among some Southerners to pretend that none of this is an issue—for instance, to write slavery out of the Civil War, which I don't think you can do."

Unfortunately, writing slavery out of the war ("defending the indefensible," as Horwitz calls it) is not the only way many Southerners have reconstructed history. Horwitz found that in areas where racial tension was historically the highest, places like Selma and parts of Mississippi, "They seemed to be trying harder than other parts of the country to address their tortured racial history. They've made tremendous progress." In the upcountry South, though, places where a handful of Rebels were outnumbered by their Union neighbors, many of these towns have reinvented Confederate histories for themselves. Guthrie, Kentucky, is such a place, where Horwitz became an astonished witness to the sanctification of an apolitical 19-year-old.

Myth Number Two: Thousands of Blacks fought for the Confederacy

"I looked into this in great depth, and I think there were some," says Horwitz. "There might have been a few hundred. But the Attorney General of South Carolina, talking about the [Rebel] flag recently, said publicly that 50,000 blacks were killed and wounded on the Southern side of this war. This is complete fantasy. But this bunk has really seeped into current neo-Confederate thinking, where you go to Sons of Confederate Veterans meetings, they're always talking about this. If you get on the Internet, you'll find that this myth has just exploded, but there's no factual basis for it."

In Guthrie, near Clarksville, in 1995, 19-year-old Michael Westerman and his wife Hannah were celebrating their first night out since the birth of their twins five weeks earlier, when the large rebel flag on Westerman's oversized truck caught the attention of a car full of black teenagers. The driver of the other car was a former classmate of Hannah and Michael's but had no idea who was in the truck. The teenagers said they only meant to shout at the truck's passengers, but a kid they didn't know very well, not a Guthrie native, pulled a gun. Michael died from a single gunshot wound to the heart.

When Horwitz first interviewed Westerman's widow, shortly after the shooting, she told him that he had no political interest in the Confederacy and no aptitude for history at all. Six weeks later, Westerman was an official Confederate martyr. "In fact, it appears he flew the flag because it matched his truck, not out of any reverence for the Confederacy," Horwitz says. "And yet if you go see the tombstone the Sons of Confederate Veterans put there, it's got Deo Vindice [With God as Our Defender] on it, and the rebel flag. Everyone in that county, if you asked them, would say it was staunch rebel territory. They have a statue to Jefferson Davis, and their ball team is the Rebels. I did some digging at the library, and it turns out it was much like this area. It was split, but most of the people were Union."

Myth Number Three: The real cause of the Civil War was a culture clash between passionate Southern Celts and bloodless Northern Puritans.

"This is another, in my view, pseudo-history," Horwitz says. "A lot of these neo-Confederates say this war was not about slavery, it was a clash between these sort of drone-like Cromwellian roundheads in the North, descended from the English, and in the South you had the Celtics, who were hot-blooded and emotional. Ever since the South lost, the nation has been doomed to this sort of industrial, centralized, tyrannical government. To me, this is ludicrous. First of all, the mountains are probably the most purely Celtic part of America, and they sided with the Union. But there are dozens of books on this topic, Cracker Culture [by Grady McWhiney] being the most well-known. And thousands of people would differ with me."

After seeing the Rebel Flag act as a catalyst for modern violence and dissension, Horwitz has struggled with whether current reverence for the Confederacy can exist without bringing in these larger, more difficult issues. He says the desire to honor their forefathers is a sincere one for many people, and yet their devotion often puzzles him.

"People are seeking community, but they find it in these ancestors. They'll get in these Sons of Confederate Veterans meetings and weep, remembering the suffering of their ancestors, which is very touching. On the other hand, [the other members of the group] are very remote from their lives, and they probably don't have a heck of a lot in common with them, while they might have something in common with their neighbors. Somehow they're reaching back instead of out, and I'm not sure I understand that."

Many of these people—those with a sincere interest in their own genealogy—have been supplanted in some places by political extremists, Horwitz says. One organization in particular, the League of the South, is very active in neo-Confederate circles. "It's mostly professors and professionals, and they've got slick Web sites and slick publications. These guys are real extremists. They preach secession, and they don't salute the American flag. They're very careful not to be overtly racist, but to me there is a strong racial subtext to what they say."

The reenactors he followed, he says, don't usually overlap with the extreme political activists. "[The reenactors] try to sidestep the issue of race and politics. Their view is that we're here to honor and remember the experience of common soldiers, what they ate, what they wore, and that we're setting the politics aside. I think most of them are sincere, but I think there's a problem with that, in that it's a little hard to play act something that had such big issues at stake."

These questions continue to arise as Civil War mania gets even stronger. "It's astonishing to me," Horwitz says. "You go to a place like Charleston—they have 350 years of history, but you never hear about the 18th century or the Revolutionary War. It's almost like all of Southern history has been telescoped into those four years, which I find unfortunate, really. I don't think the Civil War is going to go away, but I wonder if the fad can get any bigger than it already has."


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