Book Review: Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz


Author: Tony Hortwitz
Title: Confederates in the Attic
Narrator: Arthur Addison
Publication Info: Newport Beach, CA : Books On Tape, 1999
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Around 20 years ago, I read Confederates in the Attic and Tony Hortwitz immediately became my favorite history/travel writer. I had just moved back to New England after living seven years in Virginia, and I related to the experience of meeting people obsessed with the past of the lost Civil War. I laughed, of course, at the most eccentric characters, such as the woman who created a Cats of the Confederacy chapter or Robert Lee Hodge, the hardcore living history reenactor.  Hodge, pictured on the cover, was the star of the book and so focused on authenticity that he eschewed Civil War battle reenactments for long marches and drilling in period attire.

Reading this book again in 2021, it feels less a reflection on a way of life that was slowly dying, and more of a warning to the future.  Since this book was published the United States has seen an alarming reemergence of the undergirding ideology of the neo-confederate beliefs depicted in this book – white supremacy and Christian nationalism – and not just in the South.  This has manifest itself in:

  • the hyper-militarized response to the September 11th attacks, built on anti-Muslim discrimination, and the immediate questioning of the patriotism of anyone who challenged these notions.
  • the perverse interpretation of the Second Amendment from an insurrectionist perspective that allowed access to firearms for countless mass murderers
  • the increase in mass incarceration of Black and brown people, the militarization of police forces, and the ability of police and vigilantes to murder Black and brown people without consequences
  • the rise of the Tea Party, numerous white supremacist gangs and organizations, and ultimately the Trump administration
  • And, on the day I finished re-reading this book, all of these things coming together as armed insurrectionists of white supremacists and Christian nationalists invading the US Capitol, some bearing the Confederate battle flag.

Tony Horwitz is no longer with us to offer his perspective, but in retrospect, Confederates in the Attic is a chilling account of a menace within our midst.  Horwitz’s great talent was his ability to meet strangers, talk with them, and form a bond, even when he considered their ideologies loathsome. Through his interviews and experiences in this book he offers a keen insight into the popular memory of the Civil War and its aftermath. 

A lot has changed since Horwitz’s journey through the South in the 1990s, and despite my list above, some of it is for the better.  It would’ve been hard to imagine the sculptures of Confederate generals would ultimately be removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia at the time Horwitz wrote about the controversy about adding an Arthur Ashe statue. I was also fascinated that some of the people who he interviewed had more nuanced views on the Civil War than I recalled, some expressing anti-militant feelings. I also appreciate Horwitz debunking Civil War myths, such as the story of Wilmer McLean, who is said to have had the Civil War beginning and ending in house, but his true story is much more nuanced.

Confederates in the Attic remains one of my favorite books of all time and offers a lot of insight into America’s past and present, and possibly our future.

Recommended books:

Rating: *****

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