Book Review: Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz


Author: Tony Horwitz
Title: Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
Narrator: Mark Deakins
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

A few months ago when author Tony Horwitz died, I learned that he’d recently released this new book of his unique blend of history, travel, cultural exploration, and literary journalism.  When I saw that his final work was based on following in the footsteps of one of my favorite historical figures, Frederick Law Olmsted, it seemed as if it was targeted at me.

Olmsted is best known for innovating the field of landscape architecture and designing some of America’s most notable city parks and park systems, college campuses, hospital grounds, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Midway Plaisance, and the grounds of the US Capitol.  Prior to his career in designing parks, Olmsted worked as a journalist, and much like Tony Horwitz, he traveled to places and wrote about his experiences. From 1852 to 1857, he traveled through the American South submitting his dispatches to the New York Times.  In 1861, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, his writings were compiled in the book Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom, which remains a significant first-hand document of antebellum Southern society.

Olmsted was anti-slavery, a moderate position at the time compared with abolitionists who wanted to immediately free all enslaved people, and in some cases extend the full rights of citizenship to the freed African Americans.  Anti-slavery advocates, which included Abraham Lincoln and other early Republicans, sought to prevent the expansion of slave-holding to new territories and carry out gradual manumission.  Olmsted believed that practice of slavery was inefficient and had a deleterious effect not just on the enslaved people, but on the white society as well.  A goal of his travels was to meet with Southerners, civilly exchange views, and convince them of the error of their ways.  Olmsted would be disappointed, finding Southerners entrenched in their beliefs and uninterested in civil discourse on the matter of slavery.

Tracing Olmsted’s route through the South in 2015-2016, against the background of the contentious presidential election leading to Donald Trump’s victory, Tony Horwitz would also find a deeply divided America.  Some of his encounters with Southerners who supported Trumpist ideology and believed in all manner of conspiracy theory are deeply disturbing.  More disturbing still is that many of these same people treated Horwitz warmly and were happy to speak with him, as long as he hid his own political views.

The travelogue is interesting as Horwitz first journeys down the Ohio River through West Virginia on a ship towing a coal barge, offering insight into a tedious but dangerous job that some “country boys” have found as a source of income in an economically depressed region.  His next river journey is on board a luxurious replica paddle wheeler with stops at historic plantations where the tour guides tend to ignore the enslaved people who made them possible.

In Louisiana, Horwitz is joined by a friend from Australia who is literally nearly killed by the artery-hardening Southern cuisine.  They also enjoy the bizarre Mud Fest, where monster truck drivers come together to drink and drive their modified vehicles through a giant mud bog for a week. Nearby, they visit the site of the Colfax Massacre of 1873, where 150+ black men were murdered by a white militia organized to reverse the reforms of Reconstruction.  To this day an historic marker on the site only recognizes the deaths of three of the white aggressors.   Continuing on his own across Texas, Horwitz tries and fails to debunk a conspiracy theory about a compound of Islamic extremists and participates in the Battle of the Alamo reenactment, oddly set against the background San Antonio’s tourist trap attractions.

Perhaps one of the more interesting parts of the book is the Texas hill country where German immigrants settled before the war, and Olmsted found a community he thought could serve as an example of Free Soilers in the South.  150 years later, the German community persists – albeit in some cheezy ways – and Horwitz describes a part of Texas that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions of the state.  Horwitz travels by mule, a humbling experience, in the west of the Texas.  He concludes his narrative along the border with Mexico where he interacts with both the border patrol and the mixed American and Mexican communities.

In many ways, Spying on the South is a sequel to Horwitz’s best book Confederates in the Attic.  It’s also more somber and unsettling.  20 years ago one could chuckle at Confederate devotees as a dwindling number of hobbyists devoted to living in the past.  Today that same energy has been channeled into a dangerous movement that has reached its political ascendancy.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky


One of R.E.M.’s early albums is entitled Fables of the Reconstruction. That could easily be the title of The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (2008) by Stephen Budiansky. The accepted history has it that the Reconstruction of the South following the Civil War failed due to a vindictive Republican government saddling the helpless South with corrupt politicians, swindling businessmen, and allowing incompetent blacks to take government positions. Author James Loewen even points out in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me how children’s textbooks use insults like “carpetbagger” and “scalawag” to describe people without any context of how these terms were used or mention of the many well-intentioned Northerners who came to the South during Reconstruction.

Budiansky pops the bubble of this revisionist history showing instead a South defeated in battle but continuing to fight to prevent enfranchisement and political viability of the freedmen among them. Budiansky pulls no punches and calls the organized violent tactics terrorism. Furthermore, it was a successful terrorism that basically forced the federal government to give up laying the groundwork for another century of segregation and inequality.

The Bloody Shirt relies heavily on primary documents that allow the reader to hear the voices of those who tried to reconstruct the South and those who often very openly admitted the crimes they’d commit to prevent it. Five men are central to the narrative:

  • Prince Rivers, a slave who escaped, fought for the Union, and became a South Carolina legislator. By the time Reconstruction ends he’s been removed from office by the Democratic government and forced to work as a coachman, the same work he did a slave.
  • Adelbert Ames, the military governor of Mississippi who fought a losing battle to rebuild the state under the new amendments to the Constitution.
  • Albert Morgan, a Northerner who moved to the South to become a farmer, married a black woman and found himself increasingly threatened by his white neighbors (albeit popular with his black neighbors) and ended up running for his life.
  • Lewis Merrill who fought bloody battles against the Ku Klux and white rifle groups in South Carolina that were as organized and calculated as the Confederate army during the War.
  • James Longstreet, one of Robert E. Lee’s ablest and most popular generals during the War. His public statements that the Confederacy’s loss means the South must support the Republican government lead not only to his ostracism but a false revision of his war record.

As well as I know the lowly depths that humans can sink, I couldn’t help but be shocked by this book. It was a sobering and instructive read. The issues raised in the book still reverberate to our time and I recommend it to anyone interested in the Civil War, racism, and American politics.

While reading this book I learned of Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon (interview) which could be a good follow-up book.

Memorable Passages

“To white conservative Southerners, the outrage was never the acts they committed, only the effrontery of having those acts held against them. … The bloody shirt perfectly captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction the nation would hold for generations after. The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency; the way it suggested that the real story was not the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of those atrocities. The merest hint that a partisan motive lay behind the telling of these tales was enough to satisfy most white Southerners that the events never happened, or were exaggerated, or even that they had been conspiratorially engineered by the victims themselves to gain sympathy or political advantage.” – p. 5

Note: This behavior sounds eerily like a lot of the political discourse of the past decade or so.

[General Longstreet] He hoped that he might be forgiven the “bluntness of a soldier” to remind his fellow Southerners what had been decided at Appomattox. “The surrender of the Confederate armies in 1865,” he wrote, “involved: 1. The surrender of the claim to right of secession. 2. The surrender of the former political relations to the negro. 3. The surrender of the Southern Confederacy. There they should have been buried. The soldier prefers to have the sod that receives him when he falls covers his remains. The political questions of the war should have been buried upon the fields that marked their end.

One of the gravest errors, Longstreet went on, was the opinion that “we cannot do wrong, and that Northerners cannot do right.” There were good and bad in both sections. But one must now bend to the other. The war had decided which. – p. 153

Another United States senatorial committee convened to record the words of the victims after it was too late to help them. The Democrats now held the House; the mood of the country was now more one of fatigue with the travails of the South than anything like the righteous indignation of times past. The lingering Republican majority in the Senate had an air of resigned impotence, of going through the forms with no expectation of results. – p. 208.

New York : Viking, 2008.