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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic

Currently reading

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Absolutely essential reading

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War - Tony Horwitz

I had read Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic several years ago.  Published in 1998, it details the journalist's rambles through the southern states that formed the Confederacy.  His encounters with Civil War reenactors, hard core reenactors, history buffs, and just plain folks were, as I recalled, sometimes amusing, sometimes depressing, sometimes downright frightening.


But always illuminating.


Whether you call it the Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression, the basic issue underlying it was slavery.  By the time the state of South Carolina voted to secede from the Union in December of 1860, slavery as an institution had been under debate and legislated upon for over 40 years.  In particular, the question of whether individual states had the right to determine if they would permit or prohibit human chattel slavery had forced various measures through the federal legislative process.  To claim that the war was over "state's rights" rather than slavery is disingenuous; the only state's right that mattered was the right to hold slaves. 


Why then are we presented today, 150 years after the war's end and the Confederacy's defeat, with an entrenched reverence for a symbol of that devastatingly failed campaign and the heinous institution it struggled to protect? 


Horwitz gives some of the background, beginning with the percentage of casualties.  The 11 states of the Confederacy began with a vastly smaller population than the remaining Union states.  The South suffered much higher losses; perhaps as high as 25% of the men fighting were killed, compared to about 10% for the Union forces.  Therefore proportionately far more families were affected by the losses than in the North.  They had more to remember, more to memorialize.


In addition to the human cost, because most of the war was fought within the boundaries of the Confederacy, property damage in the Confederacy was enormous compared to the North.  Some of the destruction was vindictive, some was strategic, but it was the Southerners who had to deal with the physical reconstruction of their homes after their military and political defeat.  They not only had more to remember; they had more to remind them.


The South was defeated on the battlefield in part because it had been beaten economically, and after the war, they had little means to recover.


The rapidly industrializing North was also growing in population due to immigration from Europe as well as migration of newly emancipated blacks from the South.  This further increased an already higher concentration of individuals in the South with direct connection to war casualties.  In addition, the primarily agrarian economy of the South also meant that families were more tied to the land and thus less likely to move away.  Generation after generation remained in the same location, much more so than in the North. 


All of these factors contributed to the immediate hyper-commemoration of the War in the South.


That rural economy was built to great extent on the backs of slave labor.  Even though most Southerners did not own slaves, the wealthy and powerful who controlled the government owned millions, and without that particular and enormous advantage, their economy could not survive.  Cotton, of course, was the primary crop, but sugar, rice, and tobacco also depended on slave labor to be profitable, at least at the level of profitability that kept the planter class in the style to which it had accustomed itself.


As the various official proclamations of secession clearly and emphatically stated, slavery was deemed to be the natural and divinely ordained social structure, as blacks were not fully human, not capable of independence, and were given to the white man by God to perform manual labor.  They were thus set apart from whites who did not own slaves, even from poor whites who might be economically little better off than slaves themselves.  This kind of dehumanization is essential to an oppressive regime; the same strategy was employed when Chinese laborers were exploited to build the railroads in the western U.S. and when the Nazis attempted to exterminate the Jews and other "undesirables." 


Casting blacks as less than human allowed the poor whites to consider themselves better than the blacks.  But what happened when the Confederacy surrendered and all those blacks were now free and legally equal to the whites who had once been . . . better?  How did white Southerners, who had grown up believing in their natural, God-given superiority to blacks, deal with a political concept that told them they weren't?


It wasn't just that they had lost the war, lost friends and family members, seen their property destroyed.  The world as they knew it, a world with white political and economic supremacy at its very foundation, had been destroyed.


I can hear you now, asking, "Is all of this background in the book?"  Well, yes.  And no.


As I said, I originally read Confederates in the Attic several years ago, and of course I had a reasonable background in American history just from growing up here and attending public schools.  Living through the most of the civil rights era as at least a young teenager, I had picked up more.  And of course casual reading here and there as well as college courses in the late 1990s on race and class and popular culture, etc.


So how much of the above really came from that first reading?  From other sources?


I don't know for sure.


A few days after the Charleston massacre, I began reading Eric Foner's scholarly work Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution.  I've had the book for years, never found time to read it.  Yet as I started, concepts in the historical narrative almost immediately resonated with the present, which led me to reach for Confederates in the Attic for a more contemporary analysis.


I quickly realized I must have absorbed more than expected.  Within the first few pages, Horwitz's account clicked in one detail after another.  Even more alarming was how his account -- his travels were in 1992-1993, then the book was written roughly 1996-1997 and published in 1998 -- resonated with what was happening in South Carolina in 2015, simply because so little had changed.  Yes, a mere decade later the United States elected a black president, but still, so little had changed.


Writing about one of the many monuments to the Confederacy and her soldiers, Horwitz recounts a conversation with one of the local South Carolinian historians.


"What were they putting monuments up to in the first place?  A lot of Southerners dying for nothing.  And look at us now, still arguing about the rebel flag,  To me that says we're still a lost cause in a lot of ways."  (p. 76).


Horwitz adds emphasis to the woman's comments by immediately moving into the debate over the flying of that rebel flag atop the South Carolina capitol, which appeared in the local paper just days after his prior conversation.


Columbia, the capital city, had been ravaged by Union forces, then further destroyed by Gen. William Sherman on his return march.   To illustrate the severity of the devastation, Horwitz quotes a contemporary reporter, John Dennett, who wrote in The Nation, "In no other city that I have visited has hostility seemed to me so bitter."  As Horwitz explains:


Rather than rebuild and forget it, in the manner of Atlanta, Columbia had turned its capitol grounds into a memorial to Yankee depredations.  "Burned by Sherman's troups," said a gravestone marking the site of the bygone wooden statehouse.  Brass stars marked where each of Sherman's shells had scarred the walls of the current capitol, which was under construction in 1865.  A nearby bronze of George Washington bore a plaque recording that Sherman's troops "brick-batted this statue and broke off the lower part of the walking cane."  The damage had been left unrepaired.


Just beside the capitol stood the Confederate Relic Room, a museum whose keepsakes included a torch used by Sherman's men, a raglike suitcase of the sort toted by Northern carpetbaggers, and the Confederate Roll of Dead, a handwritten list of South Carolinians killed in the War.  The Roll, recently published in book form by the state archives, had become an overnight bestseller in local bookshops.  (pp 76-77, in a chapter titled "Shades of Gray.")


If South Carolina were a person, one might say they had developed a very unhealthy obsession with a past that could not be resurrected. 


That obsession was not peculiar to South Carolina, of course.  The flag had been hoisted over the capitol in 1962, during the civil rights struggle.  ". . . [F]or many white Southerners, the flag also symbolized defiance and segregation at a time when they felt under siege again by the federal government and by Northerners who wanted to change the South's "way of life."


And that way of life was primarily characterized by racism.


After the chapter titled "Shades of Gray," Horwitz moves from South Carolina to the Kentucky-Tennessee border for one of the grimmest, most tragic, and most frightening chapters of the book, "Dying for Dixie."  It is primarily an account of the death of Michael Westerman, a young white man who drove his big red truck with a big rebel flag flying from a pole welded to the bed of that truck.  He taunted and teased, calling out insults and racial epithets with what he apparently believed was impunity, perhaps along the lines of the mindset author Robert Penn Warren had described as ". . . the Civil War seemed to have been fought for the right to lynch without legal interference."


Westerman's death brought out the Klan, one of whom Horwitz spoke at length to, specifically about the high school team name, the Rebels.  There was a movement to change the name, and a counter movement to keep it.  A retired nurse, the Klan woman spouted the usual white supremacist lines defending slavery -- "[It] was not all that bad." -- and . . .


. . ."Blacks just need to get over slavery," she said, as though talking of the flu.  "You can't live in the past."


I gently observed that she herself might be accused of living in the past by defending the rebel flag.  "Oh, no, that's about now," she said.  "Blacks don't really have anything against the flag.  They just don't want us to have it.  They want the best jobs, the biggest money.  Now they want this.  If we lose the mascot, it'll just be a matter of time before we lose everything."  Her voice quivered with rage.  "Don't put us where they used to be." (p.99, emphasis in the original.)


Confederates in the Attic is entertaining and enlightening, but most of all it is terrifying in its insights into the continuing defense of "Southern pride" and "Confederate heritage."  They are, of course, nothing more than euphemisms for racism and bigotry.  The Charleston shooter of 2015 is a product of that environment.  As Michael Westerman was turned into a Confederate hero and martyr, so will Dylann Roof become a hero, if not yet a martyr, to the white supremacist cause.


I will finish my reread this week-end before I plunge back into Foner's Reconstruction.