Battlepanda: Non-Monday book blogging: Confederates in the Attic


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Non-Monday book blogging: Confederates in the Attic

Now, as you probably realized, dear readers, monday book blogging has been quite erratic lately. Moving to another continent would do that to ya!


GENE: Ugh! This water fountain only dispenses warm water.
ANGELICA: That's the way it's supposed to work. The Chinese believes that drinking cold water is bad for your constitution.
GENE: I've never heard of that before. That's crazy.
ANGELICA: Funnily enough, Stonewall Jackson believed the same thing. He would always drink tepid water.
GENE: Well, he's a loser.
ANGELICA: No he's not. Stonewall Jackson never lost a single battle.
GENE: He was a confederate, wasn't he? They lost the whole war.
ANGELICA: Ah, but Jackson was mortally wounded in Chancellorsville, a battle which he won. He died some months before the end of the war.
GENE: You traitor.

Do I even need to tell you that my husband is a yankee?

It's true, I've been going on a bit of a Civil War kick of late. It started when I read The Killer Angels a while back, followed by this book, Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, and an audiobook of "Cold Mountain" to pass the time on my long flight to Taipei. I have to say that this is the kind of subject that can really suck one in. Luckily, as an Asian female, I don't see this interest metastasizing into full-blown period re-enactments and battlefield pilgrimages of the sort documented with gusto and ridicule in equal parts by Horwitz. A fact for which Gene is understandably grateful.*

Not that you need to be interested in the Civil War to enjoy Horwitz's book. In fact, I'd say that the opposite is almost true -- Horwitz's book is written for those who are completely clueless about the Civil war save for what they were taught in school, and is unaware of the extent that that conflict still hold the imagination of much of the nation in a thrall. Horwitz is a Blue-state man with a Red-state fetish -- a boyhood fascination with the Civil war that never really went away. As an adult, Horwitz has to hold his interest in tension with his liberal politics. In fact, he is almost like our undercover spy -- one of us passing as one of them:
"Our government is run by a foreign power -- Israel," Walt concluded. "The only way to escape that is a political dissolution of the United States. And the only hope for that I see is a revival of the Confederacy."

Walt returned to his vegetables while I pondered how to respond. "Have you ever met a Jew?" I asked him.

"I knew one in high school. He seemed normal. But that was before I knew anything."

"Well, you've just met your second."

Walt looked up from a pile of oyster mushrooms. "You're a Jew? You don't look Jewish." He studied me, searching for some telltale Semitic clue. "What's your last name again?"


"I should'a guessed." He cut another mushroom. "Well, you know exactly what I'm talking about then. Anyway, it's the big people I'm against, the one pulling strings." He reached for tofu. "Just because a race is bad doesn't mean everyone who belongs to it is." [p83]

Of course, the party line from the modern wavers of the confederate flag is that "the War of Northern Aggression" had nothing to do with racism and slavery, but with "state's rights" (of which the right to hold slaves is only one, I'm sure). Witness the scary "catechism" that the Children of the Cofederacy (an actual organization) are drilled on:
Q. What causes led to the War Between the States, from 1861 to 1865?
A. The disregard of those in power for the rights of the Southern states.
Q. Where was the first slave ship built and launched?
A. In Marble Head, Mass., in 1636.
Q. What was the feeling of the slaves towards their masters?
A. They were faithful and devoted and were always ready and willing to serve them.[p37]

The funny thing is, those are the same folks who will adamantly shun the label of racist, even as they espouse quite transparently racist beliefs. In battlefield terms, I guess they're trying avoiding an re-enactment of Pickett's charge against the face of public oppobrium by sneakily trying to outflank the charges of racism by simply going around it. Even if we accept their public facade of presenting the conflict as Southern Pride against Northern Aggression on its face falue, it is still frustrating race-myopic. We're all supposed to remember Sherman's March as an atrocity until the end of time because he burnt Atlanta (25% of Atlanta, actually) to the ground, but blacks are supposed to just "get over" the slavery thing already?

I don't want to make it sound like Horwitz's book is all about racism and exposing the ugly underbelly of the South. I'd say that the main pleasures afforded this book is Horwitz's knack for American gothic and his obvious and real passion for the war. His most steadfast companion for most the book is an Ohio art-school dropout named Rob who is into Hardcore re-enactment, meaning trying to experience every aspect of the soldier's life as authentically as possible, including starving oneself for that hollow-eyed gauntness and spooning with fellow soldiers for warmth at night. When Rob and other re-enactors are marching barefoot on fried sowbelly, I have no doubt that race relations cannot be further from their minds. When people are proud of their great-great granddaddies who fought for their homes, that's not racism. When people see Lee and Jackson and see larger-than-life heros, that's not a racist thing to do in and of itself. This is where I draw the line between those who are genuinely interested in the Civil war and those who are politicizing it. I have no problems with a confederate flag on a pickup truck. But a confederate flag on a state capitol or on a school would be wrong, just as a "black power" flag or a giant statue of Jesus on those institutions would be wrong.

As Horwitz carefully points out, there's nothing inevitable or history-driven about the current state of simmering discontent in the south. In fact, North-South relations have ebbed and flowed ever since the end of the war. 15 years after his infamous march, Sherman returned to Georgia, where he was cordially recieved by his erstwhile enemies. People seemed to be leaving the war behind and getting on with their lives. There was even a town in the Georgia established to accomodate civil war vets of both sides, old enemies settling as neighbors. The most recent 'hardening' in attitudes did not come until some time in the '80s. And now t-shirts featuring Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first imperial wizard of the Klan are outselling t-shirts featuring Robert E. Lee by something like five to one at the company Horwitz visited. I fine that frightening indeed.

*Just so that you know though, if I were to partake in re-enactments, I would undoubtedly wear blue. Just wouldn't feel right any other way. I'm not a complete traitor, and beside they can always use more Union soldiers at re-enactments, where Johnny Rebs typically outnumbers Yankees three to one.