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Friday, October 02, 2015

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

I stumbled across this book by accident.  It’s fascinating, if often depressing. I’ve always maintained that if reenactors were really serious about authenticity, they’d issue live ammunition. Nevertheless, Horwitz, whose immigrant great-grandfather became obsessed with Civil War history, also caught the bug, and when they discovered a TV crew shooting a scene in the land next to their house in Maryland, decided to investigate what makes Confederate reenactors (they hate to be called that preferring terms like “living historians”) tick.

Unfortunately, many of them can’t get over the fact they lost. Refusing to call it the Civil War (they prefer “War Between the States” which it wasn’t called at the time) they revel in southern mythology which they pass along to their children in organizations like the Children of the Confederacy’s catechism.  “Yankees hate children,” the kids are taught;  slaves revered their masters; and the war had nothing to do with slavery, they just didn’t want the government to tell them what to do (ironic in light of southern demands that northern states enforce the Fugitive Slave Laws.)

Just to get a few things straight:  1. Nowhere in the Constitution is the right to secede mentioned; it’s in the Declaration of Independence. 2. Southern states all said in their proclamations of secession that their reason was slavery; to argue otherwise is disingenuous. 3. We could refocus the debate over slavery by redefining the issue as one about "property." Slaves were considered property. The Constitution protected property. Supreme Court decisions through 1857 consistently considered slaves to be property. The Founders wrote in many compromises in the Constitution to protect the rights of southern plantation owners (of which they could include themselves, most of them.) David Blight (Race and Reunion) has noted that slaves by 1860 were worth about $3.5 billion, an enormous sum then and of course the southern plantation owners didn't want to give up their property. The cotton business was booming and had doubled in value every decade for four decades before 1860. Ironically, one might posit that the southern states needed a strong federal government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Acts and it was states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who insisted on "states' rights by passing laws making enforcement of federal Fugitive Slave laws difficult. Southern states, in their declarations of secession documents, said the reason for secession was their desire to protect slavery (see South Carolina and Georgia esp., which also makes reference to slaves as property and their constitutional right thereto). Slavery and race have sullied this country for centuries; to whitewash it is rather sickening. As Bernard Malamud wrote in The Fixer: "There's something cursed, it seems to me, about a country where men have owned men as property. The stink of that corruption never escapes the soul, and it is the stink of future evil."

A constant theme is the power of symbols and nothing illustrates that more than his dispassionate recounting of the killing of Michael Westerman in Guthrie, Kentucky.  Westerman was out driving in his red truck with a large rebel flag flying from the back. What the flag meant to those involved was far less important than what it meant to those who used Michael’s death as a rallying cry for their own particular agenda or hatred.  Horwitz’s interviews reveal that Michael liked the battle flag simply because it matched his truck. To the kid who shot him, clearly unintentional through the side of his truck as they raced along the highway at 85 mph, it was only a symbol of the white bullies in town. Michael's glorification -- he has his own tribute website -- was not what Horwitz heard from others in town when he interviewed them. Much of the town’s reverence for the battle flag seemed to be exacerbated by the school board’s wish to change the mascot -- the Rebel, which served only to inflame teams they had to play.  Ironically, Guthrie, in Todd County, Kentucky was on the Union side during the Civil War. In a further irony, Freddie Morrow who did the shooting, was sent to prison for life plus an extra four years for violating Westerman’s civil rights.  More recently, the power of that symbol was demonstrated when that kid shot up the black church killing several people and calls have echoed throughout the south for and against removal of confederate symbols.

Lots of interesting stories.Horwitz writes well, with compassion, and with humor.  My wife thought the book (we listened to it together) was a bit reminiscent of Bill Bryson.  I agree he has the same sense of irony that has you smile except that in the case of this book that smile is followed by a quick grimace rather than a broad grin. Note that his interview with Shelby Foote is worth the price of the book.

Favorite quote:  “Charlestonian Baptists were so religious they wouldn’t fuck standing up for fear someone might think they were dancing.”
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