Confederates in the Attic

by Tony Horwitz

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In Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz travels the country to explore the lasting impact of the Civil War on American culture. Why does the Civil War continue to shape Southern society nearly 150 years after the end of the conflict? How is the war’s meaning interpreted by various groups in the South?

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Horwitz suggests that the Civil War helped to forever change the landscape and perceptions of the South and does so to this day.  The “War Against Northern Aggression” helped to alter how the South was viewed both by others and by Southerners themselves.  It is this aspect of identity that Horwitz explores.  From the reenactment subculture that experiences a transformational identification with the past to the very complex and intricate relationship to race that is a part of the Southern ethos, Horwitz suggests that the Civil War cast a shadow on the South that can be seen today.  The conflict ended, but its impact is still felt in much of the South today, something that Horwitz suggest is part of the region.  Part of this lies in what Civil War reenactment participant Robert Lee Hodge describes as a "Civil Wargasm:" "That’s the epitome of the Gasm... So much stuff that you can’t possibly take it all in, and you don’t know what to do with it anyway. So you just let it wash over you.” For Horwitz, this description articulates much of why the Civil War has impacted the South.  Its legacy has "washed over" the region.

Horwitz explores how the Civil War has constructed a divergent legacy to many in the South.  This is best seen in his description of the Confederate Flag's legacy in the modern South.  The symbol of the Civil War, the Confederate flag highlights how the war is viewed in different ways by different groups.  For example, Horwitz describes how some members of the White community see the flag as an example of Southern pride, resistant to encroaching forces, and the embodiment of proud rebellion when he recalls the story of Michael Westerman:

...Westerman got a tattoo on his arm of the cartoon character Tasmanian Devil clutching a Confederate battle flag. He also welded a pole to the toolbox in the back of his pickup so that he could display a large Confederate flag there. "That flag was a symbol of him," his sister-in-law Sarah Belanger says. "He was a rebel, a daredevil, outspoken. He'd do anything."

Horwitz is deliberate enough to suggest that the perception of the Civil War symbol was one of "outspoken" rebellion.  Such flags, what Horwitz calls "Rebel Flags," are common in Southern settings that are along side flyers praising the death of Dr. King and James Earl Ray.  At the same time, when Westerman drove his truck through a neighborhood where African- American Damien Darden was gathering his friends to go to a movie, his initial reaction was violent:  " "Let's go whip that dude."  The conflict between Darden and his friends and Westerman resulted in the latter's death.  Horwitz makes the argument that the conflict between both was reflective of something far deeper and far more profound than either of them.  It reflected the dual and competing perception of Dixie, the Civil War/ War Against Northern Aggression, and of race, in general. Horwitz suggests that events such as this one highlight how the war's legacy results in a lack of consensus and emergence of divergence about the past and present and our place in both.

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