Confederates in the Attic Summary

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz is a 1998 nonfiction book about the continued influence of the Civil War and the Confederacy on the American South.

  • Horwitz's exploration of the lasting effects of the Civil War are rooted in his childhood, when he, his father, and his great-grandfather would study and discuss the war.
  • Horwitz travels across the South, visiting Civil War reenactors, historians, celebrators of the Confederacy, descendants and relatives of Confederate soldiers, and others.
  • What Horwitz finds is a region still riven by racism, where the legacies of the Civil War and the Confederacy persist in numerous ways.

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

Journalist and author Tony Horwitz grew up with an interest in the American Civil War because of his great-grandfather’s obsession with the subject. His great-grandfather, Isaac Moses Perski (also known as "Poppa Isaac"), immigrated to the United States in 1882, well after the end of the Civil War. One of...

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Journalist and author Tony Horwitz grew up with an interest in the American Civil War because of his great-grandfather’s obsession with the subject. His great-grandfather, Isaac Moses Perski (also known as "Poppa Isaac"), immigrated to the United States in 1882, well after the end of the Civil War. One of Poppa Isaac’s first acquisitions in his new country was a book of Civil War sketches, which the Russian immigrant studiously reviewed for the remainder of his long life. Tony Horwitz’s fascination with the war was inspired by his beloved Poppa Isaac’s love of that book and his father’s practice of reading to young Tony from a multivolume illustrated history of the Civil War.

As Tony Horwitz matured, the topic of the Civil War was rarely far from his mind. However, it was not until he returned to the United States after a long period reporting abroad, mostly on conflicts in other regions, that he found his own interest in the Civil War rekindled. Having settled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Horwitz found himself immersed not only among the ghosts of the war, but also among those who refused to let the war slip into the past. 

Confederates in the Attic, then, is his exploration of Southern culture with an emphasis on the legacy of the War of Northern Aggression, the designation used by Southerners to refer to the Civil War. Early in his narrative, Horwitz describes the scene in one family’s home that illuminates the depth to which passions considered ancient in the North remain fresh in the South. While interviewing a military historian and “new-Confederate guru” named Grady McWhiney, Horwitz sums up the Southern man’s perspective,

Viewed through this prism [that of the victimized Southerner], the War of Northern Aggression had little to do with slavery. Rather, it was a culture war in which the Yankees imposed their imperialist and capitalistic will on the agrarian South, just as the English had done to the Irish and Scots—and as the Americans did the Indians and Mexicans in the name of Manifest Destiny.

Throughout Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz provides telling anecdotes about the scars imposed on the Southern psyche as a result of the war. Reenactments of major battles by authentically-clad and armed citizens loyal to the heritage of the South are a staple of life in this vast region of the United States, and resentment toward Abraham Lincoln and his successors remains strong. To them, the Civil War was not fought over slavery; it was fought over riches, driven by Lincoln’s determination to plunder the South’s rich agrarian economic system for the benefit of the industrial North.

Horwitz’s travels take him from Virginia to North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and even Pennsylvania, the site of Gettysburg. Along the way he speaks to Civil War reenactors, historians of Southern and Civil War history, Southerners who celebrate Confederate holidays, descendents of Confederate soldiers, a widow of a Confederate soldier, a laid-off trucker visiting the major Civil War battlefields in reverse chronological order, collectors of Civil War artifacts, racists, right-wing conspiracy theorists, Harley Davidson-riding bikers, and many others.

As a whole, Confederates in the Attic contains Horwitz’s observations about the vast distinction between the North and the South that survives more than a century after the Civil War’s end. It instills in the reader a sense of the animosity and pride that continues to permeate the American South.

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