Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: Confederates in the Attic

When looking for books on reenacting Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horowitz, 1998 inevitably comes up. But Confederates is not a book about reenacting, it is a journalist’s look at the South and its relationship with history, specifically the Civil War. Horowitz talks about race, about the psychology of defeat, about economics and memory. I found the book a fairly uncomfortable read, but Horowitz’s subject is a fairly uncomfortable one for most Americans. I found fascinating the parts of the book that focused on different interpretations of the same history: the different experiences of black and white students, of authors and archaeologists, of rich and poor folks. Living historians experience this dichotomy all the time since we are so often caught in the middle between academic historians and the public perception of history. I also paid much closer attention to the parts of the book that focused on reenacting.

In the Introduction Horowitz writes that his boyhood interest in the Civil War was re-sparked when he met a group of “hardcore” reenactors who were acting as extras on a movie being shot just outside his home. He developed the idea for the book after joining the same group of reenactors for a weekend drilling in a cold and damp field.

He comes back to reenacting in Chapter 6, where he participates in a reenactment event of a more typical variety. At the reenactment he participates in a battle, peels vegetables with civilians and gets a pretty good picture of Civil War reenacting. A lot of the views he expresses are fairly stereotypical; but they are well articulated which makes the chapter to me a good starting off place for those of us who are looking for language to describe reenacting. He talks about hardcores, farbs and all the rest of the people in between, about the battle part of the reenactment and the civilian part around the edges, about the multiple Abraham Lincolns one might run into, about women’s roles on the outskirts of the reenactment. He encounters a lot of people who tell him they love reenacting because “life was simpler back then.” Throughout the chapter he explores the friction created by folks “playing” with a deadly serious topic, and basically ignoring the racial strife of the civil war. He captured some of his observations in the form of participant quotes:

"We're here to preserve the experience on the common soldier, North and South," said Ray Gill a gray-clad Connecticut Accountant. "I hate to call it a hobby, because it's so much more than that. We're here to find the real answers, to read between the lines in the history books, and then share our experience with spectators."

He ends up summarizing Civil War reenacting as: “a grand spectacle that glorified battlefield valor and the stoicism of civilians.” I agree that there is definitely a high quotient of spectacle in reenactment.

Reenacting shows up in several other chapters. Horowitz participates in a whirl-wind tour of Virginia sites with Civil War significance with a reenactor who insists the tour be done in garb. While Horowitz might not be terribly comfortable in the clothes himself, he is even more uncomfortable with the reactions of the public to their appearance at historic sites. As folks in costume, they get comments and stares, they also get questions and become experts just because they are dressed up. While it makes the author uncomfortable to be placed in the role of expert, his companion appears used to it, and has a routine all worked out. I think that we in the reenacting community need to come up with a proverb or an adage that warns folks who put on the clothes about what they will be expected to know.

In his chapter on Georgia (specifically Atlanta) Horowitz discovers the reenactment of fictional events when he looks at locals’ relationship with “Gone with the Wind”. He meets a professional “Scarlet” who mostly does her act for groups of Japanese tourists, and he meets the owner of “the real Tara” though there actually never was a real Tara. Anyone who has attended a Jane Austin tea or a Charles Dickens Christmas party can understand the allure of a literary history that, while based in fact, may be much more poetic than real life, and colorful, and evocative. Again, Horowitz is not a reenactor and his audience is not mainly reenactors, so he does not necessarily dwell on the connections, but they are there for those of us who see the world through a LH lens.

Horowitz also comes back to reenactment in his conclusion. He again joins in a reenactment and asks of himself and the people around him: what is the allure of the Civil War? Why this obsession? That is the question that LH folks often end up asking themselves. Horowitz does not have an answer. I don’t either, but I’m glad he asked the question.


  1. Apparently, though, dressing up for places and events one isn't associated with is not as uncommon as I would have thought. One person recently commented on Living History Worldwide:

    "Since we were staying at an historical B&B, we decided to take our "Victorian garb". Once there, we noticed that at Balboa Park (a huge park with several different museums) , the Art Museum was having a Lautrec Exhibition and thought we'd wear the Victorian garb to see the exhibit."

    But just like Horowitz, I too would have issues wearing my re-enacting kit to a historical site I wasn't affiliated with. I'm just not comfortable with turning into an "instant expert" when I'm not.

  2. I really enjoy reading your book reviews. Although it's not easy for me to pick up books right now I'm definitely going to check out your blog when I'm next looking for something to read! Thanks!

  3. Gobae, it sounds like this would make a good podcast topic! Stephen and I will try to get back in the recording studio soon.
    So many of us put on the clothes because we are interested in the history, and in gaining knowledge so we often become experts (or at least more knowledgeable than most of the population.) But it is strange, since our culture assigns such a high value to property rights, and image control that we would share that knowledge in places that are not previously sanctioned. I have not yet decided if this is a good or a bad thing, I admit I tend to follow the rules myself, but it is definitely something worth thinking about.

  4. Renna, Thanks! I don't mind doing the reading, especially on a topic so close to my heart. If there are any books out there you would like to see reviewed, please let me know I'd be happy to oblige.

  5. Another thought I had was about the criteria they used to decide they were going to bring and wear their garb. Was it just because of the date the B&B was built, or because of something historical that happened there? Using the former criteria (which is often how B&B's market themselves) I'd be wearing ACW garb all the time because our house was built in 1863! :)

  6. did families reenact together in the book or was it a choice if you wanted to or not

    1. Cameron, It has been a while since I read the book, all the interviews with reenactors that I remember were with individuals. In fact, I think it is pretty rare among reenactors that you would find a family member forced to reenact if they had given it a chance and found they did not enjoy it. Does your question come from personal experience?

  7. in the book did families also reenact or was it a choice