Long Division

Long Division

Long Division

Reading between the lines.
April 8 1998 3:30 AM

Long Division

The enduring weirdness of that war.

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War
By Tony Horwitz
Pantheon Books; 406 pages; $27.50

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Tony Horwitz has done something remarkable. He has written a book about the Civil War that will interest not only war enthusiasts but also people who find the subject a vexation or a bore. Speaking as one of the latter, I discovered that Horwitz made me confront my aversion in a way that was both troubling and revealing. Let me explain.

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I was born in the South of two Southern parents but raised mainly on Army posts, curious nonplaces that, even when located in the South, feel more like Ohio than like Alabama or Georgia or North Carolina. Growing up on an Army post, we brats looked at the civilian world with a wary eye, particularly in the South, where we were doubly different: not just outsiders and transients but also Goddamn Yankees.

If we went off-post to school, we adjusted to Southern folkways, standing at football games for the "national anthem," as "Dixie" was called, even though we knew that our anthem was the one heard at the parade grounds on weekends. More important, in those pre-integration days, we attended lily-white classes and witnessed racial barriers that were absent, or at least being dismantled, back on the forts.

Tied to this Jim Crow order was a social reality that seemed as peculiar as any I had experienced overseas. Years later, reading Walker Percy's superb essays on race and civil rights, I had it spelled out for me: The South, at least the white South before integration, was one big kinship lodge. And it was precisely because the public realm was taken to be an extension of family that white Southerners took any effort to bring blacks into it as a direct attack on their most intimate social space.

Idimly sensed this whenever, as a boy, I visited my Southern relatives. People I barely knew talked to me--and "did for me," as they say down there--as though I were their brother or cousin. I was touched by these kindnesses, but also suspicious: Why were they doing this? What did I owe them? Beyond the suspicion lay a Puritan sense that this was all dreadfully wrong.

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That is why this semi-Southerner does not like to think about the Civil War, particularly about the way Southerners fetishize the whole Lost Cause business. It takes him back to memories that lie uneasily at the base of his identity. I can't help but think that many white Americans share this queasy ambivalence.

Horwitz turns out to be an oddly perfect guide for us divided souls. A descendant of Russian Jews, born and raised in the North (to the extent that Maryland is the North), he would seem to have little reason for interest in that war. But this is America, and when Horwitz's great-grandfather, Poppa Isaac, made his way from czarist Russia to the East Side of New York, one of his first purchases was a book about the Civil War. The interest was passed on, and Horwitz's father, a physician, kept his son up late at night reading from the 10-volume Photographic History of the Civil War. By third grade, Horwitz fils was completing his own "highly derivative" history of the war and commencing a Sistine-scale project: a mural of the war, pro-Rebel in slant, that would soon cover every inch of attic wall space.

Horwitz soon put aside such childish things. As a Wall Street Journal reporter, he covered both the Gulf War and Bosnia and, returning to the States, settled with his wife in the shadow of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. There he lived in tranquil expectation of their first child until one day, a band of Civil War re-enactors stumbled into their yard in search of water.

This encounter with "hard-core" re-enactors--whose dedication to authenticity includes camping out under thin blankets and huddling spoon-style to share body heat--brought Horwitz's curiosity about Civil War mania to a head. Where did it come from? Some people who were thus obsessed were so because, as Horwitz notes, "roughly half of modern-day white Southerners descended from Confederates, and one in four Southern men of military age died in [it]." But there was a greater prod to Southern memory: defeat. Losers don't forget. Nor do their children. The only Southerners who want to blot it out are black Southerners, who wish that all the noise and symbolism would go away.

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T hese are generalities, of course. The strength of Horwitz's book lies in his gift for fleshing them out through precisely rendered encounters with Southerners of all walks and all colors, united only by the common Southern compulsion to answer a question with a story. Such meetings, spontaneous and arranged, punctuate Horwitz's zigzag journey through the Old Confederacy, with stops at battlefields, museums, redneck bars, gatherings of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an Afrocentric school, and the living rooms of countless affable Southerners.

If this makes Horwitz sound like a journalistic Sherman, he wears his Yankee bias lightly. "Y'all always do the same," says the white mayor of 60 percent black Selma, Ala., at the end of their interview. "Come in here smiling and then go home and write a dig at us." Not only does Horwitz not do this, but he also understands that the mayor's remark was the real point of the interview--that and the jocularly aggrieved way in which he made it.

What comes through repeatedly is not just grievance but also the pride, vulnerability, and sometimes desperation of people who see their lives and daily predicaments as having been shaped by a cataclysm that occurred more than 130 years ago. There's probably no staler chestnut than the Southern alibi that it wasn't slavery's defense but honor and loyalty to place that made most Confederates take up arms to fight the Northern "aggressors." Yet, in the mouths of the white townsfolk of Salisbury, N.C., it sounds convincing. Horwitz makes us see that the pinched circumstances of their lives are not so different from the conditions of their ancestors, dirt-poor yeoman farmers who seldom saw, much less owned, a slave. For such people, then and now, a sense of place and community is not merely the most sustaining fact of daily life, it is the most dignifying.

Not much further into the book we are treated to a more worked-up, intellectualized version of the alibi--today called the "neo-Confederate" ideology. But because it is put forward by a fatuous Charleston, S.C., college professor, we hear it for what Horwitz rightly calls it: "a clever glide around race and slavery, rather like the slick-tongued defense of the Southern 'way of life' made by antebellum orators, South Carolinians in particular." Horwitz doesn't leave it there. He's neither immune to the professor's charm nor untroubled by what the professor says about the Northern agenda: "a culture war in which Yankees imposed their imperialist and capitalist will on the agrarian South, just as they had done to the Irish and Scots."

Many moments in the book are indelible. There's nothing but tragedy in the trial of a young black man who has killed a white man for driving on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday weekend with a Confederate flag flying on his truck, an incident that has thoroughly riven the once fairly harmonious town of Guthrie, Ky. Almost as unsettling is the conversation Horwitz has with the bright black woman who founded an Afrocentric alternative school in Selma, a conversation that soon breaks down in a venomous exchange over Louis Farrakhan. "Don't tell us who our leaders should be!" she snaps.

Poking around the Civil War can lead both to such impasses and to bleak comedy. What more need be said about the name given to Selma's all-black housing project, the Nathan B. Forrest Homes, than what Horwitz dryly observes: "an odd choice, given Forrest's notoriety as a slave trader and Imperial Wizard of the KKK"?

This is outstanding journalism, artfully constructed and unfailingly vivid, as good a rendering as I've seen of the mysterious pull at the heart of American identity. Being fascinated by the Civil War is central to what Robert Penn Warren called "the very ritual of being American." If so, there may be no more fitting conclusion than Horwitz's tentative insight into his great-grandfather's attraction: "Poppa Isaac came from learned, rabbinical stock. Maybe he sensed that the Civil War was an American Talmud that would unlock the secrets of his adopted land and make him feel a part of it."