Why do southerners care so much about the Civil War? In lively prose that has helped make this book a classic, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War cuts through facile conclusions by quoting the words of southerners themselves, both Black and white.
Along the way Horwitz relates his own experience as a Jewish Civil War buff and comes back again and again to the good humored young man from Ohio who leads a band of Confederate reenactors so hardcore that they sleep without tents out in the fields at night in cold, rain or snow, spooning to stay warm.
A group of Black students and their teacher see the Civil War as a white man’s affair, and think any remembrance of it, whether a statue or a battle reenactment, is racist. On the other side, at an impoverished town in southern Kentucky, country boys aim to start a race war to put whites back on top that they see as an extension of the shots fired at Fort Sumter in 1861.
Black separatists praise Louis Farrakhan, despite his hatred for Jews, and embrace Malcom X. White separatists wear the Southern Cross battle flag on baseball caps. Both sides seem to have come to an uneasy truce to accept each other’s symbols of a new racial segregation. In the words of one character in the book, “You wear your X and I’ll wear mine.”
Along the way, Horwitz meets other people who counsel reconciliation and understanding, some of them in unexpected places. A funny and sad book, Horwitz ends up where he began, with his grandfather, a Jew who emigrated from Russia to New York to escape pogroms in the 1880s — and, surprisingly, who was also a Civil War buff.
Why? There’s something about caring about the Civil War that makes someone a true American. This book inspires fruitful meditations on how the Civil War, whether it’s really past or still happening in some sense, unites Americans as it divides us.