One of the basic themes that is examined in Confederates in the Attic is the obsession and fascination that people have with the Civil War, on both sides. From the most hardcore Civil War re-enactors to the people who still speak fondly of the Confederacy, that unique campaign holds a permanent and interesting place in the hearts of many Americans. It intrigues us and carries a special spirit in the American consciousness for many reasons.
Why is this? Perhaps it’s because it’s the one conflict that pitted brother against brother, where both sides were American. Just this once, the enemy was a part of us, and that is something we are not used to. We always want to think of the enemy as a mysterious “other” that we cannot identify with, but this time it was people that we knew, and worked and played with. An entire half of the country fought against the other half in order to form their own nation, because of the things they believed in. That is certainly a very romantic image to think back on for a lot of people.
All the same, while there are many who reminisce and wonder what it was like to fight for the Union, there are a great many people who still identify with the Confederacy. It is possible that they see something of themselves in those rebels: a shared dissatisfaction with the way the federal government is running the country, common ideals that have been left behind by the wheels of progress, the list goes on. The typical Confederate sympathizer will think back to how things used to be – the “good old days” – and wish it were like that again. They will do whatever it takes to capture that spirit of rebellion that captivated their imagination. So, they reenact Civil War battles, or they put a Confederate flag on their truck or clothing. These things help them to set themselves apart from the rest of society, allowing them to live on the fringe.
There is a certain romanticism about the Confederacy that attracts many people to it. Even those who disagree ideologically with their practices can still find a certain simplicity and charm in their ways at the same time as they condemn concepts like racism, which was supported wholeheartedly by the South. There is also within that nostalgia a desire to return to the past, when things like cell phones and personal computers, not to mention 9 to 5 office jobs and electric cars were a thing of the past.
People can look upon the era of the Civil War as a perfect confluence of convenience and romantic frontier adventure; the West was still being tamed, and America was finding its legs as a country. You only ever really knew the people from your home town, and you could only talk to whoever was there. Those who are stressed out by the constant hustle and bustle can feel the need to sit back and relax, do away with some conveniences, and be transported back to a time when people lived simply and honestly.
There are also those who are simply fascinated by the period and the strategy of it; they re-enact Civil War battles with almost painstaking accuracy, no watches or cell phones are allowed on the battlefield. People even starve themselves to get the right look. These people are absolutely committed to achieving the realism of the piece, even when it is far from glamorous. Perhaps they acknowledge that modern life is too easy, and they want to experience risk and adventure. They wish to be honest to the time period, and the actions and activities of these real soldiers who fought 150 years beforehand.
Confederates in the Attic seeks to capture these types of people, and understand the spirit behind what they do. This is very well captured in the section where Horwitz visits the ‘hardcore’ Civil War re-enactors. With their matter-of-fact professionalism and seriousness towards their craft, you can tell that they are committed and proud of their work. Some pee on their buttons to get the right look; others sew their own period-specific clothes. All of them are looking for what they call a “period high,” where they can actually transport themselves back to the 1860s and feel what it was like to be part of history. (Horwitz 1998)
It is possible that that is what draws people to the Civil War – the chance to be a part of history that is uniquely theirs. With other wars, the history and experiences are shared with another country, but with this one, the experience is wholly American. It is tied with thoughts of the Wild West, the frontier, and a time when people were still pioneering and exploring our country. These sorts of romantic images capture the imagination, and all of it under a backdrop of civil war, pitting Americans against each other to defend their convictions, only serves to enhance that feeling.
Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York:
Pantheon, 1998. Print.