by Matthew Oglesby
I first discovered Tony Horwitz’s writing in 2013. I was staying at my parents’ house in Havana, Florida, a couple miles outside Tallahassee. A great enthusiast, my stepdad Dennis (whom I always considered my dad), told me he was reading a book about the Civil War. He said I should read it, and I told him I would, but I didn’t really plan to — even though he had introduced me to writers like Truman Capote and Ferrol Sams. But a book about the Civil War? No, thank you.
All of that changed a couple of days later, on a sunny afternoon in June. We had rented a candy-colored beach house on the Panhandle’s Gulf Coast. On the very first day, after frying up a hill of bacon, we waited while the women got ready. Dennis paced around the kitchen, clipping and unclipping bifocals over his nose and peering out the window.
“It’s gonna rain,” he fretted. “I’m telling you, if they don’t hurry up, it’s gonna rain.”
He must have known something was wrong. He had been acting strange — skittish — all day. He died that afternoon, a heart attack on the beach.
In the days following Dennis’s funeral, I started reading Confederates in the Attic, which I’d found tucked in his beach bag. Dog-ear folds still showed on the pages, but for some reason they didn’t bother me. It didn’t hurt that Tony Horwitz was so darn engaging. Full of freshness and geniality, his voice struck me first, and it still appeals to me now. This wasn’t your average Civil War book.
When Tony Horwitz died suddenly of similar causes six years later, I thought of Dennis: the pain I felt, the pain Horwitz’s family must feel. Horwitz was a historian, a reporter, and, in my view, the consummate chronicler of the South. When he died, Horwitz was back in the city where he was born, Washington, D.C., scheduled the following night for a reading from what would be his final book — Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide — at the District’s celebrated Politics and Prose bookstore.
For the past 10 years, I have lived in the two poles of the Civil War — in Washington, capital of the Union, and Richmond, Virginia, the South’s provisional capital. You can’t walk the streets of Washington or Richmond without constant reminders of our country’s history and the great weight of America’s original sin: slavery. Both places brim with plaques and monuments and grand memorials commemorating places and names I read about in school. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t get myself interested in the Civil War: It all seemed too proximal, too redolent of junior-high American history.
In Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz brings the Civil War to life by reenacting it — both figuratively and literally — and by drawing on his own personal obsession. Introduced to the Civil War by his grandfather, Horwitz quickly becomes enthralled, painting battle scenes on the walls of his childhood attic. But over time his obsession fades, replaced by other adolescent fascinations, manifesting only in Horwitz’s career as a wartime correspondent reporting from combat zones in Iraq, Bosnia, Lebanon, Sudan, and Northern Ireland.
“For someone who professed a hatred of guns,” Horwitz writes, “I had spent an awful lot of time watching people shoot at each other.”
Horwitz’s passion for Civil War history lays dormant for years until one morning, while drinking coffee with his wife Geraldine Brooks — the Australian American journalist and novelist whose 2005 novel March won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — they hear gunfire outside their house in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Looking out the window, Horwitz is surprised to see men dressed in Confederate gray. When he goes outside to investigate, he learns that their little village, with its rural landscape of fields and cows and crooked split-rail fences, is the set for a TV documentary depicting the Battle of Fredericksburg. This chance encounter reignites Horwitz’s interest in the Civil War. He sets off on an odyssey across the South, visiting Charleston, Columbia, Kentucky, Greenville (where he visits Shelby Foote), Shiloh, Atlanta, and many other landmarks of the Civil War — the war that occurred in 10,000 places, as historians are fond of saying — recording the stories he hears along the way.
The book’s subtitle, “Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War,” sums up Horwitz’s project nicely. In Confederates in the Attic,he affects the naivete of an innocent traveler in a strange land, casually drifting from place to place without much of a plan, happening upon insight while gathering impressions from a Rebel-obsessed South. In the new book, Spying on the South, Horwitz follows the B&O (“Baltimore and Ohio”) Railroad trek that Frederick Law Olmsted, celebrated landscape architect of New York’s Central Park, took across the South while working as a roving correspondent for the The New-York Daily Times (later known simply as The New York Times).
“The closest I could come to retracing his rail path was aboard the Amtrak’s daily service between Washington, D.C., and Chicago,” Horwitz writes. “The train followed part of the old B&O route. … I planned to do the same. Beyond that I had no plan, other than to follow Olmsted’s path by whatever transport I could. Parallel journeys, 160 years apart: what he saw then and what I’d see now. No bookings. No itinerary. Just a ramble across America with long-dead Fred as my guide.”
Restless and nostalgic for a romanticized South that no longer exists and maybe never did, Horwitz instead finds something much closer to the suburban South of my youth. Both books are filled with strikingly accurate descriptions of the juxtaposition that is the new South and the old: tract-home sprawls and shopping-center malls across from winding country roads and red-clay farmland; faux-plantation motels and desolate K-Marts; car plants and trailers with satellite dishes sprouting over former cotton fields.
A great writer inspires both recognition of the soul and the world we live in. In Confederates in the Attic and Spying on the South, Horwitz brilliantly pins down our region, a landscape caught between modernity and small-town America, with the two often existing side by side.
In 2013, when I first plucked Confederates in the Attic from Dennis’s beach bag, we were still living in the relative idyll that was President Barack Obama’s “post-racial” United States. Now, as I reread the book, I am struck by how spot-on, how diagnostic and prescient, Horwitz’s observations were — not only back then but also and certainly now, in the regressive racial landscape that is Trump’s America.
Published in 1999, when the three most powerful men in the United States were Southerners — with an Arkansan occupying the White House, a Tennessean as vice president, and a Georgian as speaker of the House of Representatives — the action of Confederates in the Attic takes place more than 20 years ago, but it reads like a clipping from yesterday’s newspaper. The party of Lincoln, once repulsive to earlier generations of Southerners, today embraces some of the same vile sentiments that brewed in the years before the Civil War.
“No current issue [carries] the moral and explosive force of slavery,” Horwitz writes. “But there [are] inescapable echoes of the 1850s: extreme polarization, racial strife, demonization of the other side, embrace of inflamed opinion over reasoned dialogue and debate. Was the nation unraveling into hostile confederacies? Had that happened already?”
In Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz draws parallels between Newt Gingrich and the GOP’s “Contract With America” and the Confederate Constitution, with both calling for budget balancing, curbs on taxation, and other restraints on the state — reflecting a fundamental distrust of government that has been exacerbated by President Trump and the magnifying force of social media. As I reread Confederates and reflected on the South it depicts, I couldn’t help but think of certain resonances between Gingrich’s mid-’90s America, 1850s America, and the America of today — a similarity that becomes even clearer when rereading Confederates in tandem with Spying on the South.
“We still think this little state of ours has the right to decide a lot of the questions that big government is taking over,” Dotsy Boineau, a neo-Confederate Civil War relic collector tells Horwitz in Columbia, while nearby, in the capitol building, South Carolina’s state’s rights governor pledges to keep the battle flag flying (a promise he later tries to walk back). Bud Sharpe, a 55-year-old construction foreman, tells Horwitz, “First they integrated the schools, then they integrated everything. … I feel like the flag’s the only thing working people like me have left. … We should have [something] to look back on. … Once the flag’s gone, they’ll want to go after this.” He gestures wistfully to a nearby Confederate monument. “I feel like I’ve swallowed enough for one lifetime.”
The majority feeling threatened by the minority (“Don’t put us where they used to be,” one woman tells Horwitz). An out-of-control government supported by a lawless underclass. Left-wing bureaucrats trying to dictate behavior. Black-hearted businessmen, big bankers, and Northern industrialists lording over the “laid off, down-sized, put down” working man. Fights erupting over Confederate monuments and displays of the rebel flag.
These are grievances Confederate secessionists expressed in the years before the Civil War and the same sentiments Horwitz depicts in Confederates in the Attic. Nearly 20 years later, retracing Olmsted’s journey “across the nation’s enduring fault line — between free and slave states in his time, and red and blue states in mine,” Horwitz updates his views in Spying on the South. The difference 20 years makes? In Confederates in the Attic, the rebel-flag protestors and neo-Confederate amateur historians that Horwitz describes — and miraculously humanizes — are decidedly on the fringe of society. Today, these groups have become more mainstream, with media like Breitbart News espousing their views and an ardent supporter in the White House.
If the books have a unifying theme, it is a dark awareness of the past’s weight on present-day Southern attitudes. In both books, Horwitz quotes Robert Penn Warren, author of the fictional classic, All the King’s Men, loosely based on Huey Long, Louisiana’s famed Depression-era governor.
“History, like nature, knows no jumps,” Warren observed in 1956, writing about white resistance to civil rights. “Except the jump backward.”
Or, in the words of a pastor at a black church in Kentucky that Horwitz visits: “Ain’t nothing change but the years.”
One of the enduring merits of both books is the way in which Horwitz humanizes the people he portrays, many of them rancorous and full of distrust for the government and the “dangerous other.” Horwitz observes these people with a steady, dispassionate eye — without solidarity or sentiment, but with a sort of intricate sympathy.
“I’m here to defend my race against the government and the Jewish-controlled media,” one man named Walt tells Horwitz. A couple of pages later, Horwitz admits: “There was a feisty iconoclasm about Walt that I couldn’t help admiring, even if he was on the mailing list of every hate group in America.” In passages like these, peppered throughout the books, one senses, if not kinship, then at least a gentle understanding, a genuine interest and curiosity.
I am not at all religious, not anymore. I don’t believe in higher purposes or the mystical “meant to be.” But I do, strangely, cling to the belief that books reach you when they need to. I’ll often put down a book, knowing that it will come to me later, when I need it. I have that kind of faith. Like a favorite album, we love books not only for what they are, but the time in which they come to us and the memories we associate with them.
It was years after Dennis died when I moved from Washington to Richmond, and then back. And then back and forth. Now I move between the two, while also maintaining residence in Atlanta. Leaving my house in Richmond, I pass the grand Robert E. Lee memorial on Monument Avenue, with its large green moat of manicured grass. Puttering along the traffic-clogged interstate to Washington, I pass signs for the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, a little white house where the famed Confederate general died in 1863 after one of his own soldiers shot him. Whenever I see these monuments and memorials, I think of the grave where Dennis lies, and I think of Tony Horwitz: the books he left behind grand memorials to a South still divided but healing.