Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Rebel Read

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Horowitz's Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War explores the continuing legacy of the Civil War in the American South. A sometimes touching, sometimes scary, sometimes downright hilarious travelogue, the book traces the path of the war, beginning in South Carolina and marching up to Maryland and Pennsylvania. Horowitz attempts to decipher not only what the Confederate legacy means to the South but also what "Southerness" means. Why does "the South" insist upon flying rebel flags and hoisting monuments to dead generals? Can a line be drawn between racism and honoring the dead? Is "states rights" just a way to disguise the war motivation of slavery? Or, was the real conflict industry and imperialism versus agrarianism?

Some interesting tidbits from the book:

  • The black-and-white Civil War photographs I'd studied as a child had blurred together, forming a Rorschach blot in which Americans now saw all sorts of unresolved strife: over race, sovereignty, the sanctity of historic landscapes, and who should interpret the past.
  • I recognized the appeal of dwelling on the South's past rather than its present. Stepping from my room into the motel parking lot, I gazed out at a low-slung horseshoe of ferroconcrete called Towne Mall, a metal-and-cement forest of humming electricity pylons, a Kmart, a garish yellow Waffle House, a pink-striped Dunkin' Donuts, plus Taco Bell, Bojangles, Burger King, the Golden Arches of McDonald's, and the equally gaudy signs for Exxon, BP, and Shell hoisted like battle flags above a melee of competing brands. I wondered sleepily what Confederate General Albert Johnston would make of the view from the Econo Lodge. 
  • I began to hear echoes of defeated peoples I'd encountered overseas: Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians, Catholics in Northern Ireland. Like them, Southerners had kept fighting their war by other means. 
  • Perhaps the North and South went to war because they represented two distinct and irreconcilable cultures, right down to their bloodlines. While most Southerners descended from fierce, freedom-loving Celts in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Northerners--New England in particular--came from mercantile and expansionist English stock. This ethnography could even explain how the War was fought. Like their brace and heedless forebears, Southerners hurled themselves in frontal assaults on the enemy. The North, meanwhile, deployed its industrial might and numerical superiority to grind down the South with Cromwellian efficiency. Viewed through this prism, the "War of Northern Aggression" was not just about slavery. Rather, it was a culture war in which Yankees imposed their imperialist and capitalistic will on the agrarian South, just as the English had done to the Irish and Scots--and as America did to the Indians and the Mexicans in the name of Manifest Destiny. The North's triumph condemned the national to a centralized, industrial society and all the ills that come with it. 
  • Huff pulled a book from his shelf and read me a poem called "The Conquered Banner," composed by a Confederate chaplain after the Civil War. "Furl that Banner, for tis weary;/ Round its staff its drooping dreary;/ Furl it, fold it, it is best;/ For there's not a man to wave it,/And there's not a sword to save it,/And there's not one left to lave it/ In the blood which heroes gave it;/ And its foes now scorn and brave it;/ Furl it, hide it--let it rest." Huff closed the book. "It's too bad nobody reads that poem anymore," he said. 

I'm only about half-way through, but I haven't been this engrossed in a book in a long time. I'll post again, with more thoughts and quotes, I'm sure!

What are your thoughts on the Civil War and the "South"?

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