In the aftermath of tragedy–9/11, Katrina, Sandy Hook–I have always sought information. With my experience as a researcher, and tendency towards obsessive compulsiveness, I am easily submerged in my search. When I heard about shooting in Charleston, I turned to online news outlets to keep up with the news, but I turned to my bookshelf, too.
I sought perspective and understanding in an old favorite, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz. Published in 1998, Confederates in the Attic is the story of Horwitz’s year-long trek across the South in an attempt to understand why Americans are still obsessed with the Civil War. Horwitz, fascinated himself by the Civil War since childhood, once painted a mural of the conflict in his attic. Those two-dimensional soldiers come alive chapter by chapter in the form of the ancestors and ideologues who revere them still.
Though there is a comfort of sorts in any re-reading, I found little this time around. Granted, my reading was piecemeal. I skipped the book’s most amusing moments featuring hardcore re-enactor Robert Lee Hodge, and I didn’t even make it to Horwitz’s account of Montgomery, Alabama, and its Civil War/Civil Rights dichotomy. Chapter one, “North Carolina: The Cats of the Confederacy,” took the heart right out of me.
It must be the cat lover in me that finds something amusing about an organization called Cats of the Confederacy, whose members “wear gray ribbons with cat pins and get together and tell stories about cats in the War” (33). There’s nothing funny, however, about the fact that Cats of the Confederacy is a corollary of organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Children of the Confederacy (33). You many have seen one of their members on CNN this week explaining why the Confederate flag should continue to fly.
The last time I read Confederates in the Attic, I had no context for these groups; they seemed kind of silly and harmless. Reading about them again, having seen members defend an incendiary flag embraced by a domestic terrorist, I’m not so sure. I feel like I did when I visited Germany, wondering if every old man who boarded my bus was once a Nazi.
It’s true: you never read the same book twice. But maybe, once justice has been served and the Confederate flag no longer flies over South Carolina, I’ll read Confederates in the Attic again. This time with a different heart.