CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC
In 1965, a century after Appomattox, the Civil War
began for me at a musty apartment in New Haven, Connecticut. My
great-grandfather held a magnifying glass to his spectacles and studied
an enormous book spread open on the rug. Peering over his shoulder, I
saw pen-and-ink soldiers hurtling up at me with bayonets.
I was six, Poppa Isaac 101. Egg-bald, barely five
feet tall, Poppa Isaac lived so frugally that he sliced cigarettes in
half before smoking them. An elderly relative later told me that Poppa
Isaac bought the book of Civil War sketches soon after emigrating to
America in 1882. He often shared it with his children and grandchildren
before I came along.
Years later, I realized what was odd about this one
vivid memory of my great-grandfather. Isaac Moses Perski fled Czarist
Russia as a teenaged draft dodger--in Yiddish, a shirker--and arrived at
Ellis Island without money or English or family. He worked at a Lower
East Side sweatshop and lived literally on peanuts, which were cheap,
filling and nutritious. Why, I wondered, had this thrifty refugee chosen
as one of his first purchases in America a book written in a language he
could barely understand, about a war in a land he barely knew, a book
that he kept poring over until his death at 102?
By the time Poppa Isaac died, my father had begun
reading aloud to me each night from a ten-volume collection called The
Photographic History of the Civil War. Published in 1911, the volumes'
ripe prose sounded as foreign to me as the captions of my
great-grandfather's book must have seemed to him. So, like Poppa Isaac,
I lost myself in the pictures: sepia men leading sepia horses across
cornfields and creeks; jaunty volunteers, their faces framed by squished
caps and fire-hazard beards; barefoot Confederates sprawled in trench
mud, eyes open, limbs twisted like licorice. For me, the fantastical
creatures of Maurice Sendak held little magic compared to the manboys of
Mathew Brady who stared back across the century separating their lives
Before long, I began to read aloud with my father,
chanting the strange and wondrous rivers--Shenandoah, Rappahannock.
Chickahominy--and wrapping my tongue around the risible names of rebel
generals: Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, John Sappington Marmaduke, William
"Extra Billy" Smith, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. I learned about
palindromes from the Southern sea captain Raphael Semmes. And I began to
match Brady's still-deaths with the curt stutter of farm roads and rocks
that formed the photographer's backdrop: Mule Shoe, Slaughter Pen,
Bloody Lane, Devil's Den.
In third grade, I penciled a highly derivative Civil
War history of my own--"The war was started when after all the states
had sececed," it began--and embarked on an ambitious art project,
painting the walls of our attic with a lurid narrative of the conflict.
Preferring underdogs, I posted a life-sized Johnny Reb by the bathroom
door. A pharaonic frieze of rebel soldiers at Antietam stretched from
the stairs to the attic window. Albert Sidney Johnston's death at Shiloh
splashed across an entire wall. General Pickett and his men charged
bravely into the eaves.
I'd reached the summer of 1863 and run out of wall.
But standing in the middle of the attic, I could whirl and whirl and
make myself dizzy with my own cyclorama. The attic became my bedroom and
the murals inhabited my boyhood dreaming. And each morning I woke to a
comforting sound: my father bounding up the attic steps, blowing a mock
bugle call through his fingers and shouting, "General, the troops await
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER, the murals were still there and so was my
boyhood obsession. I'd just returned to America after nine years abroad
and moved to an old house in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
My Australian wife chose the spot; the fields and cows and crooked
fences fit Geraldine's image of outback America. For me, the place
stirred something else. I stared at a brick church still bullet-scarred
from a Civil War skirmish. In the lumpy village graveyard, I found
Confederates and Yankees buried side by side, some of them kin to each
other. Within an hour of our new home lay several of the battlegrounds
I'd painted as a child, and to which I now dragged Geraldine on weekend
At a picnic soon after our arrival, I overheard a
neighbor ask Geraldine how she liked Virginia. "Fine," she sighed.
"Except that my husband's become a Civil War bore."
I'd always been one, of course, but my obsession had
lain dormant for several decades. With adolescence had come other
passions, and I'd stuffed my toy musket, plastic rebel soldiers and
Lincoln Logs into a closet reserved for boyish things. A Day-Glo poster
of Jimi Hendrix supplanted Johnny Reb. Pickett's Charge and Antietam
Creek vanished behind dart boards, Star Trek posters and steep drifts of
But a curious thing had happened while I'd lived
abroad. Millions of Americans caught my childhood bug. Ken Burns's TV
documentary on the Civil War riveted the nation for weeks. Glory and
Gettysburg played to packed movie houses. The number of books on the
Civil War passed 60,000; a bibliography of works on Gettysburg alone ran
to 277 pages.
On the face of it, this fad seemed out of character
for America. Like most returning expatriates, I found my native country
new and strange, and few things felt stranger than America's amnesia
about its past. During the previous decade, I'd worked as a foreign
correspondent in lands where memories were elephantine: Bosnia, Iraq,
Northern Ireland, Aboriginal Australia. Serbs spoke bitterly of their
defeat by Muslim armies at Kosovo as though the battle had occurred
yesterday, not in 1389. Protestants in Belfast referred fondly to "King
Billy" as if he were a family friend rather than the English monarch who
led Orangemen to victory in 1690.
Returning to America, I found the background I lacked
wasn't historical, it was pop-cultural. People kept referring to TV
shows I'd missed while abroad, or to athletes and music stars I'd never
seen perform. In the newspaper, I read a government survey showing that
93 percent of American students couldn't identify "an important event"
in Philadelphia in 1776. Most parents also flunked; 73 percent of adults
didn't know what event "D-Day" referred to.
Yet Americans remained obsessed with the Civil War.
Nor was this passion confined to books and movies. Fights kept erupting
over displays of the rebel flag, over the relevancy of states' rights,
over a statue of Arthur Ashe slated to go up beside Robert E. Lee and
Stonewall Jackson in Richmond. Soon after my return, the Walt Disney
Company unveiled plans for a Civil War theme park beside the Manassas
battlefield. This provoked howls of protest that Disney would vulgarize
history and sully the nation's "hallowed ground." It seemed as though
the black-and-white 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.
THEN, EARLY ONE MORNING, the Civil War crashed into my bedroom. A loud
popping noise crackled just outside our window. "Is that what I think it
is?" Geraldine asked, bolting awake. We'd sometimes heard gunfire while
working in the Middle East, but it was the last sound we expected here,
in a hamlet of 250 where bleating sheep had been our reveille for the
past six months.
I went to the window and saw men in gray uniforms
firing muskets on the road in front of our house. Then a woman popped up
from behind a stone wall and yelled "Cut!" The firing stopped and the
Confederates collapsed in our yard. I brewed a pot of coffee, gathered
some mugs and went outside. It turned out that our village had been
chosen as the set for a TV documentary on Fredericksburg, an 1862 battle
fought partly along eighteenth-century streets that resembled ours.
But the men weren't actors, at least not
professionals, and they performed in the film shoot for little or no
pay. "We do this sort of thing most weekends anyway," said a lean rebel
with gunpowder smudges on his face and the felicitous name of Troy Cool.
In the local paper, I'd often read about Civil War
reenactors who staged mock battles with smoke bombs and reproduction
muskets. It was a popular hobby in our part of Virginia. But when I
asked about this, Troy Cool frowned. "We're hardcores," he said.
Between gulps of coffee--which the men insisted on
drinking from their own tin cups rather than our ceramic mugs--Cool and
his comrades explained the distinction. Hardcores didn't just dress up
and shoot blanks. They sought absolute fidelity to the 1860s: its
homespun clothing, antique speech patterns, sparse diet and simple
utensils. Adhered to properly, this fundamentalism produced a
time-travel high, or what hardcores called a "period rush."
"Look at these buttons," one soldier said, fingering
his gray wool jacket. "I soaked them overnight in a saucer filled with
urine." Uric acid oxidized the brass, giving it the patina of buttons
from the 1860s. "My wife woke up this morning, sniffed the air and said,
`Tim, you've been peeing on your buttons again.'"
In the field, hardcores ate only foods that Civil War
soldiers consumed, such as hardtack and salt pork. And they limited
their speech to mid-nineteenth-century dialect and topics. "You don't
talk about Monday Night football," Tim explained. "You curse Abe Lincoln
or say things like, `I wonder how Becky's getting on back at the farm.'"
One hardcore took this Method acting to a bizarre
extreme. His name was Robert Lee Hodge and the soldiers pointed him out
as he ambled toward us. Hodge looked as though he'd stepped from a Civil
War tintype: tall, rail-thin, with a long pointed beard and a butternut
uniform so frayed and filthy that it clung to his lank frame like rags
to a scarecrow.
As he drew near, Troy Cool called out, "Rob, do the
bloat!" Hodge clutched his stomach and crumpled to the ground. His belly
swelled grotesquely, his hands curled, his cheeks puffed out, his mouth
contorted in a rictus of pain and astonishment. It was a flawless
counterfeit of the bloated corpses photographed at Antietam and
Gettysburg that I'd so often stared at as a child.
Hodge leapt to his feet and smiled. "It's an
ice-breaker at parties," he said.
For Robert Lee Hodge, it was also a way of life. As
the Marlon Brando of battlefield bloating, he was often hired for Civil
War movies. He also posed--dead and alive--for painters and
photographers who reproduced Civil War subjects and techniques. "I go to
the National Archives a lot to look at their Civil War photographs," he
said. "You can see much more detail in the original pictures than you
can in books."
A crowd of blue-clad soldiers formed down the road.
It was time for the battle to resume. Hodge reached in his haversack and
handed me a business card. "You should come out with us sometime," he
said, his brown eyes boring into mine with evangelical fervor, "and see
what a period rush feels like." Then he loped off to join the other
rebels crouched behind a stone wall.
I watched the men fight for a while, then went back
inside and built a fire. I pulled down Poppa Isaac's book from the
shelf. The tome was so creased with age that the title had rubbed off
its spine and the pages discharged a puff of yellowed paper-dust each
time I opened the massive cover. Searching for pictures of
Fredericksburg, I quickly became lost in the Civil War, as I'd been so
often since our return to America.
Geraldine came in with a cup of coffee. She'd chatted
with a few of the men, too. "It's strange," she said, "but they seemed
like ordinary guys." One worked as a Bell Atlantic salesman, another as
a forklift operator. Even Robert Lee Hodge had seemed, well, normal.
During the week, he waited on tables and sometimes freelanced articles
for Civil War magazines. I'd once worked as a waiter, and at
twenty-eight, which was Hodge's age, I'd been a freelancer, too,
although writing about more recent wars.
Then again, I'd never spent weekends grubbing around
the woods in urine-soaked clothes, gnawing on salt pork and bloating in
the road. Not that my own behavior was altogether explicable, sitting
here in a crooked house in the hills of Virginia, poring over sketches
of long-dead Confederates. I was born seven years after the last rebel
soldier, Pleasant Crump, died at home in Lincoln, Alabama. I was raised
in Maryland, a border state in the Civil War that now belonged to the
"Mid-Atlantic States," a sort of regionless buffer between North and
South. Nor did I have blood ties to the War. My forebears were digging
potatoes and studying Torah between Minsk and Pinsk when Pleasant Crump
trudged through Virginia with the 10th Alabama.
I took out the card Robert Lee Hodge had given me. It
was colored Confederate gray; the phone number ended in 1865. Muskets
crackled outside and shrieks of mock pain filled the air. Why did this
war still obsess so many Americans 130 years after Appomattox? I
returned to Poppa Isaac's book. What did that war have to do with him,
or with me?
A FEW WEEKS LATER I gave Rob Hodge a call. He seemed
unsurprised to hear from me and renewed his offer to take me out in the
field. Hodge's unit, the Southern Guard, was about to hold a drill to
keep its skills sharp during the long winter layoff (battle
reenactments, like real Civil War combat, clustered between spring and
fall). "It'll be forty-eight hours of hardcore marching," he said.
Hodge gave me the number for the Guardsman hosting
the event, a Virginia farmer named Robert Young. I called for directions
and also asked what to bring. "I've got a sleeping bag," I told him. The
voice on the other end went silent. "Or some blankets," I added.
"You'll be issued a bedroll and other kit as needed,"
Young said. "Bring food, but nothing modern. Absolutely no plastic." He
suggested I arrive early so he could check out my gear.
I donned an old-fashioned pair of one-piece long
johns known as a union suit (which sounded Civil War-ish), a pair of
faded button-fly jeans, muddy work boots, and a rough cotton shirt a
hippie girlfriend had given me years before. Ignorant of
nineteenth-century food packaging, I tossed a hunk of cheese and a few
apples into a leather shoulder bag, along with a rusty canteen and
camping knife. Surely the others would share their grub. I imagined the
Guardsmen gathered round a crackling bonfire, talking about the
homefront while slicing potatoes into a bubbling Irish stew.
Two young Confederates stood guard at the entrance to
the drill site, a 400-acre farm in the bucolic horse country of the
Virginia Piedmont. One was my host, Robert Young. He welcomed me with a
curt nod and a full-body frisk for twentieth-century contraband. The
apples had to go; they were shiny Granny Smiths, nothing like the
mottled fruit of the 1860s. The knife and canteen and shoulder bag also
were deemed too pristine, as was my entire wardrobe. Even the union suit
was wrong; long johns in the 1860s were two-piece, not one.
In exchange, Young tossed me scratchy wool trousers,
a filthy shirt, hobnailed boots, a jacket tailored for a Confederate
midget, and wool socks that smelled as though they hadn't been washed
since Second Manassas. Then he reached for my tortoiseshell glasses.
"The frames are modern," he explained, handing me a pair of wire-rimmed
spectacles with tiny, weak lenses. Finally, he slung a thin blanket over
my shoulder. "We'll probably be spooning tonight," he said.
Spooning? His manner didn't invite questions. I was a
soldier now; mine was not to question why. So half-blind and hobbled by
the ill-fitting brogans--boots weren't always molded to right and left
in the Civil War--I trailed the two men to a cramped farm building
behind the inviting antebellum mansion I'd seen from the road. We sat
shivering inside, waiting for the others. Unsure about the ground rules
for conversation, I asked my host, "How did you become a reenactor?"
He grimaced. I'd forgotten that the "R word" was
distasteful to hardcores. "We're living historians," he said, "or
historical interpreters if you like." The Southern Guard had formed the
year before as a schismatic faction, breaking off from a unit that had
too many "farbs," he said.
"Farb" was the worst insult in the hardcore
vocabulary. It referred to reenactors who approached the past with a
lack of verisimilitude. The word's etymology was obscure; Young guessed
that "farb" was short for "far-be-it-from-authentic," or possibly a
respelling of "barf." Violations serious enough to earn the slur
included wearing a wristwatch, smoking cigarettes, smearing oneself with
sunblock or insect repellent--or, worst of all, fake blood. Farb was
also a fungible word; it could become an adjective (farby), a verb (as
in, "don't farb out on me"), an adverb (farbily) and a heretical school
of thought (Farbism or Farbiness).
The Southern Guard remained vigilant against even
accidental Farbiness; it had formed an "authenticity committee" to
research subjects such as underwear buttons and 1860s dye to make sure
that Guardsmen attired themselves exactly as soldiers did. "Sometimes
after weekends like this, it takes me three or four days to come back to
so-called reality," Young said. "That's the ultimate."
As we talked, other Guardsmen trickled in, announcing
themselves with a clatter of hobnailed boots on the path outside. Rob
Hodge arrived and greeted his comrades with a pained grin. A few days
before, he'd been dragged by a horse while playing Nathan Bedford
Forrest in a cable show about the rebel cavalryman. The accident had
left Rob with three cracked ribs, a broken toe and a hematoma on his
tibia. "I wanted to go on a march down in Louisiana," Rob told his
mates, "but the doctor said it would mess up my leg so bad that it might
even have to be amputated."
"Super hardcore!" the others shouted in unison. If
farb was the worst insult a Guardsman could bestow, super hardcore was
the highest plaudit, signifying an unusually bold stab at recapturing
the Civil War.
Many of the Guardsmen lived outside Virginia and
hadn't seen their comrades since the previous year's campaign. As the
room filled with twenty or so men, greeting each other with hugs and
shouts, it became obvious that there would be little attempt to maintain
period dialogue. Instead, the gathering took on a peculiar cast: part
frat party, part fashion show, part Weight Watchers' meeting.
"Yo, look at Joel!" someone shouted as a tall,
wasp-waisted Guardsman arrived. Joel Bohy twirled at the center of the
room and slid off his gray jacket like a catwalk model. Then, reaching
into his hip-hugging trousers, he raised his cotton shirt.
"Check out those abs!"
"Awesome jacket. What's the cut?"
"Type one, early to mid '62, with piping," Joel said.
"Cotton and wool jean. Stitched it myself."
Rob Hodge inspected the needlework, obviously
impressed. He turned to me and said, "We're all GQ fashion snobs when it
comes to Civil War gear."
"CQ," Joel corrected. "Confederate Quarterly." The
two men embraced, and Rob said approvingly, "You've dropped some
weight." Joel smiled. "Fifteen pounds just in the last two months. I had
a pizza yesterday but nothing at all today."
Losing weight was a hardcore obsession, part of the
never-ending quest for authenticity. "If you look at pension records,
you realize that very few Civil War soldiers weighed more than a hundred
thirty-five pounds," Rob explained. Southern soldiers were especially
lean. So it was every Guardsman's dream to drop a few pants sizes and
achieve the gaunt, hollow-eyed look of underfed Confederates.
Rob had lost thirty-five pounds over the past year,
leaving little or no meat on his six-foot-two frame. Joel, a
construction worker, had dropped eighty-five pounds, losing what he
called his "keg legs" and slimming his beer-bellied waist from forty
inches to thirty. "The Civil War's over, but the Battle of the Bulge
never ends," he quipped, offering Rob a Pritikin recipe for skinless
breast of chicken.
Unfortunately, there was no food--diet or
otherwise--in sight. Instead, the Guardsmen puffed at corncob pipes or
chewed tobacco, interspersed with swigs from antique jugs filled with
Miller Lite and rimmed with bits of each other's burley. Eavesdropping
on the chat--about grooming, sewing, hip size, honed biceps--I couldn't
help wondering if I'd stumbled on a curious gay subculture in the
Piedmont of Virginia.
"I've got a killer recipe for ratatouille. Hardly any
oil. Got to drop another five pounds before posing for that painter
again. He loves small waists on Confederates."
"Do you think we should recruit that newbie who came
to the picket post? He looks real good, tall and slim."
"Ask him, `Have you got a Richmond depot jacket? Do
you sew?' A lot of guys look good at first but they don't know a thing
about jackets and shoes."
The sleeping arrangements did little to allay my
suspicions. As we hiked to our bivouac spot in a moonlit orchard, my
breath clouded in the frigid night air. The thin wool blanket I'd been
issued seemed woefully inadequate, and I wondered aloud how we'd avoid
waking up resembling one of Rob Hodge's impressions of the Confederate
dead. "Spooning," Joel said. "Same as they did in the War."
The Guardsmen stacked their muskets and unfurled
ground cloths. "Sardine time," Joel said, flopping to the ground and
pulling his blanket and coat over his chest. One by one the others lay
down as well, packed close, as if on a slave ship. Feeling awkward, I
shuffled to the end of the clump, lying a few feet from the nearest man.
"Spoon right!" someone shouted. Each man rolled onto
his side and clutched the man beside him. Following suit, I snuggled my
neighbor. A few bodies down, a man wedged between Joel and Rob began
griping. "You guys are so skinny you don't give off any heat. You're
just sucking it out of me!"
After fifteen minutes, someone shouted "spoon left!"
and the pack rolled over. Now my back was warm but my front was exposed
to the chill air. I was in the "anchor" position, my neighbor explained,
the coldest spot in a Civil War spoon.
Famished and half-frozen. I began fantasizing about
the campfire stew I'd naively looked forward to. Somewhere in the
distance a horse snorted. Then one of the soldiers let loose a titanic
fart. "You farb," his neighbor shouted. "Gas didn't come in until World
This prompted a volley of off-color jokes, most of
them aimed at girlfriends and spouses. "You married?" I asked my
neighbor, a man about my own age.
"Uh huh. Two kids." I asked how his family felt about
his hobby. "If it wasn't this, it'd be golf or something," he said. He
propped on one elbow and lit a cigar butt from an archaic box labeled
Friction Matches. "At least there's no room for jealousy with this
hobby. You come home stinking of gunpowder and sweat and bad tobacco, so
your wife knows you've just been out with the guys."
From a few mummies down, Joel joined in the
conversation. "I just broke up with my girlfriend," he said. "It was a
constant struggle between her and the Civil War. She got tired of
competing with something that happened a hundred thirty years ago."
Joel worried he might never find another girlfriend.
Now, when he met a woman he liked, he coyly let on that he was "into
history." That way, he explained, "I don't scare her off by letting the
whole cat out of the bag."
"What happens if you do tell her straight?" I asked
"She freaks." The issue wasn't just weekends spent
away; it was also the money. Joel reckoned that a quarter of his income
went to reenacting. "I try to put a positive spin on it," he said. "I
tell women, `I don't do drugs, I do the Civil War.'" He laughed.
"Problem is, the Civil War's more addictive than crack, and almost as
The chat gradually died down. Someone got up to pee
and walked into a tree branch, cursing. One man kept waking with a
hacking cough. And I realized I should have taken off my wet boots
before lying down; now, they'd become blocks of ice. My arm was caught
awkwardly beneath my side, but liberating it was impossible. I'd disturb
the whole spoon, and also risk shifting the precarious arrangement of
blanket and coat that was my only protection from frostbite.
My neighbor, Paul Carter, was still half-awake and I
asked him what he did when he wasn't freezing to death in the Virginia
hills. "Finishing my Ph.D. thesis," he muttered, "on Soviet history."
I finally lulled myself to sleep with drowsy images
of Stalingrad and awoke to find my body molded tightly around Paul's,
all awkwardness gone in the desperate search for warmth. He was doing
the same to the man beside him. There must have been a "spoon right" in
A moment later, someone banged on a pot and shouted
reveille: "Wake the fuck up! It's late!" The sky was still gray. It was
not yet six o'clock.
The pot, at least, was an encouraging prop. I hadn't
eaten since lunch the day before, and then only lightly in anticipation
of a hearty camp dinner. But no one gathered sticks or showed any signs
of fixing breakfast. I saw one man furtively gnaw on a crust of bread,
but that was all. Recalling the hunk of cheese I'd packed the day
before--the only item of mine that had escaped confiscation--I
frantically searched my jacket pocket. The cheese was still there, hairy
with lint and nicely chilled.
The Guardsmen rolled up their bedrolls and formed
tidy ranks, muskets perched on shoulders. As a first-timer I was told to
watch rather than take part. One of the men, acting as drill sergeant,
began barking orders. "Company right, wheel, march! Ranks thirteen
inches apart!" The men wheeled and marched across the orchard, their
cups and canteens clanking like cowbells. In the early morning light,
their muskets and bayonets cast long, spirelike shadows across the
frost-tinged grass. "Right oblique, march! Forward, march!"
The mood was sober and martial, nothing like the
night before. Except for a hungover soldier who fell out of line and
clutched a tree, vomiting.
"Super hardcore!" his comrades yelled.
I spent an hour watching the men march and wheel as
the drill sergeant called out his monotonous orders. "Shoulder arms.
Support arms. Carry arms." The field was skirted by a split-rail fence.
Just beyond stood the plantation house, a handsome brick edifice ringed
by stately oaks; I'd been told the night before that the Confederate
guerrilla John Mosby had once climbed out a window of the house and down
a tree to escape capture by Federal cavalry. To the west loomed the Blue
Ridge, gentle and azure in the morning sun. There wasn't a single modern
intrusion. Looking at the scene, I thought about Mathew Brady's
black-and-white photographs, and the false impression they conveyed. The
War's actual landscape was lush with color and beauty. The sky, always a
featureless white in Brady's photographs, was a brilliant, cloud-tufted
The sergeant broke my reverie, handing me his musket
and suggesting I practice the drill steps behind the other men. At
first, the maneuvers reminded me of learning to square-dance, with the
sergeant acting as caller and soldiers taking turns as the lead dancer.
The main difference was that a misstep here could result in a rifle butt
to the chin instead of a step on the toe. The moves were also crisp and
angular, lacking the fluid motion of a reel or do-si-do. "On the right
by files, into line, march!"
Finally, after several hours of nonstop drilling, the
Guardsmen stacked their weapons and sprawled under a tree. Reaching into
their haversacks, they began wolfing down cornbread, unshelled peanuts,
slabs of cooked bacon. One of the Guardsmen, a new recruit named Chris
Daley, offered me what looked like a year-old piece of beef jerky. I
asked him why he'd joined up.
"I work as a paralegal on Long Island," he said.
"This is escapism. For forty-eight hours you eat and sleep and march
when someone else tells you to. There's no responsibility."
Chris chomped into the jerky, adding, "I think
there's a lot of people like me who want to get back to a simpler time.
Sandlot baseball, cowboys and Indians, the Civil War."
Rob Hodge agreed. "When you get into the grim details
of the War, you realize you've lived a soft life. I think we all have
some guilt about that. Doing this is a way of making things a little
hard for a change."
This prompted debate about just how hard a hardcore's
life should be. Rob favored total immersion in soldierly misery: camping
in the mud, marching barefoot on blisters, staying up all night on
picket duty. If he caught ticks and lice, so be it. "If that happened,
I'd feel like we'd elevated things to another level," he said. "It would
suck, but at least I'd know what it was like to scratch my head all day
A Guardsman named Fred Rickard went Rob one better.
"There's something in me that wishes we could really go the whole way,"
he said. "I'd take the chance of being killed just to see what it was
really like to be under fire in the War." He paused, munching on salt
pork and biscuits. "At least then we'd know for sure if we're doing it
Fred leaned over to spit out a bit of gristle and
noticed something in the grass. "Rob's bloating," he announced. Rob lay
splayed on his back, cheeks puffed and belly distended, eyes staring
glassily at the sky. Joel walked over and poked a boot in his ribs.
"Suck in your gut a bit," he said. "It looks like you sat on a bike
pump." Fred rearranged Rob's hands. "They don't look rigor mortal
enough," he said. Then the two men returned to their meal.
Rob sat up and wiggled his fingers. "Hands are a
problem," he said. "It's hard to make them look bloated unless you've
really been dead for a while."
* * *
I stuck out the drill until late afternoon. The temperature was dropping
fast and another night of spooning loomed ahead. Better to farb out, I
decided, than to freeze or perish from hunger. Rob urged me to come out
with the Guard again when the battle season got under way, and I said I
would. But there was something else I wanted to do in the meantime.
Lying awake in the night, pondering Civil War obsession, I'd plotted a
hardcore campaign of my own. Super hardcore.
Excerpted from "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War" by Tony Horwitz. Copyright © 1999 by Tony Horwitz. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.