Su Lum: Slumming
August 18, 2010
Helen Palmer at the library recommended a CD (used to be Books on Tape) called “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War” by Tony Horowitz. It was a lively listen, with the most interesting parts being of his traveling around with groups of Civil War “re-enactors.”
I had only recently read about the re-enactors in an essay by David Foster Wallace, wherein a bunch of crazy people (Civil War “challenged” people) would travel from battle site to battle site in full, authentic smelly regalia and lie for hours and nights in tick-laden fields and freezing swamps, huddled together against the cold (actually spooning) waiting for the battles to begin, which they did at the appointed moment, missing only live ammunition, death and Yankees. They had to scratch hard to get recruits to play the Yankees.
No one in my family has, to my knowledge, ever been a re-enactor, but the Civil War was alive and kicking in our family lore from my earliest memories. By the time my siblings and I could understand the words, we knew that the eyes of my great-great grandfather’s portrait had been stabbed out by the Yankees, a portrait that later hung (restored) in my parents’ parlor, frightening my mother’s Jamaican caretakers. He gave me the creeps as well and I solved the problem by draping the large portrait with towels.
We all knew about the silver tea set that had been hurriedly thrown into the privy to save it from Yankee marauders – my mother gave it to my niece Kathy as a graduation, telling her never to have the dents removed.
My paternal grandmother, who lived with us for her last 35 years, was born in 1880, just 15 years after the end of the Civil War. Her name was Robbie Lea Anderson and her grandson, only a few years older than I, was named Robert Lee Fowler – the Civil War was still going on and on. Gran’s dad had tried to join up for the war but was deterred by his father since he was underage.
In an attic over the living room of our home in New Jersey were the remains of a Civil War drum, said to have been carried by one of the many little drummer boys of the war.
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My parents were both from Alabama but had gone to the dreaded North to live when my father got a job at the Bell Labs. My other grandmother, Monie, could hardly keep her lip out of a sneer during her very long visits to our house in the Nawth. My first husband, Gil, loved to strum “Marching through Georgia” and Tom Leher’s “Dixie” when Monie was around.
At my school, other than the truncated version we were given in history class, we never talked about the Civil War or carpetbaggers at all. Kids were not named Abe, or Ulysses after Grant. It was a terrible, terrible war with a huge chunk of the population slaughtered and the South clearly got the worst of it but damn, let it go!
Part of the problem is that southern women lived so long. My mother’s favorite relative was her great-grandmother, who was right in the midst of the war and told her about it first-hand, tales that were passed down all the way to my granddaughter Riley.
When I was 13, I corresponded with a boy in Atlanta. “Save your confederate money, boys, the South will rise again,” he would write on the back of the envelopes under a drawing of the Confederate flag.
Cross the Mason-Dixon line and Civil War souvenirs and replicas are as abundant as grits and hush puppies. Dig around a bit and you can join a group of re-enactors, eating mouldy peanuts and pretending to have your legs sawed off in a hospital tent.
They have all the fun.
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