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The Obsession with the Civil War.

Wall Street Journal reporter Tony Horwitz has written "Confederates In The Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War". It is published by Pantheon. Horwitz explores the subculture of Civil War re-enactment fanatics. Many of these wannabe rebels will run barefoot, sleep in the rain, and starve themselves to recreate the conditions of battle to get a "period rush". Horwitz won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at the Wall Street Journal and is the author of "Baghdad Without a Map" and "One for the Road".

33:34

Other segments from the episode on March 18, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 18, 1998: Interview with Tony Horwitz; Interview with Edward Ball.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 18, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031801NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Confederates in the Attic
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Some Americans are obsessed with the Civil War. Thousands of people participate in battle reenactments, Confederate flags still fly in parts of the South, in the past few years, we've had popular Civil War books, TV shows, and movies.

After returning home from reporting on foreign wars, journalist Tony Horwitz wanted to understand the American obsession with the Civil War. He'd covered Iraq, Northern Ireland, Bosnia. He couldn't image people in those countries putting on costumes and reenacting famous battles, why was that happening here?

He tries to answer that in his new book, "Confederates In The Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War." Horwitz covers the South for the Wall Street Journal. He won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1995. He lives in Virginia.

I told him that I've never quite understood the obsession that some people have with the Civil War, but I always figured that was because my grandparents immigrated here from Eastern Europe after the war. But Horwitz's great grandfather, who was also an Eastern European immigrant who came here after the war and lived in the North, was quite absorbed in Civil War history. I asked Tony why.

TONY HORWITZ, AUTHOR, "CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC: DISPATCHES FROM THE UNFINISHED CIVIL WAR": Well in a way, this is what got me started over 30 years ago. I was very fortunate in that my great grandfather lived to be over 100, so I knew him as a child. And one day, he took out this quite fantastic book of Civil War sketches that he'd purchased soon after arriving from Russia in 1892, and it really drew me into the Civil War.

And it wasn't until years later that I started thinking about this and I said why, an immigrant who spoke almost no English, who arrived here as a teenage draft dodger from the Czar's army, you know, what was it about this war that intrigued him so much? And you know, no one ever thought to ask him. I have a few ideas, but, you know, I can't really answer that question, but I think there are millions like myself who have no ancestral or really regional ties to the war yet, we're fascinated by it.

GROSS: So what are your ideas about why your great grandfather was fascinated by the Civil War?

HORWITZ: Well there's a very thoughtful essay that Robert Penn Warren, wrote, called "The Legacy of the Civil War," that to my mind is still one of the best things written on the subject. And he talks about the Civil War being the ritual of becoming American.

That somehow, understanding this great conflict is part of how you feel and become American. And I think perhaps particularly from my great grandfather, arriving only 17 years after the end of the war, he came from learned rabbinical stock, and I think perhaps he saw the Civil War as a sort of Talmud that would unlock the secrets of this country that he'd come to, and make him feel more American.

GROSS: When you came back to America from covering the Middle East during the Gulf War, there was a lot of like Civil War mania going on here. Give us the backdrop for your arrive back in the States that reignited this interest in the Civil War for you.

HORWITZ: Right. Well I came back in 1993, and of course there had been the Ken Burn series and "Glory" and "Gettysburg" and other movies all in the previous few years, and there was this, you know, definite revival of interest. Also near where I live in Virginia, Disney tried to build a Civil War theme park.

Soon after that, there was debate about whether Arthur Ashe should go up on Monument Avenue beside Lee and Jackson, and I was just struck. I said, my God, this war is not only alive to Civil War buffs, but it's really a hot subject of debate, also of course, in Southern states where the rebel flag is still displayed. And I thought, you know, this conflict is still very alive in somewhat the same way of some of the conflicts that I covered overseas.

GROSS: Tony, give us an overview about the kind of reenactments that happen now in the South.

HORWITZ: Well, it's not just in the South. They do reenactments everywhere now, even in California, and even overseas in Germany. I met a German reenactor who's started a unit over there, so this is really a global phenomenon.

But basically, between about now and fall, which is when most Civil War combat occurred, there will be every weekend, particularly in Virginia, reenactments of battles; typically they try and time them for the anniversaries of that battle, where, you know, hundreds sometimes thousands of people will come out and put on uniforms and shoot blanks.

One of the surprises to me about this is that so many women are involved, and that in fact the growth area of reacting is among women who play civilian roles; nurses, laundresses, you even see embalmers, and some women also play soldiers of course. But this is much more than, you know, men going out and playing boy for the day, and going bang bang, you're dead.

GROSS: We should say here that "reenactment" is a word that a lot of the people who participate in these restaged wars really hate. Why do they hate it?

HORWITZ: Well, the ones who hate it the most are called "hardcores," and this was a particular group that I hooked up with in my book. They believe in trying to achieve total authenticity, and in their view, really, even reenacting battles if phony, because of course no bullets are flying.

So what they do instead, for instance, is they'll have a weekend where they play Union and Confederate sentries on either side of a frozen river, and they'll sit there all weekend and maybe once in the weekend, one of them will say, hey Yank, want to trade some coffee for some of this fine Southern 'bacco? And that'll be it.

They'll be, you know, trying to reenact the war as it really happened, a lot of marching, a lot of sitting around. They'll only eat the foods that soldiers would have eaten, they'll only use the language that soldiers, you know, would use. In a sense they'd say, we're not reenacting, we're living it, we're living historians.

GROSS: Why relive that? What are they getting out of reliving the boredom and the hardship?

HORWITZ: Right. I think part of it is a kind of guilt almost about how easy life is in the late 20th century. You know, I guess the draft ended in about '72, for men like myself, under the age of about 42 or 43, other than those who served in the Gulf War, we're really among the first generation, really, in this century to not have to go off to war, or serve in the military.

And I think there's -- because of that, there's perhaps some guilt, but also some romanticization of this experience. We heard about it from our father and our grandfathers, and I have to suspect that if a few more of these folks had served in Vietnam for instance, they may not be so keen to reenact their military experience.

GROSS: So, you found that most of the hardcores were not vets?

HORWITZ: No. They tended to be younger people -- they're really quite bohemian. They reminded me a bit of sort of acid heads I knew in college, who were seeking this sort of mystical stepping out of this time and place. And they really believe that if you get the props just right, and you do everything just right so that you erase any sign of the 20th century, that somehow you really will travel through time; again, in an almost mystical way.

GROSS: Tony Horwitz is my guest, and his new book is called Confederates In The Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.

Now, you did go to a huge reenactment of the Battle of the Wilderness which was fought in 1864. Tell us about the original battle, and then we'll find out more about the reenactment.

HORWITZ: Right. Well the original battle was really one of the most horrible in the war. It was when Grant took over in the East, and his idea really was to just wear down the South and use the North's superiority and numbers to fight battle after battle. And the Wilderness was the first of that campaign.

And it was fought in a really very jungly wood in central Virginia, hence the name "Wilderness," and it was really a draw but with immense causalities; 25,000, 30,000 causalities in the course of two days. The woods caught on fire and burned some of the wounded. There were hogs feasting on the dead. It was really a very grizzly battle.

GROSS: And what's the reenactment like? How many people showed up when you were there?

HORWITZ: Thousands, it was quite a large reenactment. One of the interesting things to me is it's all sort of signposted. You drive and it will say "Battle of the Wilderness, this way," and "Confederate parking lot" over here, and -- which of course wasn't the case in the Wilderness.

They wandered around lost in the woods for days. And then you get out there in your unit, I was a Confederate, and you march into battle. And in some ways it's easy to laugh at this hobby, but there are elements of it that I feel do teach you something about war.

I was particularly struck by the music and the drill steps that I had learned. Keep you -- it's a way of dealing with the stress of battle really. You become almost an automaton, you're locked into this unit going right, left, right, left, while someone's beating a drum.

For me though, it all sort of fell apart when you get to the shooting part of the battle, because no one wants to die. I mean, you've driven several hours to be there, who wants to go down in the first five minutes? So, you have people shooting at each other for, you know, 20 minutes, and finally a commander will say, OK guys, you know, time to take some hits, and it's kind of all fall down, so the realism kind of slipped away at that point for me.

GROSS: Who decides who's dead?

HORWITZ: Well, they have all kinds of ways of doing it. They recognize that they have this problem, that people don't want to die. So sometimes, at the beginning of the reenactment, they'll say everyone born January through March, you're dead; March through June, serious causalities, or you know, that sort of thing. But it's really an honor system, if someone points a gun right at you and shoots, you know, in theory you go do.

GROSS: How long did it take for you go to go down?

HORWITZ: I was pretty much like everyone else, I wanted to, you know, take part, so maybe after about 20 minutes, my whole unit went down.

GROSS: How long did you have to play dead?

HORWITZ: Not very long. It was towards the end of the battle when we joined it. And what amused me was that they play "Taps," and we get up and -- well actually the commander says "resurrect," and we would all get up and go and shake hands with the Union dead, and everyone in the audience would cheer. So it was quite a -- quite a companionable ending to it.

GROSS: Did you get a sense of what it might have felt like to be on the battlefield, as much as you could get a sense from a reenactment?

HORWITZ: Well again, I think the smoke and noise, and again, the battles that I covered overseas, that's what strikes you, the incredible noise and the smoke and this confusion, and I certainly felt that. We couldn't see a thing at the Wilderness, in fact we almost fired on the spectators at one point. So yeah, I think there are aspects of it that you can appreciate, but again, you know what really defines war, I think, is the experience of risking death and since that's not a part of it, I think that that's quite an obstacle.

GROSS: Did the whole reenactment seem particularly strange to you, because you had covered real battles abroad?

HORWITZ: Well again, yes. Because I think the kind of tragedy and brutality has been drained out of it, and it's really this sort of reenactment of really just the spectacle and the glamour of war almost, without the grizzliness.

The other thing that's rather odd is that almost everyone wants to play a rebel, even if they're from the North. So as you may know, in the actual war at the Battle of Wilderness and most others, the North massively outnumbered the South. But in reenactments it's usually the opposite, so you have a historical problem.

You're trying to reenact, say, Picket's Charge and you've got 10,000 screaming rebels, and 500 beleaguered Bluecoats who are somehow supposed to emerge victorious and that's a little hard to do. And sometimes in fact, people playing rebels will go a little further, and sort of try and, you know, rewrite history, I mean just because it's the lost cause, doesn't mean you have to keep losing it forever.

GROSS: Why do more people want to be rebels, is it because they're Southern; more Southerners participate?

HORWITZ: No, many of them are Northerners, and I think this is a complex and interesting question. You know, I think, one, there's this sort of instinctive allegiance that Americans have to the underdogs, and at least militarily, the South was the underdog.

I think it speaks more broadly to the romance of the South, you know sort of conformist ranks of blue, can't compete with these doomed cavaliers who are somehow very romantic, Ashley Wilkes and Jeb Stewart, but I think there's also a really serious question here.

You know from about fifth grade on, we're always told that the winners write the history, and in the case of the Civil War, I'm not sure that's true. I think the South lost the war, but in some ways it's won the history, or at least fought it to a draw, and I think that's reflected in the great romance surrounding the South still.

GROSS: My guess is Tony Horwitz, his new book is called Confederates In The Attic. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Tony Horwitz. His new book is called Confederates In The Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.

Well, after one of the reenactments in which you were dressed as a Confederate soldier, you went to a 7-11 and ran into some African-Americans who were shopping there, and how did it feel to be dressed, you know as a rebel, as the side that was supporting slavery, you know, running into African-Americans?

HORWITZ: Well, this was a sobering thing for me, because somehow in the course of the weekends, you really are just play acting, it's almost a carnival atmosphere that you dress up and you inhabit another role; you become someone else for a day, and it is just play acting. No one's there talking about the causes of the war.

And then, you know, I stepped out of my car to get some coffee and, you know, in a shop full of blacks who were looking at me, I sensed with some disgust. And I realized that this really isn't something you can play act and somehow just leave the issues behind, as much as reenactors want to do it. You know, there are some really unresolved issues surrounding the Civil War, and if you're going to reenact it, you need to face those honestly as well.

GROSS: You asked a very good and provocative question to a young African-American preacher. You asked if there was anyway for white Southerners to honor their forbearers without insulting his? What was his response?

HORWITZ: His response was: fine; remember the war, warts and all. I guess what offends him and many blacks is this attempt to make heroes out of Southern generals and other figures. And his attitude was, if you're going to remember it, remember the bad as well, and then maybe, you know, I'll take part. Another -- a black woman said something else to me that stuck with me, she said they can remember that war all they want, as long as they remember

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GROSS: Did you bring up the slavery question with white people who were dressing as Confederates? I mean, how did they feel fighting for the side that supported the continuation of slavery?

HORWITZ: Well again, there's this curious sort of suspension of belief that goes on with reenactments. What reenactors will say to you is that: we're not here to debate the issues of the war, we're here to reenact the experience of the common soldier North or South, their valor, their sacrifice, their suffering, and we're not here to debate ideology.

And one of the things I found odd about this is they are so well informed about the minutia of battle. For instance, they can tell you how many men were killed in their unit in each battle, and exactly what they ate and what they wore, but when it comes to the issues surrounding the war, their memory just really isn't so strong. They just -- they're really -- really aren't very interested in a way. Or they just want to set it aside so that they can have this -- this event that's free of ideology.

GROSS: Would you say that the event was free of ideology for most of the people who you met, or did you think that they still have a lot of racist feelings that were, in a more covert way, playing into their wanting to reenact these battles?

HORWITZ: Not some much in the reenactments. I certainly encountered that elsewhere in my book, reenacting is a few chapters, but much of my book, I'm out meeting with what I would call "neo-Confederate groups" who are trying to sort of reclaim the Confederacy and redeem it in some sense. And with those groups obviously, I think there are some -- some big questions about race to be raised. But with reenactors I think, sincerely, most of them are there as what they would call "living historians" and not really to debate the issues, so I think -- I found that much more elsewhere in my travels, than at reenactments.

GROSS: Tell us more about the ambitions of the neo-Confederate groups.

HORWITZ: Well they're very curious -- it's kind of a loose term. There is everything from -- well, if you take a group like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, this will include everything from sort of scholarly clubs, who are basically just interested in their genealogy, you know, finding, you know, out where great grandfather served, to really rabidly political cells.

Then you have groups like the League of the South that are avowedly secessionist. They still believe that, you know, America -- that the South should seceded from the nation; that this is a corrupt Yankee nation, and that really the Confederates had it right. Not about slavery, but about states rights, and a distinct region.

So you have this whole range of belief that has a lineage really that goes back to Jefferson, to Calhoun, and to the Nashville Agrarians in this century, people like Robert Penn Warren and Alan Tate (ph), who said much the same thing. So, this really isn't anything new.

GROSS: You said you found more of a strain of racism in these neo-Confederate groups.

HORWITZ: Well, it's an interesting thing going on. They're trying very hard to move away from that. For instance, if you go on the website of the League of the South, Dixie.Net (ph), you'll see right in the front, they have a picture of a hood with a red cross through it saying, you know, basically Klansmen, stay away. We are not -- you know, we are not racist, we do not want to be associated with these groups.

And they're very careful to never explicitly say anything that one could call racist. But I think the subtext -- for instance, they'll also often decry multiculturalism, or in extreme cases talk about the "mongrelization of the nation" that is occurring. And you know, I don't think you need a Rosetta Stone to understand what they're saying there.

GROSS: What about the Confederate flag, how much power does that still have in the South, and where is it flown?

HORWITZ: Oh, tremendous power. I was in Mississippi yesterday, and there's still a very hot debate there over whether students should be allowed to wave the rebel flag at football games. The -- Old Miss's team is called the Rebels, and they, for years, have flown the rebel flag, and this year the coach of the football team suggested they stop and people came out with twice as many flags the next week.

South Carolina still flies the rebel battle flag above the capitol dome, and virtually every year, this sparks protests and debates. Georgia also has the rebel flag as part of its state banner, and there as well it's a continual anger and debate over that, and sometimes violent.

Really the saddest episode in my book concerns the killing of a white teenager who drove through a black neighborhood in southern Kentucky with a rebel flag flying from his truck, and some black teenagers chased him and shot him dead. So at times, this war that ended 130 years ago is really still a shooting war.

GROSS: You know it's funny, I think one of the things that continues to separate the North and the South is the Civil War, in the sense that I think many more Southerners are obsessed with the Civil War in a way that Northerners are not. Do you agree?

HORWITZ: Well, oh, absolutely, I mean that's sort of the premise of my book is that, you know, the war is still going on. Some Southerners, and I don't mean to suggest by any means most or most Southerners, but a strong subcultural are really still fighting this war by other means, it's not military anymore, but it's still going on. And I think there are all kinds of reasons for this; some of them quite obvious.

You know, one out of every three Confederate soldiers died in this war. You know, the causalities, a million people -- there were a million causalities in this war when at a time when this country only had 32, 33 million people. So if you adjust that for today's population, you're talking about 8 million causalities, and in the South, it was much more severe than in the North, so I don't think this is something people forget quickly.

Also as Shelby Foote (ph) has often pointed out, you remember your loses much more than your victories. Winners tend to kind of win and move on, and I think when you loose, there's a sting there, a need to explain it, and justify it, that continues.

GROSS: Tony Horwitz is the author of Confederates In The Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Tony Horwitz, author of the new book, Confederates In The Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. The book is about the American obsession with the Civil War. He traveled with people who do battle reenactments, visited members of neo-Confederate groups, and travelled around the country examining the legacy of the Civil War. Horwitz says that memory has become very politicized.

HORWITZ: The Civil War is quite typical in this respect. For instance, if you go to Andersonville, where 13,000 Union prisoners starved or died of disease, they've had really an unbelievable battle just setting up a museum there, because Southerners don't want to be vilified, and they point out for instance that Northern prison camps were just as bad.

But instead of trying to come to some balanced view, there is almost sort of a lobbying on both sides. People are staking out extremes at either end, rather than saying there's a common history here, we can meet in the middle perhaps. There's this attitude towards history that we have to lobby for it now.

That almost, that that objective truth doesn't exist and it's really kind of hopeless to look for it. And that instead you just sort of stake out your position, and sling to it in the hopes that you'll swing the pendulum your way. And I found this very dispiriting.

GROSS: It's funny you know, the accuracy of memory is such an important part of American culture now, whether you're talking about the accuracy of memory in memoirs, in incest memories, or in history.

HORWITZ: Right. Right. Well, there's also this peculiar thing that goes on in the South with the Civil War that a psychologist might call "recovered memory." I went to a county -- I mentioned before a murder of a white teenager who was flying a rebel flag, and this caused all kinds of neo-Confederate groups to come to the area and try and capitalize on it, and turn this young man into a Confederate martyr.

And you know, everybody in the country was waving rebel flags, and they crown a Miss Confederacy there every year. Well when I went and did some research on this county in Kentucky, I found out that in fact during the Civil War, most of them had supported the other side. But again, there's been almost this recovered history, where people are living in a past of their own creation, and I think that's going on not just with the Civil War, but with every historical issue today.

GROSS: In your book you write that when you were in Atlanta, you started to understand some of the nostalgia for the South of the past. What was it about Atlanta that made you think about that, and how do you think that nostalgia kind of figures in to -- yes, go ahead.

HORWITZ: Well, Atlanta you mean because it's sort of home to "Gone With The Wind," or...

GROSS: No. No, you were talking about how all the kind of corporate buildings and shopping malls seem to be such a kind of different form of "the South" than the South people want to recapture through Civil War reenactments.

HORWITZ: Right. Well one of the ironies here I think is that while the South really prides itself on remembering its past, it's also paving it over faster than any other region of the country, and Atlanta is sort of the ultimate expression of that.

There isn't an antebellum building surviving in downtown Atlanta, and this isn't Sherman's fault only; Atlantans have really torn down most of their city. The battlefields have all but disappeared beneath pavement. And you know, while I don't find ideological common ground with neo-Confederates, I agree with them that we should at least remember the past, and debate it, rather than just sort of pave it over and pretend that it never happened because it raises questions that make us uncomfortable in the present. And I think again, Atlanta has really tried to sanitize the past, and try and separate modern Atlanta from anything that came before.

GROSS: How do you think that the phenomenon now, of so many, kind of cities around the world looking alike with shopping malls, and you know, skyscraper office buildings and stuff, connects to this sense of nostalgia for a disappeared past?

HORWITZ: Well, I think it's one of the ironies of this resurgent nostalgia. The South is really more like the rest of the nation than it's ever been. I mean, most Southern cities are full of the same franchises and look much the same, and I think people really have this urge to have some connection to something authentic or different or distinct, and I think it's also a global phenomenon.

The neo-Confederates often point out that the same sorts of movements are going on in Quebec, in Wales in Scotland, and it's happening at a time when also international borders mean less and less. And I think somehow this leaves people a little adrift. That is they have -- feel less and less national allegiance, perhaps regional allegiance and internal frontiers come to mean more, just as international borders are falling, that people do need a sense of identity and they don't feel it in these sort of indenticate cities, where, you know, Minneapolis could be Atlanta, could be Denver, could be San Diego.

GROSS: So, you're covering the South now for the Wall Street Journal. Do you find that some of the issues you write about in your new book pertaining to the Civil War keep cropping up in your daily reporting?

HORWITZ: Well, I actually don't -- well, I have written about these issues in the Wall Street Journal. It's not -- I write more about workplace issues, and welfare and poverty, so it's -- there's not a -- often a clear overlap, but you know, again, you don't have to look very far for it.

You know every time I go South, I'm reminded of how alive this is. And I think one reason is that, you know, the issues at stake in the war are really still raw and in some ways unresolved, race being the most obvious one. Also, states rights is still a very popular political philosophy, and even the larger question that the war posed, which is: will we remain one nation?

And in the 1860s that was a regional question, which it's not anymore, but I think we're still going through a bit of an identity crisis and a very split along gender, class, and ethnic lines. And the whole question of, you know, are we one nation, or are we a bunch of angry interest groups and ethnic groups sort of in an unhappy marriage of convenience, is still be posed today.

GROSS: Now I have to ask you a pop culture question. What are some of your favorite movies, or books about the Civil War?

HORWITZ: I have to say, I find most of the movies pretty dreadful. I think Glory comes the closest to conveying the experience of Civil War combat, much more successfully say than "Gettysburg" does. In terms of books, "Cold Mountain" obviously, though it's not about Civil War combat really, I think, gives an incredibly rich and true and historically correct image of what life was life in the 1860s South.

I'm very fond of things that were written quite a while ago -- Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, Edmund Wilson wrote a very fine book during the Centennial about the war that I think still stands up very well. He has a wonderful line about why it is we still remember the war, and he says "America has forgotten all it's wars, and it's tried to forget the Civil War, but the enemy is still on the premises and he won't let us forget it."

GROSS: And what do you think of Gone With The Wind?

HORWITZ: Well, Gone With The Wind, again, I think speaks to this issue of the South in some sense winning the history of the war. I think it's obvious that Gone With The Wind has done more than any of the 60,000-plus history books written about the Civil War to shape popular notions about the war.

I think the novel is quite wonderful, and if you read it carefully, you realize she's by no means an apologist for the lost cause, she's got a lot of scorn for it. I think the movie glossed over that and really created this very soft focus image of the antebellum South, and I'm less fond of that.

GROSS: Well, Tony Horwitz, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

HORWITZ: Thank you.

GROSS: Tony Horwitz is the author of the Confederates In The Attic. He covers the American South for the Wall Street Journal.

Coming up, the descendant of a slaveowning family who has met several descendants of his family's slaves.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Tony Horwitz
High: Wall Street Journal reporter Tony Horwitz has written "Confederates In The Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War." It is published by Pantheon. Horwitz explores the subculture of Civil War re-enactment fanatics. Many of these wannabe rebels will run barefoot, sleep in the rain, and starve themselves to recreate the conditions of battle to get a "period rush." Horwitz won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at the Wall Street Journal and is the author of "Baghdad Without a Map" and "One for the Road."
Spec: Culture; History; Civil War; Reenactments; Media

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Confederates in the Attic
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 18, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031802NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Slaves in the Family
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: When Edward Ball was growing up, his father told him there were five things they didn't talk about in the Ball family -- "religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes." The Ball family had been a slaveowning family before the Civil War. They once controlled a slave dynasty.

Edward Ball knew a lot about his family, but never knew much about the slaves they owned. He says he felt accountable for what happened, and compelled to try to explain it. He spent years researching his family history. He also found several descendants of the slaves owned by his family. He's written a new book called "Slaves in the Family."

I asked Edward Ball to give us a sense of his family's plantations before the Civil War.

EDWARD BALL, AUTHOR, "SLAVES IN THE FAMILY": The Balls for five generations have managed rice plantations. Over the course of 167 years, between 1698 and 1865, they enslaved about 4,000 people on plantations which were between 1,000 and 2,000 acres in size north of Charleston, South Carolina. So, it was a big business.

By the same token, dozens of other families in the area were in the same business. It wasn't just the Balls. And across the South, there thousands and thousands of cotton planters and rice planters.

GROSS: Now you estimate that by the year 2000, there will be at least 75,000 living descendants of former slaves from Ball Plantation.

BALL: That's right. Yes. At least 75,000, perhaps closer to 100,000.

GROSS: That's kind of overwhelming isn't it?

BALL: It's a lot of people. They live all around the country. But the secret of this story is that some of them live next door. In other words, Americans have these strange and vexed connections to each other that link us through the past.

In New York for example, I went to a meeting of a black genealogy group, and discovered that the woman sitting next to me was descended from a Ball family slave. And it's sort of like that. The descendants of the slaves live all around America, just as the Balls do.

GROSS: From your research and your interviews with members of the Ball family, what images do you think the Ball family had of itself as slaveowners?

BALL: Well, there were two central themes of our family's portraits of itself. One was that the Balls did not separate slave families by selling people, by selling children away from their parents, by selling husbands away from their wives. And the other was that the Ball men did not sleep with the black women whom they owned.

And I went about my research, digging through the records that our family had kept, and that later ended up in libraries around the South, some 10,000 pages of account books, and diaries and lists of slaves and wills and so forth, and gradually pieced together a portrait that was somewhat different from the one that our family tended to believe in.

It did happen that our family sold children away from their parents, and husbands away from their wives. And it did happen that the Ball men slept with the women that they enslaved. It didn't happen all the time, but nevertheless, it did happen.

GROSS: Would you compare the stories that the Ball family tells about itself with the stories about the Ball family that you heard from descendants of slaves that were owned by the Ball family?

BALL: I heard a range of stories from the descendants of the slaves. I did hear stories about beatings that individuals suffered, stories of which were handed down to living descendants. And of course, I heard stories about what we call "miscegenation," in that sort of quaint old term.

But, what surprised me was that from some families, I heard other kinds of stories, namely that after freedom, the Balls encouraged some of their slaves, probably the people living in the house, to go to school and to get educated. And once in a while, Mr. Ball on one or two of the plantations, would help the freed people with their school lessons. This I heard from the mouths of the descendants of the slaves. And so, it's a contradictory legacy.

GROSS: What did your family do after slavery, when plantations couldn't be run on slave labor anymore?

BALL: Many of them tried to become sharecroppers, setting up rice operations in the same places, and in the same fields with freed black labor. Freed people had very few choices about where to sell their labor power. And maybe half of the emancipated slaves stayed right there where they had formally lived, working for the Balls.

But they could not made to do the things that they had done in the past, because one of the unspoken and sometimes written aspects of the arrangement was that whipping was no longer allowed. And so, people worked at the pace that they wanted to work. And rice itself, as a commodity, was more cheaply produced elsewhere. So, the Ball plantations dwindled very quickly after the Civil War.

And by 1890, whereas the family had owned nine places at the end of the fighting, we owned maybe three. And by 1910, rice was completely finished as an economic opportunity, and the Balls sold off the rest of their land and moved to the city of Charleston to take up jobs in the middle class.

GROSS: You know it seems to me that your exploration of your past is like the inverse of "Roots," because you're researching something in your family history that you're not particularly proud of, the legacy of slaveholding.

BALL: Well...

GROSS: I mean usually when people research their past, it's with the expectation they're going to take great pride in these accomplishments in this connection with history. And that's a part of history that is very problematic that you're connecting with.

BALL: Sure, but it would be a mistake to say that I feel shame about my family. If I felt shame, I would be cowering behind a closed door. And instead, what I'm doing is coming forward publicly, to talk about this most difficult part of American history. In some ways, I'm very proud of my family.

An early colonial family, we fought in the American Revolution, we fought in the Civil War. We kept records of all our doings for 200 years. But, I think that I am accountable for the cruelty that my family participated in. I don't believe I'm responsible for the Balls' slaveowning past, but I'm accountable for it. And I'm trying to explain it and talk about it to others.

GROSS: There was a beach near where you grew up in South Carolina that I think was a landing point for many people who were taken from Africa to be sold into slavery.

BALL: I lived for a couple of years on a place called Sullivan's Island, which is a four-mile-long sandbar at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. And between 1700 and 1800, it was the main landing site for slave ships coming from Africa to North America.

Some 40 percent of the Africans brought to what would become the United States came here via Sullivan's Island in Charleston. So that means, nearly half of black Americans today had an ancestor who set foot for the first time on American soil on this sandbar.

And there were these quarantine houses, called "pest houses," where the slaves were sequestered for three weeks before they were sold in Charleston. In all of this, I had no idea about this while living on the island as a child.

And as an adult, it was a long time before I learned about it. But, what we're looking at is an island that is a kind of memorial and monument to this disastrous chapter in American history. On the island itself, there is no monument or plaque or any recognition of this past whatsoever.

GROSS: Would you like to see something erected there?

BALL: Well, I would. I think it would be appropriate. It is a fact that Ellis Island was the gateway for some 40 percent of Americans to this country. And we make quite a big deal about Ellis Island. I think it would be important to have some memorial of some kind.

But the fact is, that we as a nation have tried to erase most remnants of the history of slavery, because we're not sure how to process it. And if we were to begin to pay attention to it, there would be memorials of all kinds throughout the South.

GROSS: My guest is Edward Ball. He's the author of Slaves in the Family. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, a history of his family which owned large plantations before the Civil War and controlled a slave dynasty.

I'm wondering if any of the descendants of slaves who you met were actually named Ball?

BALL: Some of them were. Not many at all. In coastal South Carolina, it wasn't the pattern that people took the name of their former slaveowner. And in fact, what motive would they have for taking the name of their former master? At the end of the Civil War, they had the choice of a surname.

And most chose names that came from 10 or 20 miles away. There is family tradition in the Ball family that the patriarch of the family at the time asked the black people not to take the name Ball. And so, that might have influenced their decision. So, maybe one out of 20, one out of 50, took the name Ball.

GROSS: Why did they ask that?

BALL: Well, it was the beginning of that process of forgetting. I think that the family would have been uncomfortable knowing that there were a lot of African-American families named Ball out there, and they might even have felt that this insinuated that there had been sex between the slaveowners and the women in slavery.

GROSS: You met at least one person who you figure is probably a blood relation, probably one of the Ball family members, had sex with one of the slaves that they owned. At least that's the story that was handed down through the African-American family. Tell me about one of the people who you met like this, and what the encounter was like.

BALL: Well, I should say that white and black sex was a rare, but persistent occurrence on the plantations. It happened more in Virginia, and it happened a great deal more in Louisiana, where there were institutions set up for bringing white men together with black women.

But down home, on the Ball lands, there was a man called Peter Pious (ph) who was a member of the Ball family on a place called Limerick (ph) Plantation in the 1820s, who had a mistress named Diana. And their child, Frederick Pious was born on the plantation. And the descendants of Frederick Pious number about 50 people who live in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

The woman that you mentioned, is named Carolyn Goodsen (ph), I think. And she lives in Philadelphia. And I visited her for the first time, a year or two years ago. And when I got to her door, she embraced me, as though I was a long lost sibling, which in some ways, I must have been. And she has expressed nothing but affection for me.

GROSS: In the course of the research for this book, you connected with several African-Americans who were the descendants of slaves that had been owned by your family. Did you apologize? Did you ask for forgiveness? Do you feel like forgiveness of something that could be granted? Is that...

BALL: I have apologized to two different families that I've spent time with. Not to all of the families, because I think that an apology is an important gesture. And I also think that it should not be superficial.

Part of the legacy of slavery is that whites, not just the descendants of slaveowners, but all whites, are members of a caste that has greater privilege than black Americans, who are members of a different caste. And by reaching out to individual families, I've tried to lessen that separation somewhat.

I also think that an apology is not something that I can, or that white Americans or even the government, give to black Americans or to black individuals. That's really the wrong way around. Although, it has made a difference in the lives of the people to whom I've apologized.

It's also true that an apology does more for white people than it does for black, because it allows us the opportunity to acknowledge that our history has been at least as marked by the legacy of slavery as the lives of black people have been marked by it.

GROSS: Well, I think what you're saying too is that, you know it's -- a white person gets forgiveness if it's asked for, but what does the black person get? I guess an acknowledgement of the suffering.

BALL: Right. Well, it's not a deal. It's -- for me, if the only thing I've done is to touch the lives of a few dozen black folks, then I think that I've done something. And I'm satisfied with that.

GROSS: How's the rest of your family feel about your book, and your apologies?

BALL: I would be dishonest if I didn't say that this project has divided the family. It has aroused a lot of emotion in the family. Some of it is good, and some of it is unhappy. I have nothing but affection for those in the family who have resisted this project, because, what I am doing, what I have done, is to rewrite a story that all of us have learned since childhood.

And I'm sure that must be painful. And I regret that, but, I think that our story as a family is a rather small fact, and the story of the plantations we owned is a rather large fact. In other words, it's much bigger than we are, it's much more important than we are. And I think for those reasons, it has been necessary to tell the bigger story.

GROSS: OK, well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BALL: Sure, sure. My pleasure, thank you for asking me.

GROSS: Edward Ball is the author of the new book, Slaves in the Family.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Edward Ball
High: Edward Ball has written about his family's role in American Slavery. His book is "Slaves in The Family" which is published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Ball traced his family's history and learned that over six generations his family controlled more than 20 plantations and over 4,000 slaves.
Spec: History; Family; Culture; Civil War; Slaves in the Family

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Slaves in the Family
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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