THE CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War By Tony Horwitz Pantheon. 432 pp. $27.50 In an age when dumbing down is rarely vilified and often encouraged, it is a truism that Americans know ever less about the world's history and their own. Still, it's hard not to be taken aback by Tony Horwitz's account of a visit to Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, where tourists were greeted by a Park Service ranger named Joe McGill: "Mostly . . . the fort attracted ordinary tourists, many of whom possessed a muddled grasp of American history. Visitors often asked McGill why he didn't mention the Star-Spangled Banner.' He had to explain that the national anthem was composed during the shelling of a different fort in a different conflict: Baltimore's Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. Others asked whether it was true that John Brown fired the first shot at the fort. They were thinking of the abolitionist's raid on Harpers Ferry, 18 months before the attack on Sumter. One guy even asked me why so many Civil War battles were fought on national parks,' McGill said." This pervasive ignorance being an inescapable reality, it is all the more amazing that the Civil War still retains, a century and a third after the last shot was fired, a central place in the American consciousness and still stirs deep, at times ardent and angry, emotions. Horwitz, a writer for the Wall Street Journal and a Civil War buff since early boyhood, found himself wondering about the war's enduring presence after a gang of war reenactors passed by his house in northwestern Virginia. He decided "to spend a year at war, searching out the places and people who keep memory of the conflict alive in the present day," which "dictated a Southern strategy" since most of the war took place south of the Mason-Dixon line. The project ended up consuming considerably more time than Horwitz anticipated, but the final result turns out to be more than worth the effort. Confederates in the Attic is a big mixed bag of a book, hilariously funny at times, poignant and sad at others, that manages to get a pretty firm grip on how, if not why, the war still remains an obsession with so many Americans. If by this hour in our history most of those thus afflicted are at or near the margins -- a point Horwitz makes by showing rather than telling -- their numbers are considerable and their voices, Lord knows, are loud. None is louder than that of Robert Lee Hodge, a dedicated "hardcore" reenactor who "sought absolute fidelity to the 1860s: its homespun clothing, antique speech patterns, sparse diet and simple utensils," everything, according to one observer of the reenactor scene, short of "live ammunition and Civil War diseases." Horwitz met Hodge during that first encounter with reenacting, joined him at a reenactors' drill, and eventually was his partner on what Hodge calls "Civil Wargasm," a week-long dash through Civil War battle sites, "a weird brew of road culture, rancid pork and the quest for the elusive period rush,' the phrase hardcores used to describe the druglike high of traveling through time." Hodge, "baddest reb in the whole damned camp," is a true piece of work, a fellow who "fairly broadcast wacko," but it's impossible not to share the affection that Horwitz plainly came to feel for him, much less be hugely amused by his antics, his wisecracks and existence in a time zone all his own. He actually manages to eke out a living of sorts off his Civil War obsession -- among other things, he is often hired to perform in movies about the war, such as "Gettysburg" -- and thus is one of the few people in these pages whose fixation, however loony, has a practical edge. Most of the rest, by contrast, are ordinary Southerners who just can't get the war out of their heads. Some, predictably, use their enthusiasm for the Lost Cause as a smokescreen for racial animosities; Horwitz tells the pathetic tale of a spot in the road in Kentucky where this has had painful effects. Many are the descendants of men who fought in the war; for these the war is essentially an exercise in totemism and often, as well, in the composition of elaborate fictions. Not a few, to be plain about it, are simple fools, as attested by all those who swallow whole an exhibit at Vicksburg's city museum the centerpiece of which is a bullet from the war. The accompanying text reads: "During the battle of Raymond, Miss. in 1863 a minie ball reportedly passed through the reproductive organs of a young rebel soldier and a few seconds later penetrated a young lady who was standing on the porch of her nearby home. The story was written later by Dr. Le Grand G. Capers of Vicksburg for the American Medical Weekly. Capers claimed that he tended their wounds, that the girl became pregnant from the fertile minie ball, that he delivered the baby, introduced her to the soldier, that the two were married and had two more by the conventional method." Capers's article was intended "as a spoof of the wildly inflated stories of medical prowess reported by other doctors in the war," but, as Horwitz says, "not everybody got the joke." That was in 1874; this is 1998 and plenty of visitors to Vicksburg apparently still fall for it, which is useful evidence of humankind's bottomless gullibility. Unfortunately, much else in Horwitz's chronicle is far less amusing. He writes: "Everywhere, it seemed, I had to explore two pasts and two presents; one white, one black, separate and unreconcilable." Whether this points more to the specific grievances of those with whom he talked or to a larger social condition is not clear, but it is depressing. So too is the evidence of "how poisonous and polarized memory of the past could become," often abetted by willful ignorance of such historical truth as we know. Finally, it is astonishing that so many white Southerners are still "fighting their war by other means," living in a misremembered past, nursing old grudges both real and imagined. For those folks, the words of a black basket weaver at the Market in Charleston can serve as epigraph for this fine book. "They can remember that war all they want," she said. "So long's they remember they lost." Jonathan Yardley's Internet address is yardleyjclark.net. CAPTION: Robert Lee Hodge, a Civil War reenactor