A battle dating back to the 19th century will rage on at Fort Stevens this weekend, with symbols that are as divisive today as they were when they nearly tore a young nation apart.
Hundreds of participants are preparing for the 27th Annual Fort Stevens Civil War Re-enactment and Living History. Battles, fashion shows, medical demonstrations, speeches and a church service will all take place at the fort — built in 1863 during the war — starting Saturday morning and ending Monday afternoon.
The annual re-enactment comes at a time of renewed national debate over Confederate symbols and a drive by some to remove monuments to Confederate leaders. It will kick off three weeks after a deadly white nationalist rally with Confederate flags in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a local controversy after a Confederate flag and rebel decals were linked with an award-winning float at the Astoria Regatta.
Participants at Fort Stevens insist their re-enactment is an accurate portrayal of history.
“Our biggest fear is that these people are trying to erase history and bury history. The war was terrible, but this was part of our history,” said Don Benson, who will play a Union cavalry soldier this weekend. “There’s this cloud hanging over us and the future of this hobby that we all love.”
The nonprofit Northwest Civil War Council hosts a handful of re-enactments throughout the state, the most anticipated one taking place each year at Fort Stevens. Onlookers come from all over the region to witness it, some despite the fact that they live near another re-enactment site.
“It’s just a great adventure for families,” said Scott Ingalls, who portrays a Confederate artillery soldier.
Actors will play soldiers, doctors, engineers and a range of other roles throughout the weekend. An Abraham Lincoln impersonator will be on hand to deliver a presidential speech. Spectators at battlefields, military camps and hospitals will be able to speak to the characters and touch items commonly used during the war.
“It’s not all the time, but you’re kind of in that character when you’re with the public,” said Matt Bishop, who plays a Confederate infantry commander.
Some of the actors, along with their families, have devoted their energies to re-enactments for decades, dedicating both time and money to the hobby. Benson, for instance, estimates he has spent at least $20,000 in the decade since he joined the council. As a cavalry soldier, he brings numerous props — including pistols, four horses and carvings — when he travels to each year’s event from his home in Yamhill.
Once he arrives to the battlefield, Benson has a field day.
“As far as horses are concerned, it’s the best battlefield we have,” Benson said. “It’s large and you can sit there in the trees and the crowd won’t even know you’re back there.”
Actors typically pick which army they would like to fight for and, like any soldier, work their way up the ranks.
“Some people go to join the north or south unit; others just find guys they get along with,” said Ingalls, who was recruited 16 years ago by a friend who played an artillery soldier. “It’s great to see. It’s a cool representation of history and not political in any way.”
But the reality of the current social climate has crept into event preparations.
The council has received indirectly threatening Facebook messages in the past few weeks. Some messages have contained derisive requests for actors to use real bullets during battles, while others express hope that someone in the crowd will fire shots at actors.
The council has discussed among themselves and with police how to handle any disruptions or protests, Bishop said.
Warrenton Police Chief Mathew Workman said he will send extra patrols to Fort Stevens this weekend. He has advised park rangers and leaders of the council to have their cellphones readily available should a disruption occur.
“They don’t anticipate anything. We don’t anticipate anything. But it’s always good to be prepared,” Workman said.
Ingalls said people should not conflate the national debate revolving around Confederate symbols with this weekend’s re-enactment.
“We’re still going to present a living history accurately,” he said. “The new connotations of the Confederate flag have nothing to do with what we’re doing.”