In considering what to think about Civil War re-enactments at Fort Stevens State Park, it’s worth reading Tony Horwitz’s 1998 nonfiction book “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.”
Insightful and at times amusing, it’s an account of the author’s extensive efforts to document the active 1990s subculture built around recreating the experiences of ancestors who fought in America’s grotesquely bloody 1861-65 conflict.
Re-enactors then — and probably now — are the first to admit that theirs is an eccentric passion. It costs a lot of money and effort to do it well, with hardcore participants spending thousands on historically accurate clothing and gear, devoting much of their leisure time to preparing for and attending events.
Although predominantly an activity for white males, Horwitz found little indication that re-enacting the war to end slavery was based on racial prejudice or a desire to turn back the clock to the slavery-premised Antebellum South. It was instead grounded in nostalgia about the individual heroism of Union and Confederate ancestors, along with affection for what amount to historically accurate camping trips — sort of elaborate games of tag for grown-ups.
Twenty years since Horwitz’s book was published, many re-enactors have aged out, while younger generations find participation too demanding on their schedules and wallets. And yet the annual Civil War re-enactment at Fort Stevens State Park has continued, drawing up to 800 entrants and large audiences. Unlike the South, which has many such events, the one at Fort Stevens is essentially the only show within hundreds of miles.
Here in the far West, the Civil War primarily consisted of a Confederate warship preying on Yankee whalers. But the Fort Stevens event provides participants and spectators with a sense of what ground conflict might have looked like, had it extended to this coast. A good case may be made that it fulfills a valuable mission by attracting the interest of Americans who otherwise often have a hard time engaging with our own history.
In the wake of controversies over Confederate battle flag and statues, references to the Confederacy have become freighted with political and cultural subtexts. For some — as demonstrated by the furor over a 2017 Astoria Regatta parade float — any display of Confederate symbols is a potential endorsement of contemptible white supremacist views. Others appear to sincerely see them either as an affectionate nod to Southern and rural life, or as an appropriate expression of First Amendment rights and rejection of heavy-handed political correctness.
Considering this minefield, park officials could hardly be blamed for nudging the Fort Stevens event into making other arrangements, or at least fully absorbing all its costs. The last thing a state agency wants is national news coverage for subsidizing re-enactments some see as celebrating a tarnished, racist past.
Although the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department hasn’t publicly explained its actions, it’s also plausible that officials saw little benefit from tying up one of its major assets on a late-summer weekend when it can count on being fully booked with paying guests.
It’s not what Horwitz had in mind, but his subtitle referring to the unfinished Civil War is more apt now than ever. These issues continue to reverberate from coast to coast. They’re not going away, regardless of whether re-enactments cease at Fort Stevens.