Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Civil War

Every year, one of the largest Civil War reenactment events in the Pacific Northwest takes place at Willamette Mission State Park. We've never gone and decided it was time to check it out.  The main events are naturally the battles.  They explained that the Union and Confederate sides alternate planning them and winning them, and they aren't based on any actual historical battles. (Afterwards we discovered that some of the soldiers were women, with an occasional fake mustache.) I was reminded that early Civil War battles attracted families with picnic baskets, who surely expected to remain completely safe on the sidelines while observing no particularly distasteful gore. They would have indeed had that experience if they'd just waited 150 years. Real cannons were fired and real civil-war era guns were shot, but of course no ammunition was used. (I do wish we had thought to bring earplugs for Jasper, who would definitely have enjoyed the cannons more without the really serious noise.) Spectators sat behind Confederate lines and watched Union forces advance, only to be repelled and retreat hastily.  Since the Confederate forces carried the day, I expect Union forces will be the winners in 2016.  

The most surreal moment came when the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion Tiger Zouaves entered the fray. These infantrymen wore bright red shirts, black and white striped baggy pants and striped stockings, and some wore red fezzes.  Modern armies wouldn't want to make their soldiers into such easy targets.  But the muskets used during the Civil War were not very accurate and produced a lot of smoke, so bright colors helped tell sides apart and had a definite intimidation factor. 

Stephen Holgate as Lincoln.
The creepiest moment was when we sat down in the shade with much desired shave ices, only to notice for the first time that the vendor's stall was graced with a huge Confederate flag, Confederate flags were for sale at a nearby tent, and as people strolled by was saw Confederate flags were gracing several baby carriages.  I felt that the point has been clearly made in recent days that this flag is just as much a symbol of slavery today as it was then. It's no mystery that war broke out over the question of slavery.  And it's hard to imagine anything more purely evil.  I'm under no illusions that the North was unambiguously on higher moral ground, because the entire nation profited enormously from slavery from the beginning.  I see the point of Civil War reenactments, but I hardly see justification for celebrating the Confederate cause.  At least people who today wave Nazi flags don't pretend it's about "heritage, not hate".  There is so very much to the rich and diverse heritage and many cultures of the South that it does all Americans a tremendous disservice to distill it all to this particular symbol.
The best moment was when Oregonian Stephen Holgate delivered his presentation as Abraham Lincoln.  Tears filled my eyes as he recited the Gettysburg Address.  He was amazing and very sincere.  He had a definite Kentucky twang to his speech and told several very funny jokes, typical of Lincoln's humor.  But in interviews he has said that he does not attempt to approximate the much thicker accent Lincoln was said to have had, because it would be jarringly different from what most people expect him to sound like.  He explained Lincoln's take on slavery, that God could have settled the issue without bloodshed or given one side the advantage over the other quickly once war began. But Lincoln came to believe that there was a price to be paid in blood by the entire nation for this most horrible of sins, and God in His wisdom was extracting it.  It's no wonder that few others in history have been the subject of as many biographies as Abraham Lincoln, a complex and fascinating genius. 

Many of the tents were specifically to display collections of Civil War era artifacts and replicas for visitors, but many others
were simply private tents for reenactors. It must be tremendous fun to spend the weekend immersed in history with
about a thousand other reenactors.
A cavalry demonstration.
A bugling demonstration.  The officers of both sides were mainly trained at West Point and had learned the same bugle
calls, and at times it was difficult for soldiers to be sure from which side signals were originating.

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