The game is Captain Morgan’s Revenge. Players take turns spinning a dreidel-like top with marked sides. After pitching money into the growing pot, I spin and land on a side labeled “TA.” Take all. The pot’s mine. The Confederate soldier next to me curses as the owner of the Iron Pear Tree Inn hands me a stack of Union dollars. Outside the tent, a sign advertises for Pu Ling’s Chinese Laundry.
The year is 2017 but the setting is 1863. It’s a sweltering August morning at Santa Ana’s Civil War Days and the men and women around me are faithfully sweating through their mid–19th century garb.
Civil War re-enacting is one of those activities whose predominance on the East Coast belies its fervent following in Southern California. No Civil War battle took place in the Golden State, but that hasn’t prevented avid historians and devoted re-enactors from growing a dedicated community out West.
Here’s how it works: Groups of between 10 and 50 re-enactors will portray a single unit or company from the Civil War. The units range from military to civilian — balloon corps, engineering corps, post office workers, abolitionist societies — and will meet once a month to run drills, have meals and socialize. The units then convene at Civil War re-enactment events across the region.
The largest of these is the Huntington Beach Civil War Days, held every Labor Day weekend and drawing several hundred re-enactors annually. The current Lincoln has been playing Lincoln for nine years; the Lincoln before him had been doing it for 30. The Ulysses S. Grant is a professional living historian who flies out from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, specifically for this event. There are even two horses added to the mix.
“We as a re-enactment community have a lot more to prove because there’s a stigma from the East Coast that California re-enactors are unauthentic,” says Darrell Rivers, whose family has been running the Huntington Beach event since 1993. Inauthentic re-enactors are derogatorily known as “farbs,” a term previously applied to Southern Californians.
Reed Settle, the Huntington Beach re-enactment coordinator, disagrees with the designation. “You get this idea that what they do back East are bigger and better and more authentic, but that’s not in all cases true,” Settle says.
Settle commands Virginia's Company E, Third Regiment, a unit of Confederate engineers. The members of Company E come from all walks of life — insurance salespeople, ER nurses, former military personnel. They meet monthly to practice building maps, fortifications and old-school signaling devices. “Our authenticity standards are as stringent or more stringent than those back East,” Settle insists.
As the burgeoning tumor of white supremacy metastasizes and spreads from coast to coast, how do Southern California’s mostly negative associations with the Confederacy affect our tie-ins with Civil War re-enacting?
“It is a touchy subject, but people know they have to portray both sides, to portray Confederates as what they really are,” Rivers says. “I find there are some of the most progressive people who portray Confederates and some hard-line conservatives portray Union abolitionists.”
Settle insists that his unit exists as an educational opportunity. “One of the first things we talk about is this is a nonpolitical activity,” he explains. “We absolutely do not have any political aspirations at all and we do not go down that road.”
As I wandered the grounds of the Civil War Days in Santa Ana, I couldn’t help but think how fitting it was that Orange County, the seat of the Disney empire, is also the host of Southern California’s largest re-enactment event. Civil War re-enacting is, in many ways, a Disney-fied experience — a gee-whiz glossing of the Stygian quagmire of war, slavery and a war over slavery. That’s not to say that Civil War re-enactors fail to discuss slavery. Quite the contrary.
But what with revisionist histories in the works and white nationalists stomping through the streets of American cities, Civil War re-enactment’s PG version of the brutal racism of the era is at odds with the savage reality of our nation’s past and present. And before Southern California gets on its moral high horse, let me remind you that California’s hands are far from stainless. Californians like to think of their role in the conflict as apolitical. Hardly.
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John Downey, an Angeleno and governor of California in 1860, was a secessionist sympathizer; the same held true for Los Angeles’ mayor, Los Angeles’ former assemblyman and its former state senator. At the federal level, both California’s U.S. senators and representatives believed the South’s complaints were justified. KCET notes that Judge Benjamin Hayes wrote, “The tone of the people here [Los Angeles] is Southern to a greater extent than might be supposed.”
“I have found that history can seem very far away to people here as compared to other places,” says Stephanie Tiedt, a volunteer with the Huntington Beach event. “Living history is one of the best ways to literally make history come alive for people.”
Tiedt is right — history can feel very far away, especially in our little West Coast bubble. So can the political zeitgeist. “We’ll be fine, we’re in California, nothing is going to happen to us,” we tell ourselves as we watch the scenes in places like Charlottesville, Virginia. It may behoove us to remember that whether it’s the Civil War or the rhetoric of our times, California can never remain truly cordoned off. We are part of this, whether we like it or not.
For a nonpolitical and purely educational examination of American history, though, there’s the Huntington Beach Civil War Days. They take place at Huntington Beach Central Park this year on Sept. 2 and 3. I hear there’ll be horses.