The Cascade Civil War Society fires a canon at Stewart State Park Saturday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Echoes of a Distant War

STEWART STATE PARK — The Civil War raged across five Aprils during the 1860s. Its tales of triumph, tragedy and glory still reverberate through American life.

The war to end slavery. The War Between the States. The War of Northern Aggression. By whatever name you prefer, the conflict dividing a nation that was little more than 80 years old reshaped the future of the country, the continent and the world.

Not surprisingly, the men and women who periodically gather on historic battlefields, parks and farms to re-enact Civil War life and death consider it an almost sacred duty.

About four dozen re-enactors — camping in canvas tents, sipping coffee brewed over fires, loading guns and sewing — brought the past into view for several hundred spectators Saturday near Lost Creek Lake.

The two-day event, called The Battle of Stewart State Park, a joint effort of the Cascade Civil War Society, Re-enactors of the American Civil War and Northwest Civil War Council, continues today from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Don "Pappy" Walton, who lays claim to George Walton of Georgia, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as an ancestor, says his itinerant construction-worker father made sure to pass both family and American history to his children.

The 70-year-old Walton, father of six daughters, grandfather of 19 and great-grandfather of one, has done the same. He's expanded his horizons to the point where he has brought history alive at more than 100 schools and a dozen or more colleges.

"Think about the first words in the preamble to the Constitution," said the retired narcotics officer who earned four purple hearts during his tour of duty in Vietnam. "It's about making history come alive to the kids and empowering them."

On the eve of the two-day event, the re-enactors strayed into the neighboring campground to visit with vacationers.

"We couldn't get 300 yards because everyone wanted to hear the stories and learn our history," said Walton, who attended the University of Oregon and now lives in Anderson, Calif. "They just want the honest facts. The good, the bad and the ugly, this is still the greatest country on earth."

Perhaps because of his heritage, Walton regularly dons a Confederate uniform. And on this morning, he fell once more in the line of duty.

The flash and thunder of cannon fire, the crackle of sharp-shooters picking off enemies unaware, and soldiers enveloped in a fog of smoke gave onlookers a taste and smell of battle. But unlike the Washingtonians who packed their lunches with them as they went to view the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861, Saturday's audience was spared the horrors of war.

"The smell of battle (during the Civil War) is a strange mixture," said Ken Janson of Chiloquin, whose Alabama artillery unit put a 816-pound, 3-inch gun through its paces. "The smell of sulphur fills the air. After thousands of rounds are fired, it's overwhelming. You can't smell anything else except your own sweat. After the battle, you can smell the dead and wounded and blood."

Between the day's two skirmishes, Union and Confederate soldiers and supporters shared their insights into the period and drilled youngsters wanting a taste of 19th century soldiering.

Don Cooper of Janesville, Calif., has participated in both large-scale battles and skirmishes.

"This can be an all-consuming hobby," said the Navy veteran, draped in rebel regalia. "I've seen it consume and change persons, and it just snowballs. Once you get into it, there's so much research. It was geographic war between two types of people. It was during the Civil War where our concept of 'might is right' philosophy took root. It stayed that way until we got our butts kicked (in Vietnam) in 1973."

There was little official Civil War action west of the Rockies, but sympathizers took aim at one another in both California and Oregon. This time around, however, when the smoke cleared enemy combatants helped one another off the ground.

"This was relaxing," Cooper said. "I didn't have 17 muskets out on loan, didn't have to worry about the (accompanying) paperwork and the new wave of damage. I only had to worry about myself today."

Low, clinging clouds shrouded the surrounding hills as the re-enactors went through their paces.

"It's lovely weather when you're wearing wool," conceded Willy Martin of Corning, Calif., a welder, fabricator and blacksmith, whose skills come in handy when fashioning or repairing gear for the re-enactment clubs.

"I was always into history and grew up with guns," Martin said. "I kind of thought I knew about that period of history, but I've learned a lot more since joining the club."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

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