Once again, Confederate troops are standing on the shores of Sullivan's Island, staring at Fort Sumter. And just as it was 150 years ago, their real frustration is with the federal government.
"It's my opinion that Congress is thinking about Washington, and the parties are thinking about themselves," says Jeff Antley, the chairman of the 150th Firing on Fort Sumter Committee and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It's Friday afternoon and a budget impasse on Capitol Hill has threatened to disrupt the most significant moment in the park's operations in our lifetime.
An hour before midnight, Republican and Democratic leaders found a budget that a majority could support. A national crisis was averted, and a historical commemoration was rescued. But the drama that unfolded in the waning hours of the budget mess may be more educational than the period artillery drills, encampment tours, and history lessons at Fort Sumter.
There is a broader argument about federal responsibilities and what government services we're willing to pay for. Just as it did 150 years ago, an attack on Fort Sumter has signaled the start of a civil war.
"You know, just in case"
On Friday, park rangers ushered about a dozen reporters from around Charleston, as well as The Washington Post and CNN, onto Fort Moultrie, a Sullivan's Island base that Union troops had already abandoned by this date 150 years ago.
"We'd really like to give you a chance to get to talk to the re-enactors while they're on the fort," one ranger said. "You know, just in case."
At that time on Friday, a government shutdown seemed inevitable. In the days leading up to the weekend, the more-than three dozen National Park staff that had been brought in to help manage operations during the sesquicentennial were instead split into two groups: one continuing to prepare for the Battle of Fort Sumter commemoration and a second group preparing to close the parks at 12:01 a.m. on Sat. April 9.
A shutdown would have canceled several events, but there was no better example of its impact than the possibility that hundreds of Civil War re-enactors, who had also been planning for years for this weekend, would be displaced. Some came from overseas or across the country to camp at Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie. "This is a multimillion-dollar screw up," Antley said.
Most of the 400 re-enactors were arriving on Friday for a long weekend of roughing it at the forts. The factions that afternoon weren't Union and Confederate. Seven re-enactors had set up camp, believing there would be a budget resolution by midnight. In contrast, several dozen others were still waiting for word before they even got their tents out of the trunk.
And these guys weren't working under "just in case." The default position, as Antley saw it, was that the park would be closed unless Congress acted. So, instead of shipping the 70 Union soldiers off to Fort Sumter at 7 p.m., the re-enactors were left considering logistics, like moving down the beach to an open field they'd originally set aside as the Confederate parking lot. They also huddled to determine what roles they'd have to fill in place of furloughed park staff.
The organizers were comfortable taking charge; after all, re-enactors are used to running around in fields with little supervision. Antley was more worried about deserters. "We're concerned some of the guys will get frustrated and go home," he said.
They aren't the only ones who could have gotten frustrated and decided to bail. Conservative estimates put the tourism traffic at more than 100,000 in Charleston for the weekend's sesquicentennial events. And these people weren't coming to sit on the Battery and stare across the harbor at a dark, empty fort.
The response from South Carolina's congressional leaders was dismissive at best. On local talk radio station WTMA, Sen. Jim DeMint said Friday that most South Carolinians wouldn't even notice a shutdown. Ironically, DeMint then brought up his opposition to federal funding for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service. South Carolina's junior senator has repeatedly argued that there are enough options in the private sector to make up for losing these federal programs.
Some made a similar argument this weekend regarding the commemoration; only an estimated 20 percent of the weekend's events were being held on national park property. But while the Civil War sesquicentennial would be sufficiently commemorated in the event of a government shutdown, many of the more educational events scheduled would have been canceled.
A lecture on Charleston's 1860 taverns was in jeopardy, and we don't know about you, but that event alone was worth a little compromise in Washington. Also endangered were lectures on military medicine, cuisine, churches, popular dances, and the experiences of African Americans and women during the Civil War era. Also in the cross-hairs of the standoff on Capitol Hill: children's programs on what it was like to enlist as a soldier in the Civil War.
Come Friday afternoon, the feelings of the re-enactors and DeMint couldn't have been more different. "This effects us immediately, right now," Antley said, offering a message to Washington. "Sign the bill. Act now."
Apparently, an overwhelming majority of legislators were listening. However, none of them were a part of South Carolina's Republican delegation. Of the 70 votes against a budget compromise late Friday night, five came from the Palmetto State, including Rep. Tim Scott (R-Charleston).
Tea Party leaders didn't like the compromise either, complaining that the spending cuts in the new budget amounted to a drop in the bucket compared to the national debt. And, frankly, there were opponents on the far left as well. In their opinion, the Obama administration had compromised with the GOP a little too much.
In the end, this fight is but a precursor to a much larger battle over future government spending. The national consensus among pundits, legislators, and economists has been that people wouldn't notice a shutdown. Essential services would still be provided and, in the end, isn't that what conservatives are calling for — spending on only what is absolutely necessary?
If there is one thing Charleston learned in this mess, it's context. When it comes time to set priorities, we don't have to rely on talking points from Washington about healthcare and NPR. The high stakes of this shutdown on the eve of the Civil War's 150th anniversary has shown that, when we focus on waste, there is an often overlooked aspect of government spending that is just as important: value.