The sound of firing cannons, a three-inch ordnance rifle and a six-pound Napoleon field gun are a clear indication that Civil War Days has returned to the San Benito County Historical Park. And on the special preview day for school groups on Sept. 17, the cannons are the hands-down favorite of the visiting students.
“They delight in the explosion,” said Andrew Crockett, one of the three-person cannon crew. “I don’t know if any of them have ever been close to this kind of pyrotechnic display. They love it. It is one of the highlights of their school day—we always make sure there is a demonstration every kid gets to see.”
They are also an important educational tool to help explain the disparities between the Union and the Confederacy.
“One is smoothbore, one is a rifled piece,” Crockett said. “One is wrought iron, one is cast iron. It is an indication of the different technologies available to either side.”
The cannon display was among the 11 stations set up with demonstrations or talks for students by reenactors from the National Civil War Association.
“It is a chance for the kids to understand the realities of the times,” said event coordinator Scott Spence. “Life was very, very different then. There is the stuff you read in books, but when you come out and see the actual physical objects it makes a big difference.”
Some of the stations, including ones profiling the Confederate Marines, a blockade runner, the Confederate Navy, a semaphore signaller, dismounted cavalry, and a Union soldier, teach about the life of a soldier and the realities of combat.
Other stations emphasize the after-effects of battle and the impact on civilians, with two medical stations and an embalming tent.
“I think that some people might watch the reenactments and it does not register that this is warfare,” said park director Anita Kane. “They see people getting shot and then, at a signal, the battle is over and everyone gets up. Having these stations is a way of reminding people of the human cost of the battles.”
Confederate Marine reenactor Jim North made this clear in his explanation of an Enfield rifle at his station.
“Rounds from this rifle were meant to do serious damage and break bone” he said. “Getting shot in the leg would most likely mean losing that leg.”
A mourning tent emphasized the civilian side of the war.
“Mourning would go on for two years,” said reenactor Midirise Arnold. “Everyone in the family would mourn. They would wear mourning clothes or mourning bands which would go from black to greys and purples, depending on how long you lost someone.”
Around 200 kids, mostly from homeschooling groups, went from station to station to hear reenactors in character explain their place in the camp, their part in the battles, and their work at dealing with the aftermath.
“We are here to learn more about American history,” said Michelle Ayers, who brought her students from Trinity Christian School in Monterey. “It is incredible and we appreciate all of the volunteers who have come out here to keep the history alive. It is critical to know our history and to see how our country was founded and formed. It is a chance to see history firsthand from the primary sources.”
The reenactors felt no need to address the recent controversies about the Confederacy that have led to statues of rebel leaders being removed from public display.
“I am from 1863,” said North. “I don’t know what monuments you are talking about.”
Arnold put it differently. “We are trying to be as historically accurate as possible,” she said. “Our interest is to correctly portray the people and the times the best we can as a way of keeping history alive. We try to reflect what the history was then.”
The Civil War Days event will continue Sept. 18-19 at the San Benito Historical Park, 8300 Airline Hwy. in Tres Pinos.
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