The smoke was thick, the smell of gunpowder hung in the air, and the boom of cannon fire drowned out battlefield commands, all while spectators eagerly watched and snapped pictures. Such skirmish scenes were a common occurrence at San Benito County Historical Park, south of Tres Pinos, as the Civil War Days took place from Sept. 11-13.
The event was a collaboration between the San Benito County Historical Society and the National Civil War Association, Inc. An estimated 80-90 re-enactors brought the park to life as a 19th-Century village, encampment, and battlefield. More than 350 students showed up for the Friday portion of the event, while the rest of the weekend was expected to draw estimated attendance of more than 200 spectators, according to park caretaker Don Pidd.
“Civil War Days accomplishes several things for the San Benito County Historical Society,” said Pidd. “It introduces the general community to our park, which is the best-kept secret in San Benito County. And it is a good way to introduce them to the Civil War.”
“Re-enactments are a very important way to learn about history,” said Melinda Lane, who traveled to Tres Pinos from Sacramento for the Civil War Days event. “They’re educational tools with which you can learn both sides, which is very important in history.”
“People sometimes look at historical events through a modern lens,” said Scott Spence, president of National Civil War Association, Inc., who was the primary group of re-enactors at the event. “They try to attribute modern political agendas to what happened, and you can’t do that.” He noted that re-enactors work to change that by “bringing the physical lived-in experience to modern people.”
As large part of the learning experience, re-enactors dressed up in clothing and uniforms from the late 19th Century in order to portray what life was like in that era. Beyond just watching battles, spectators and visitors were able to walk around a period village and watch scenes, such as the theft of an ambulance cart, or walk into a post office and talk to a postmaster about what things were like one-and-a-half centuries ago.
“It’s a great way to educate the public about a time in our history which there’s a lot of confusion about and needs to be clarified,” said Pidd. He went on to note, “We think of the Civil War as a period between the North and the South and everybody was a volunteer and wanted to fight for their side. But that was really not the truth of it. There was a broad spectrum of people, just like there are in every war we’ve ever had. We had everything, from deserters, to peace protestors, to the draft. There are a lot of things that you have the opportunity to learn coming out this event.”
“It’s very interesting and puts you right in the middle of it,” said Lane, who not only watched the events, but was interested in getting involved in re-enacting.
Russ Bearrows, a re-enactor from Livermore, used his own uniform to spark historical conversation. Having different coloration and rank patches from the other re-enactors, he said, “I’m part of the Veteran’s Corps. It’s Union soldiers, who are either getting on in years or wounded, that really can’t go out and march all day like the conventional corps does. But we’re still perfectly able to shoot a musket and we can do a lot of administrative things.” He added, “We’re still soldiers and we still feel it’s very important to be part of the whole thing.”
Regarding the Friday preview, Pidd said, “Some of the re-enactors volunteer to come down here and we have a school day. It’s extremely exciting to us to get that information out to the schools and to have them participate. They divide into groups and the re-enactors set up stations. They’ll talk about everything, from artillery to laundry, in the era, so they get to learn a broad spectrum of activities that were going on in that period.”
“When I see a kid’s eyes light up, when I see that something clicks, it’s fun,” said Spence. Regarding the school day, he said, “They got to interact with the items and interact with the re-enactors.”
In addition to historical buildings, a family-friendly saloon with sodas, and antique items, there was a tent within the Union campground that featured a table full of Civil War history books. Those books weren’t for sale, but used as a reference for anyone interested in reading about the era.
“We want people to be aware of the wider narrative of the Civil War,” said Spence. “When people see the Civil War portrayed, they see the Eastern theater, and sometimes the trans-Mississippi theater. They see Gettysburg and Shiloh.”
Spence went on to note that what’s left out of a typical Civil War narrative are the women who served as soldiers, as well as the Asian, Native Americans, and Hispanics who served. He held up a photo of an Asian soldier, Corporal Joseph Pierce, and explained, “He fought at Gettysburg. He was born in Hong Kong and was adopted by a Connecticut sea captain.”
In addition to exploring the Eastern theater of the war, Spence said the NCWA aims to explore the Pacific and Western conflicts. “This is a very small reenactment, but it gives us a chance to experiment,” he said. “We can have a battle scenario based on events that happened in California.”
“The war for Southern independence was fought here in California, too,” said Lane, after having toured some of the exhibits and having talked to re-enactors. “It’s not very well-known to me, being originally from back East.”
Spence put the California situation into perspective. “At the time of the Civil War, 377,000 people lived in California, and 150,000 of them were born in the states that seceded. So you can imagine, there were some mixed loyalties in California, and people don’t realize that.”
In addition to the sociology of the state, California’s natural resources played a part in the war. Spence explained, “We were the supplier of gold to the Union, which paid for the war.” He went on with local trivia about the New Almaden mines in San Jose, saying, “The percussion caps that fired the muskets used mercury fulminate. The friction primers that fired cannons used mercury fulminate. The timing mechanisms in shells? Mercury. And that mercury came from the New Almaden mines.”
Spence added, “They money. The mercury. It flowed out of California, and that put the Confederate states at an extreme disadvantage. That’s why they tried to seize the New Mexico territory, because Colorado had silver mines. And people don’t know about the battles of the Pacific Theater. The Battle of Glorieta Pass, for instance, where California defeated Texas in battle.”
Many people have heard of Gettysburg, but Spence said most haven’t heard of Glorieta Pass. “That’s part of what we’re doing at Tres Pinos. It gives us a chance to also do Western Theater, as well.”
When asked about the re-enacting experience, Bearrows said, “The battles are interesting, fun, and give you some idea of what it was like to stand in line with all the smoke and the noise and trying to figure out what’s going on.” He added that the biggest reward is getting to teach the public about the Civil War. “We all feel this is an important message that needs to be conveyed. You get seniors in high school that will walk up to you and ask, ‘who won?’ Many of us like to say the United States won. And you hopefully get to lay a little groundwork and spark a little interest.”
Bearrows added that the re-enactors can become an extended family over time. “I’ve known some of these folks for many years and it’s a reason to get together and visit. Even after the public leaves, we’ll sit around the campfires discussing the politics in 1863. You learn so much.”
“It’s like a combination of a camping trip and a theatrical performance and sporting event, with explosions,” Spence said in summarizing what Civil War re-enactment is like. “It’s a great family activity.”
“It’s always positive,” said Pidd of the overall event. “Everybody always has a great time and I think everybody feels that they learned something that they didn’t know before.”
Spence encouraged visitors to future Civil War re-enactments. “Come with an open mind. And don’t be afraid to talk with people. Walk up and ask questions, because we love this subject matter. We’re happy to talk about this and answer any questions people might have.”
The San Benito Historical Society’s website is www.sbchistoricalsociety.org.
The website for the National Civil War Association, Inc. is www.ncwa1863.org.