Sports & Recreation

Civil War Days, where history comes to life

Re-enactors bring history to life during Civil War Days at San Benito Historical and Recreational Park.
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Whether you call them re-enactors or living historians, they take their history seriously. That’s because many of them have developed alter-egos and fictional genealogies based on their real family lineage. The real fun part, though, is dressing up in Civil War-era costumes, camping out with like-minded folks, and blasting away with Henry 50-caliber long guns or cannons during reenactments of actual battles that took place 150 years ago.

As the annual Civil War Days returned this weekend to the San Benito County Historical and Recreational Park, south of Tres Pinos on Airline Highway, pseudo-members of the Army of the United States and the Confederate States of America, were encamped together under the trees waiting to do battle.

As with any real army, the troopers of these two re-enactor regiments lead quite different existences away from the pomp and circumstance and blood-letting of military life of the 1800s. Among those marching in ranks of blue or grey, or playing civilian roles of a haberdasher, blockade runner, tent maker, and an outlaw, were a real estate agent, a doctor, a model train maker, teacher, and even an oceanographer.

Jennifer Bristol, a real estate agent from Stockton, aka Sophronia Owen, is a Southern gal not averse to cussing out passing Yankee troops. Bristol’s dialect has a way of shifting from a Southern drawl to California girl, depending on which persona she’s inhabiting, which is difficult to separate because Owen and Bristol are kin who happen to be wearing the same dress.

She said as she was working on her genealogy when she discovered that Sophronia was one of her great-great grandfather’s sisters, and Owen was her grandmother’s maiden name. She has traced her ancestors back to men who fought on both sides during the Civil War. She not only knows which side they fought on, but where they fought and in which regiments. She also knows which ones died in combat or, in the case of one, of disease.

“It’s interesting to see where our family was at during the Civil War and to know what they were doing,” Bristol said. “So, I’m honoring both sides by doing re-enacting.”

Every re-enactor has their own story of how they got into it. Bristol said she has been a re-enactor of one sort or another since 1993, beginning with science fiction conventions; then she got into renaissance fairs for 10 years.

“I enjoyed that, but my passion was the Victorian era,” she said. “Last year, I found out about a Civil War re-enactment in Stockton. I went to it and decided to join.”

Becky Thompson, who lives in Hollister and works in Milpitas for a pest control company, has been a re-enactor for a year. She said the history aspect and period clothing attracted her.

“I learn something from each event that I go to that I may have not been able to do through my own research,” she said. “There’s a wealth of knowledge among the re-enactors. For my creative outlet and stepping outside of my comfort zone, I’ve found out what I need to be wearing for someone my age in 1863. I love combining this with the re-enacting.”

Thompson said that an interesting, and somewhat unusual, thing she learned about women’s apparel during the era was mourning clothing.

“My friend does a mourning emporium, which is the practice of mourning for loved ones after they’ve departed,” she explained. “I learned a lot about the colors, and not just black. There are different stages of black, progressing into black and white, black with another color, grey and then lavenders and purples, and then indigos. The color of a woman’s dress could, at a glance, tell that she’s maybe one year out from a major loss.”

At first, Thompson's family was not into her new passion, but after bringing her husband along to an event in Mariposa, he signed up as a Confederate artilleryman. Then her son-in-law came along for an event, and he too, took on the grey uniform of the Confederacy, also with the artillery.

“He loves the cannons,” Thompson said. “What man wouldn’t turn that down?”

Bristol said one of the major historical facts she has come to learn from participating in re-enacting was that the Emancipation Proclamation did not abolish slavery, as most people believe.

“Native Americans were still sold and traded as slaves until about 1910,” she said. To support her claim, she held up a book, titled, Slavery in the West, the Untold Story of the slavery of Native American.

Standing nearby, historian and re-enactor, Andrew Crockett, who is also an authority on the U.S. Constitution, explained that when the anti-slavery amendments were written, there was a loophole, of sorts, that left out people who were considered indigents or burdens on society.

“The Indians were kept on reservations and if they left and were captured they were declared vagrants,” he said. “They were, of course, convicted and when they were sentenced to 60 or 90 days in one of the small-town jails, mine owners or farmers could buy up their sentencing and they would be forced to work for no wages for them. Then, when their sentences were up, they would find that because they were still ‘off the reservation,’ the judge would extend their sentences another 60 to 90 days. So they were kept in slavery.”

Jay Johnson, an oceanographer from Livermore who came a day earlier to share his knowledge of the Civil War with local schoolchildren, said he has been a “living historian” for 15 years. He became interested when a friend of his eldest daughter, Nicole, convinced her, as well as Johnson and his wife, that it would be good for Nicole if all of them participated as re-enactors.

“She got involved, then her friends at school got involved, then my wife got involved as a chaperon, and the next thing we knew we bought a tent,” Johnson said. “I started showing up to cook meals for them because with their pretty dresses they didn’t want to be around the fire. Now there’s two granddaughters who re-enact with Nicole. She met her husband at a re-enactment, they courted and got married doing re-enactments.”

Johnson said he knew very little about the Civil War before getting involved in reenactments. Now he plays the role of a blockade runner. Along with the character comes a wealth of history he is more than willing to share, beginning with the political and socioeconomic reasons that caused the war. He explains to kids, and anyone else willing to listen, how once the war started, all transportation and goods were cut off from the South and it was up to Confederate blockade runners to keep not only war materials coming, but everyday goods, from soap to salt to matches, and even fine wines.

“Goods could not come in and cotton could not leave,” he said. “Cotton was akin to what oil is today in that it is the commodity that runs the world. It’s why the South didn’t think the war would go beyond six months. Today, we couldn’t go six months without Middle Eastern oil. It was the same concept. The mistake was that England, which controlled the manufacturing, processing and world distribution of cotton, knew the war was coming from the 1700s. They were stockpiling cotton when it was cheap and there was a three-year stockpile in the United Kingdom, so England did not need to come into the war.”

Johnson said that in 1861, when the war started, the South was totally at the mercy of the North because it had less manufacturing throughout all of the southern states than was in New York City alone.

“Almost nothing was manufactured in the South because it was cheaper to buy their goods from somewhere else,” he said and then joked, “Do we see a modern parallel there? And when the war started, everything stopped within weeks. There was nothing in the stores. In Richmond in 1861, a 100-pound sack of salt went for about $10. By 1863, that same bag of salt was well over $100. The average salary was about $200 a year. You can’t afford to spend half of your annual salary on that bag of salt. If you can’t buy the salt, you can’t preserve your fruits and vegetables. You’re not making it through the winter.”

Christopher Brady, from Gilroy, stood in his blue uniform near his tent along with his 9-year-old daughter, Arabella, as he was getting reading to fall into ranks to march out to fight the “Johnny Rebs.” He has been a re-enactor for the past four years; Arabella has been coming along with him for three years.

“I do this to relive history,” he said. “And it’s fun. Here, today, it’s just me and Arabella, but my youngest, who is five, also does it.”

Arabella, who goes to Rod Kelley Elementary School, said she likes taking part in reacting because she grew up watching the battles in her dad was engaged.

“I like re-enacting and getting to dress up,” she said.

Don Pidd, director of the San Benito County Historical Society, said the organization is 60 years old this year and has hosted Civil War Days for about 10 years. He said the event is broken up into two parts, with the school day being the most important to the society in promoting educational opportunities to learn about that era.

“A lot of people don’t realize there was a lot of Civil War activity in California,” he said. “We’re really pleased when we can do the reenactments with 300 to 400 kids here.”

Pidd said the society’s mission is to promote, preserve and educate the community about San Benito County.

“We have a museum in Hollister and the village here at the historical park,” he said. “The village has been an interesting process. At first, it was created to display historical farm equipment. In the mid-70s, our group saved the Sullivan House, which was one of the original houses built in Hollister in 1867. They moved it out here and it sat here by itself for about 20 years. In the 90s, they started moving other buildings out here, so now we have the Tres Pinos Jail, the Willow Creek School, and the Cottage Bar. We also moved the Dunneville Dance Hall out here that had been built in 1890. It was here about 10 years and was blown down by a freak wind storm. We spent the next seven or eight years getting grants and funds to build a new dance hall.”

Scott Spence, president of the National Civil War Association (NCWA), who described the Civil War on Friday during school day as one of the most important events in American history that altered the Constitution, said he would be stepping down as president at the end of the year.

“I’m going to focus on this one event, as the event coordinator,” he said. “This is a small event with a lot of potential. I’m going to be seeking grants from local businesses so that we can enhance the event and expand the school day to create an even richer experience for the students.”

Spence said that because NCWA does not charge admission for Civil War Days, the organization picks up the cost, amounting to about $1,400. There are few funds for extras, including porta-potties. He said donations or grants would not have to be excessive in order to make the event a better experience and hopes that local businesses—banks in particular—might agree to sponsor it next year. He said anyone interested can contact the organization at its website, https://ncwa1863.org/.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years' experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]