Civil War games
A weekend of Civil War enthusiasts, re-enactments and enlightening presentations takes over Butte College
It is about 11:30 on a Sunday morning in late October. Above, the sky is a rich sapphire blue but scratched through with pale scales of high cirrus clouds. Below, a barren, upturned field of brown soil, somewhat wider than a football field and about twice as long, is partially shrouded in pungent, wild roiling sheets of smoke. As the smoke clears, the gradually distinct shapes of men can be made out. Many are standing or running, brandishing weapons. Many more lie in the deep brown dirt, some shouting, some squirming, some twitching. Most simply lie there. Unmoving.
It is a few minutes yet before the gray or blue of their opposed uniforms can be clearly determined.
A cannon burst punches the air like a hammer the size of a boulder, the resulting concussion dully reverberating instantly in the skull and the chest. To the south of the field, a plume of earth and smoke jets up. An opposing cannon’s gray-coated operators fall instantly to the ground. As the dirt rains about their bodies, the men neither twitch nor squirm nor shout. They simply lie there. Unmoving.
That is, until the announcer declares the battle over. Then, amidst appreciative applause, these authentically clad participants and enthusiasts rise, dust off the dirt, laugh, retrieve their lost firearms and reclaim their far-flung hats, and move toward the grandstand-style seats and their delighted spectators.
It is all merely a part of Civil War Days.
This is the second year that Butte Community College has hosted Civil War Days. The event is presented by both the Butte College Foundation and a Northstate group called the Re-enactors of the American Civil War, and it raises funds for scholarships and various programs on campus. The so-called “farm” area of Butte College has been more or less transformed into Confederate campsites, a “town,” Federal (Union to you, Yankee!) bivouac and a good-sized battlefield. Men, women and even children sport mid-1800s accoutrements and regalia, acting and speaking as if they truly are living about 140 years ago. When approached by cassette-recorder-wielding reporters, some of them even remain in character—there are moments when I feel as if I have just beamed down from the USS Enterprise on one of Spock and Kirk’s fact-finding, solar slingshot missions into Earth’s past!
“Last year we had about 4,000 people [in attendance], and this year we’re expecting a few thousand more,” says Patrick Blythe, executive director of the Butte College Foundation. It’s an hour earlier, and he’s guiding photographer Tom Angel and me toward the Confederate camp. I ask if the “players” are all local.
“There are some folks here from Oregon,” Blythe says, “but most are from California, from as far away as San Diego. The company of Scottish and Irish troops came in from the Bay Area on Friday. People stay in character, and they really study their roles. They try to be as historically accurate as possible. And it’s hard to get them to go out of character. It’s really a weekend of living history.”
At the Confederate camp—a drab assortment of small pup tents—the men are already up and busy. They’re a ragged, desperate-looking bunch. The only consistencies about the men are their Rebel gray jackets and caps; their trousers are decidedly mismatched and torn, some with patches. They’re fresh off the farm, handed a jacket and a gun. Ordered to kill Yanks.
I approach a bearded sergeant and ask him who he is and what he’s doing here. He identifies himself as Sergeant Shelby Wade of the 42nd Virginia Volunteer Infantry.
“We’re getting ready to form up and do battle with the invaders from the North,” states “Sergeant Wade” matter-of-factly, with just a trace of a Southern accent. “They’ve come into Virginia, they’ve invaded our state. That’s what we’re doing here.”
And just as Blythe warned, the fellow stays in character, asking me if I happen to know any farmers who might contribute a pig or some chickens to the Confederate cause. “The boys are always hungry,” the sergeant says, a bit of desperation in his voice. “You know, we march a lot.”
As a colonel barks at Sergeant Wade to assemble his men, we turn and head north toward the Federal bivouac.
The Union troops are leading a life of luxury compared to the Rebels: large tents, lots of food cooking and a military brass band knocking out uplifting tunes. Blythe points out the artillery encampment. “They have a large brass gun called ‘The Napoleon,'” he says. “And when that gun goes off, you not only hear it, you feel it.” Federal majors and colonels casually ride around the perimeter on horseback, some of them with huge sideburns and handlebar mustaches. We meet a carpetbagger, Seamus O’Cooney, who describes himself as simply a “land speculator” hoping to nab a few deals when the Feds confiscate Virginia farmland due to unpaid taxes and sell it for “pennies.” Yeah. And Lester Maddox was simply a “concerned citizen.”
We also meet Major Thomas Osborne, chief of artillery. He quickly explains the origins of the Napoleon cannon, so-called because Napoleon Bonaparte envisioned the weapon and its detachable sections. Major Osborne’s in a hurry. The troops are lined up. The cannon is being moved into position. The battle is about to begin.
After the fight (the North prevailed—damn Yankees!), Abraham Lincoln (professional Lincoln portrayer William Truman Peck) regales us with accounts of his Illinois boyhood. We don’t stick around though because we hear there’s evil stuff going down over at the field hospital tent: amputations! In fact, it is merely two doctors—one Confederate, the other Federal—explaining the procedures for amputation back in the crude 1800s. With authentic saws, knives, forceps and probes, they run us through the grisly details of the operation. The large crowd winces and ughs.
But it’s all in good fun as part of an enjoyable day of fun. So far as wars go, anyway.