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History Is Served

Reenactments of Civil War battles come to life, thanks to a Fort Tejon group.

June 12, 1997|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jacob Allison is a veteran of many battles. At 13, he carries a drum, not a gun, but he's eager for the day that he can take up "arms" and fight with his unit, the Richmond Howitzers, named for an actual unit that fought in the Civil War.

Allison was among several dozen people who took part recently in a Civil War reenactment in Fillmore, one of many that take place in the Southland under the auspices of the Fort Tejon Historic Assn. The Fillmore presentation was just a taste of the Civil War "battles" that are represented six times a year (the next battle is Sunday) at Fort Tejon, a garrison abandoned in 1864 that is now part of the California State Park system. During these events, hundreds of people typically gather on the old parade grounds at the fort to re-create different aspects of life during the Civil War, from soldiers and their wives to laundresses and even the children who marched with drums alongside the armies.

Allison was first attracted to the romance of the Civil War while watching movies as a small child. Now he and his father, Ed Allison, an "officer" in the unit, spend many a weekend with other history buffs who recreate a war that most only read about in history books. Allison, a student at Fillmore Middle School, is anticipating the day he'll be a "No. 4"--"the guy who pulls the lanyard."

The appeal of the cannon to a young boy is understandable; the shock wave that follows a tug on the lanyard on a Civil War-era cannon has been known to break a little glass--not to mention a few eardrums. The noise is part of the excitement of the reenactments, which also provide a history lesson for children and adults.

Still, the thundering boom can be destructive, even without live ammunition. At the recent living history presentation in Fillmore, foremost on the mind of Ed Mann, a "Confederate Army major," wasn't the impending skirmish with "Union soldiers," it was how to fire off his cannon in the town square without shattering the windows on the new Fillmore City Hall.

"If everything was quiet and sedate, nobody would be doing this," Mann said. "During the battles, we fire straight in the faces of people standing 75 feet in front of us." Though no cannon fodder is actually fired into the air, the vibration is enough to make the battle feel real to the crowd.

For spectators, who often include schoolchildren, the reenactments provide a sideline seat to the "battles" and also a chance to learn about life in the 1860s during tours of the camps that are given between the skirmishes.

"I went for the cannons," said Thousand Oaks resident Dianne Alexander, remembering her first experience seeing a Civil War reenactment years ago (she was instrumental in bringing the group to Fillmore). "I don't have the opportunity to be a part of a war--I'm a grandmother. I appreciate the history of the event, the lessons learned.

"They go to such lengths to educate the public," Alexander said. "They don't just go out and fire off the cannon. They show you the artillery, the gunpowder. It's fascinating, it's emotional, it's interesting, it's sad. It really makes you think."

Unlike contemporary wars, where the enemy is nothing more than a blot on a radar screen, human faces young and old are attached to the Civil War confrontations. Even though it's make-believe, either due to the adrenaline or the intensity of the fight, you see what appears to be fear in the eyes of the soldiers who engage in the battles on the field. There are no bullets or shrapnel to tear into soldiers' chests, faces, arms or legs, but somehow the pain seems palpable, especially as loud pops from rifles and thundering booms of the cannons echo across the battlefield.

The Civil War "is the most important thing that's happened in American history since the Revolutionary War," Mann said, in an attempt to explain the widespread fascination with the period. "It was the last war that combined elements of knightly conduct, men on horses and sabers and codes of chivalry. There were a lot of unpleasant things done, but people had a code of honor about war."

That might explain why the crowds are often silent during the battles. There's no cheering when the fighting ends. (The Union and Confederate armies take turns winning the battles.)

Authenticity is important to those who suit up in the blue or gray. And there is no shortage of uniforms, sabers, firearms and supplies for either side, Mann said. Some period equipment is hard to find or not economical to use in the reenactments. But the more involved those who reenact get into the hobby, the bigger their desire to be authentic.

"My first year I was walking around camp drinking out of a Coke can," said Mann, who's participated for eight years. "Now, I still drink Coke, but I discreetly pour it into a tin mug and drink out of that."

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