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FAMILY: Ventura County

Fort Tejon Group Brings the Civil War to Life


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, a student at Fillmore Middle School, 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 participate in the battles.

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."

For spectators, who often include schoolchildren, the reenactments provide a chance for a sideline seat to the "battles" and also 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 appreciate the history of the event, the lessons learned."

The lessons come from the realistic portrayal of the battles, for which some spectators are not always prepared. 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. 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."

That might explain why the crowds are often silent during the battles. There's no cheering when the fighting ends.

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 in the hobby those who reenact become, 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."

Newcomers to the units start out as privates and work their way up through the ranks in the infantry and cavalry.

Teenager Jacob Allison isn't too concerned about rank at this stage. He said he will be happy to take orders as long as he gets promoted to a position on cannon when he's old enough. Asked if taking part in the reenactments gives him a sense of being in the Civil War movies he loved as a young kid, he answered a firm "no."

"This feels like the real thing," he said.


Civil War reenactments: The next reenactment is Sunday at Fort Tejon State Historic Park on Interstate 5 just north of Lebec, about 75 miles north of Los Angeles. Battles are at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Admission is $5; ages 6-12, $3. Information: (805) 248-6692.

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