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A Most Civil War

After the smoke clears at these reenactments, everyone walks away happy. The emphasis in on camaraderie, history and family fun.

May 13, 1999|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There will be more noise than a cat fight in a machine shop and more smoke than in a '40s gangster movie when the Civil War arrives Sunday at Ft. Tejon. Several hundred spectators are expected to watch Yankees and Confederates bring back the bad ol' days of 1861-65 so the War Between the States can continue in endless overtime.

Really just a picnic with guns, where men actually enjoy shopping and compliment one another on their clothes, Civil War reenacting provides a colorful glimpse of the single most important event in American history. And there are really no bad guys. Everyone is an American; patriots or traitors are in the eye of the beholder.

Ft. Tejon was an actual military outpost built in 1854, and a few of the original buildings still stand. The U.S. Army troops stationed there had the less-than-glamorous job of protecting the settlers and the Native Americans from each other. In 1861, the soldiers packed up to go east, where the action was.

If not at Ft. Tejon--which hosts reenactments on the third Sunday of each month through October--there's a Civil War battle going on somewhere in Southern California each month. A much more elaborate reenactment, perhaps the largest mock battle in Southern California this year, will take place May 22-23 at the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area in the San Fernando Valley.

On Sunday at Tejon, there will be three battles, each featuring cavalry and artillery, not to mention scores of marching infantry, all wearing colorful uniforms and really bad shoes called brogans. Contemporary stagings of Civil War battles have all the mystery of professional wrestling, with comparable levels of acting ability and choreography but more noise. Soldiers "die" when their side is supposed to lose or when their commander orders them to "take some hits." It's sort of a we-win, they-win scenario, which goes a long way toward explaining why the Civil War yet rages.

So who would want to get involved in this blast from the past? Lots of people, as it turns out. More than 100,000 are "reenactors" nationwide, mostly in the East where all the real marching, fighting and dying took place.

Though armed and dangerous, reenactors are not ultra-right-wing militia types by any means, but rather Civil War buffs in expensive uniforms who enjoy living history. The 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade, some of whom will be fighting this weekend, is a fairly typical group. Its local ranks include an economist, an FBI agent, a truck driver, a writer, a mailman, a bouncer, small-businessmen, an optometrist and a few students.

Tom Atkins, an aerospace worker from Lancaster and commander of the 8th Louisiana, heard Dixie calling when he accidentally discovered an event at Ft. Tejon one day in 1991.

"I knew right away that this would be my hobby. I became a rebel because I've always rooted for the underdog. To me, the Yankees are conformists, and they don't seem to have as much fun in camp. The best thing is teaching people, which is also the worst thing because you wouldn't believe some of the ignorant questions we get," Atkins said. "My father was a lifelong teacher, and by doing this, I think I'm paying back my father."

For spectators, reenactments are a way to watch the action without being in a real war zone. No one will wind up in the notorious Andersonville prison, where Union soldiers died by the thousands. There will be no amputations with a dull saw after two sips of cheap brandy. Also, dysentery, typhoid fever and measles, which killed far more Civil War soldiers than combat, will be mercifully absent.

Generally, when the first cannon goes off at a reenactment, all the birds fly over the mountains, several of the nearby car alarms go off and many of the babies start to cry. A mild uproar, the Civil War is not. Everything is designed to look and sound the same as the real thing--except for the use of real bullets.

Black powder is used in the cannons and rifle muskets but no cannon balls and no Minie balls for obvious reasons. Everything sounds real, looks real and makes lots of real smoke, but no one dies--at least for very long. No one gets upset if his only son is killed; he'll make a miraculous recovery a few minutes later when the bugler plays a screechy version of "Recall," signifying the end of the battle. That's when all the soldiers stand up, take a bow, march back to camp, roll more rounds, drink lots of water and wait for the next battle.

There was plenty of real dying in the real Civil War, of course. The battles were horrendous and they happened one after another for four years. The 600,000 soldiers killed is more than in all other American wars combined. The War Between the States was the first conflict to combine modern weaponry and old-fashioned tactics, resulting in massive casualties unrivaled until World War I.

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