Living history

Sorry for the blog silence yesterday, but I was off doing something fun. We headed up north to do a balloon event, which was a bust because of the fog. Afterwards, when we were consoling ourselves at a Starbucks with some hot chocolate, I happened to see a flier advertising a Civil War reenactment, complete with two full battles. A nice man at the Starbucks gave us directions to get there, and off we went.

What we discovered was Civil War Days at Duncan Mills, along the Russian River:

On July 14th and 15th, the quaint north coast town of Duncans Mills, California, will become the fields of Virginia circa 1863. Civil War Days will once again be on tap as one of the largest re-enactments west of the Mississippi. Over a thousand re-enactors will converge to ensure a very memorable experience for all who attend.

Civil War Days will give visitors the opportunity to interact with the soldiers and civilians of the Civil War. You’ll witness the camps of the Union and Confederacy, see how civilians lived and served with the armies of 1863, be taken aback by the tactics utilized by both sides in what was referred to as the first “modern war.” This will be an event that will not only serve as an educational experience, but an unforgettable trip that will delight audiences of all ages.

This bland, press-release kind of language doesn’t do the event justice.  We discovered that hundreds of California reenactors gather there annually to recreate life during the Civil War.

In a large and beautiful grove, you can wander to a civilian encampment, complete with marvelous stores selling clothes, weapons and household items, as well as both a Union encampment and a Confederate encampment. In each of these areas, the participants have worked to make everything as realistic as possible — clothes, weapons, tools, cooking implements, chairs, bedrolls, anything you can think about. And because they’re enthusiasts, they know so much about what they’ve chosen to do and are excited to share their information. We learned about sharpshooting in the Civil War era, cooking, furniture making, mortars, bands, medicine, leisure activities, the mechanics of dressing a middle class lady, and so much more. The children were fascinated. They got a whole history class packed into a single afternoon.

The highlight of the day was two battle reenactments, with hundreds of participants. It was thrilling. The only thing I would have done differently was earplugs, which I later discovered I could have purchased in the civilian encampment.

I’d always been vaguely aware of these Civil War events, but had assumed that they were just fake battles.  I did not realize that they were so much more.  As we explained it to the children, people who are fascinated by the era, and are stymied by the fact that we can’t travel back in time, have done the next best thing:  they’ve recreated a moment in time as faithfully as possible, and then shared it with all of us.

If you’re interested in finding Civil War enactments in your own area, check the internet.  For example, our event was put on by the National Civil War Association which, despite its name, is a Northern California organization.  As you can see, the Duncan Mills event is the one nearest us, but there are events all over the place, all the time.


10 Responses

  1. As we explained it to the children, people who are fascinated by the era, and are stymied by the fact that we can’t travel back in time, have done the next best thing: they’ve recreated a moment in time as faithfully as possible, and then shared it with all of us.

    I believe one circle calls themselves Ren Faires. Short for Reinaissance Faire.

    John Ringo’s probably such a hobbyist and perhaps Mercedes Lackey as well. I deduce this belief from their writings and countless mentions of High Tech civilizations going into the dust and needing old school skills.

    So there is indeed much more than a staged battle, Book. They do this not for the show, but because they like recreating the setting. Although they are limited because of rules that prevent killing and accidents ; )

    As a hobby in the high tech world, it is all very well and good, but they would be the first to tell you that actually living the life is not a good idea given the situation as it was. Kind of different from the Revolutionaries that say come the revolution things will be good.

  2. The 2003 movie Gods and Generals was made on locations in the south with the shooting of the film around reenactment gatherings. Most of the extras are true reenactors. Even Ted Turner had a cameo in the movie.

  3. To me, Y, Renaissance Faires still smell of hippie festivals. They just don’t interest me, because they’re a dressed up street fair. This Civil War event, though, was a fast dive into a vanished era. It was wonderfully done at every level.

  4. What makes you say they smell of hippie festivals, Book?

  5. After looking up some things, Book, I do believe I’ve come across something

    <B. The turkey legs of today’s Colorado Renaissance Festival and the meats on stakes were selected as symbolic of the feasts of yore. They were the brainstorm of Jim Paradise, owner of the Colorado fair for 14 years of the 24-year-old festival, who in the 1960s got his first taste of the festivals in California.

    “They were called Pleasure Fairs then,” he said, “and were mostly a hippie sort of gathering.”

    Correction for Ringo, he wrote about Society for Creative Anachronism. Which is, if you can’t translate it, those that specialize in medieval re-enactment down to fine and finer details. Jousting or dueling is an example of re-enactments, when they use medieval era swords.

    When he retired from the Army in 1972, he put his mess sergeant experience to work and started traveling around the country with the fairs as a food vendor. As the fairs gained popularity and became more authentic to medieval times, so did the food.

    Renaissance festivals continue to draw crowds. Twenty seven are running at various times of the summer near major cities. If you miss these, such medieval-re-enactment groups as the Society for Creative Anachronism give performances. That’s how Brennan Wells, a technical analyst at Oracle Corp. in Colorado Springs and avid cook interested in medieval European history, got interested in cooking historical recipes.

    Wells likes to use recipes from Maggie Black’s “The Medieval Cookbook.”

    “One of my favorite dishes is a rather plain one, called frumentry. It’s a side dish, kind of like a pilaf,” he says.

    I would still like to know of your previous experiences at such festivals, if you’d care to tell of them, Book.

  6. Not much to tell, Y. We used to go to the festivals in the Bay Area in the late 1960s/early 1970s. On the one hand, it was a lot of fun. On the other hand, it was simply an extension of the hippie lifestyle: unwashed, unshaven, long-haired people frolicking in weird clothes. I got my fill then. I’m sure they wash now, but I bet the rest remains the same. (And yes, that’s cynical, but I really did get my fill then, as I said.)

  7. “I’m sure they wash now, …” Hate to say it, but no, they often don’t and I know this from my brother-in-law and his family who participate in these faires on a regular basis. They fit in quite well in all respects.

    The Civil War reenactments are very fascinating, though and the people involved are really walking encyclopedias regarding the era. Being from Ohio with PA very close by, there are always reenactments going on throughout the summer months.

  8. Yes, there is a huge difference. I have been at a number of Civil War re-enactments, and Anna’s precisely right: these people generally know a great deal of what they’re about. If school system history classes had any brains they’d recognize a resource. (Aother topic.)

    Street fairs; well…

  9. Anybody ever go to a Society (SoCA) re-enactment?


    seems like California may be termed Bohemian heaven?

  10. If you take the time to speak to some of the Civil War re-enacters, you find that they assume the identify of an actual soldier, research his past and trying to be as true-to-life as he might have lived it in that era. The re-enactors are fanatic about replicating everything that can of that era. I can’t think of a better way to pay homage to those soldiers than to be remembered in this way.

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