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Notes from the (Fictitious) Frontline: What If the Civil War Had Been Fought on Angel Island?

Ben Christopher | June 12, 2013 | Story Galleries and Performance

Lexington and Concord, Gettysburg, the balcony of the Ford's Theatre: East Coast history buffs have all the fun. And while we Californians have our fair share of landmarks to violence, they're not the kind that easily lend themselves to nostalgia. Nobody wants to reenact the forcible relocation of Chinatown.

And so it was with a mix of enthusiasm and befuddlement that I boarded a ferry last Sunday bound for Angel Island to watch a mock Civil War battle, held as part of a weekend-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the island’s erstwhile army garrison, Camp Reynolds. In the proud tradition of Ernest Hemingway and Ernie Pyle, I headed to the front with vittles in my pack and a pad of paper in my hand. Below, my observations:

10:22 a.m. I disembark at the Angel Island ferry dock. An ominous fog hover over the harbor, foreshadowing the violence to come. I approach a group of men (and one woman) dressed in what I assume to be Civil War era garb—top hats, wicker packs, and aviator goggles (sure, why not?). One, a portly older gentleman with a pocket watch eyes my hoody suspiciously. “Can I help you?” he asks. I tell him that I’m looking for the battlefield, and he points up the road. “About a mile that way along the perimeter road.” I set off alone.

10:46 I’ve nearly reached the camp when two white vans pass me. Their windows are tinted, but I am certain they are sheparding those costumed re-enactors to the battlefield from the pier. They may have turned up their nose as my 21st century sweater, but I’m pretty sure Robert E. Lee wasn’t getting around camp in an Econoline.

10:58 I begin to wonder, are West Coast Civil War re-enactors, like all Californians, more laid-back than their East Coast counterparts? Are they more lenient when it comes to fidelity to historical detail? Because that dude walking ahead of me with the musket is definitely wearing Lucky jeans.

11:05 I arrive at Camp Reynolds. A sound check is being conducted from within the officer’s quarters. A Confederate soldier commends the sound engineer on the lack of feedback. Then a banjo tune starts to play. I am pretty sure I’ve heard this ditty in a Ken Burns documentary.

11:15 In the camp kitchen, I find the man with the pocket watch giving a few visitors a history lesson. I ask him what his job at the camp is and, to my slight disappointment, he tells me that he’s merely playing the role of “sutler,” or quartermaster. Some re-enactors are more dedicated than others, so it would seem. On the upside, he does tell me about the Civil War era toothbrushes that his character would be selling—cowbone handles with pig hair bristles. War is hell, sure, but mid-19th century dental hygene might be worse.

11:25 The rest of the group I had spotted at the dock—those wearing kilts, Dali mustaches, and aviator goggles—had set up a picnic away from camp. A little boy approaches one of them on his way to the bathroom. "Why are you dressed like that?" he asks. "Are you going to fight?" The man responds: "I am merely here to observe. I come from a time and place that never existed." I have no idea what that means, but the boy laughs hysterically.

11:49 A Confederate soldier with terrible teeth and a delightful Southern drawl introduces himself as Savannah and then proceeds to interrogate me about my hoody. That gets us talking about cotton (“white gold,” he calls it) and then 1860s contemporary theater (“I seen John Wilkes Booth doin’ Shakespeare at the Ford’s Theater. Ain't nothin' but good things comin' his way, I reckon.”) Throughout our conversation, Savannah only breaks character once: “Who are they down there?” I ask, pointing to aviator goggles gang. Savannah shrugs: “They’re just streampunks.”

12:06 I visit the Rebel camp at the bottom of the hill. Inside the barracks, a mother is badgering her young Confederate son to put everything back in his bag and get his butt out onto the battlefield.

12:20 Outside the barracks, I meet the Confederate company commander. I ask him if this is a reenactment of any particular battle during the war. “Nope,” he says. “We’re just trying to take Camp Reynolds from the Union. Just like we did yesterday. And just like we will again this afternoon.” What do you call Civil War re-enactors who aren’t re-enacting anything that actually occurred? Enactors?

12:27 Just before the battle begins, a wave of school children crests over the top of the hill and descends upon the camp. They assemble around the battlefield, calling out for the opening shot, hungry for blood.

12:30 The battle begins. The soldiers, all dozen of them, march onto the field, surprisingly nonchalant. When the Union suffers the first casualty, a teenager I had spotted smoking behind the Confederate barracks earlier, the victim seems happy enough to lie down for the rest of the fight.

12:32 The Union fires its cannon, much to the delight of the school children surrounding me. When the sulfur-smelling cloud wafts back onto the audience, poop jokes abound.

12:37 “We’ve got them on the run!” cries the Union artillery officer. In fact, the retreat is pretty leisurely. A few of the rebels are shot in the back, though, and draw their deaths out to great dramatic effect.

12:38 The four-year-old sitting behind me has stolen my pen. I start to explain to her that I need it back in order to do my job as a mock war correspondent, but she just stares at me. Does Christiane Amanpour ever have to put up with this kind of thing?

12:44 Savannah, the last Southerner alive on the field, makes a valiant charge at the Union line and is gunned down. The children behind me launch into a heated debate over whether the fallen soldiers are in fact dead or just pretending.

12:47 Old Glory is raised above the Confederate fort. The dead are resurrected and the skeptics among the school children are vindicated.

12:55 After the battle, the soldiers retreat to the barracks to eat lunch and place phone calls. A film crew makes their way up to the top of the field where they film a Confederate soldier delivering a play-by-play of the bloodshed. The cameraman later tells me that this is for a TLC reality show about Civil War re-enactors.

13:08 I come across Savannah again at the public bathroom and compliment him for his valiant last stand. “Well, thank you very much,” he says in a drawl that's less antebellum Virginian than Elvis Presley. “Them Yankees showed us no mercy.” The afternoon battle is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. sharp. I wish him the best of luck.

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