Smoke from cannon fire fills the air as soldiers in frayed blue uniforms scatter for cover.
Stationed on either side of the park stand rows of white linen tents. And bustling to and fro, women and children, dressed in 19th century garb rush to prepare their mid-day meal.
“I needed to figure out why I was a middle-aged woman following the army around,” said Civil War re-enactor and Hollister resident, Becky Thompson. “There would not be civilians hanging with the soldiers, they would be in the nearby town. So I am a camp follower and I make soap, something the soldiers would buy or barter from me.”
To barter for Thompson’s wares, perfect for removing gunshot residue and blood spatter, soldiers trade livestock they steal, said Thompson. She then uses the rendered fat to create homemade, natural soaps.
(People in the twenty-first century can find her products on Etsy at “San Benito Soap Works.”)
“This is how I would make a living as a sutler—a merchant who sold goods to the army,” explained Thompson.
Thompson was one of an assortment of sutlers at the Civil War re-enactment at San Benito County Historical Park last weekend. Along with the broom-maker, tintype photographer and dressmaker, they stood by and served soldiers—greycoats, Union boys and a ragtag company of California militia, who fought in skirmishes among the 19th century buildings at the historical park to the delight of crowds of spectators.
“We are here to secure the town against the rumpled Yankee invaders,” said a member of the Archer’s Brigade of the Northern Virginia Army. “We are expecting them to come over that ridge at any moment and disgrace you honorable women in ways that are unmentionable.”
I asked how he thought the war was going.
“We are in year three of this war now and heading north,” he said, his grey cloth cap, perched askew atop his head. “We just need to have a successful victory north of the Mason-Dixon line to prove the fine point that we are already our own country. What gives them the right to put an end to it?”
An estimated 200 re-enactors from throughout California and Nevada transformed the Tres Pinos park into a battle camp. While full battles would require acres of land and thousands of re-enactors, the event at Tres Pinos featured two skirmishes a day with soldiers wielding cap guns and firing historical cannons.
“In the future I am hoping to grow this event and bring in more vendors with period-correct crafts, which will bring in more re-enactors and attract more spectators,” said Thompson.
On Friday, the re-enactors entertained about 300 local elementary and junior high school students.
“The re-enactors set up stations and demonstrated how to use the cannon. One gentleman talked about the abolitionists,” said Don Pidd, caretaker of the historical park.
As for the recent clashes and national conversation over Civil War monuments, Pidd said there is a difference between honoring what happened from what he considers the wrong perspective versus remembering what happened.
“We want people to remember that this is the most horrendous war in our nation’s history. But out of it grew probably a stronger and greater country. You have to understand the whole of what was going on,” said Pidd.
Thompson said the re-enactment is a living history at a time when not much history is taught in schools.
“They don’t have the budget to cover everything so having an event like this at the historical park makes sense,” said Thompson, who is also on the board of the San Benito Historical Society. “We also like the public to know we have the historical buildings that have been transplanted here to the park and resurrected.”
Confederate soldier Michael Gatley has been a Civil War re-enactor for 11 years.
“I love the history—I can go into all the details,” he said, his blue eyes shining. “Otherwise it is camping and playing with cap guns.”