Civil War Reenactment in Vista

Very few textbooks recall the great battles of the Civil War that ravaged Californian soil. Still, a twice-annual reenactment takes place in Vista each year, doting volunteers from both camps to spend the weekend in war. Costumed dress is only a part of the period piece, for everyone must do their part to carry a mindset of almost 150 years ago. I showed up in a t-shirt and shorts. Ahead, these casual fans weren't actually associated with the festivities...they just found an excuse to dust off their wool suits and bell dresses.

Although battle reenactments were scheduled twice a day, the camps were maintained at all times. Women tended the food and repaired the clothing, while the girls did the same as their mothers. The boys just mostly ran around with the dogs. I couldn't tell at this time who maintained the Gatling gun on the left.

A boy from those days.

Replica weapons were strewn throughout the camps, and this kid did a pretty decent job explaining his purpose as the flag holder. Troops needed somewhere to convene, and playstation was out of batteries.

This was no laughing matter. These guys, and their wives, took this event very, very seriously.

The event is driven by the volunteers, who openly enlist to either faction. Even within the armies, an individual can sign up for a particular unit that may have certain rules. Although the North had very rigid uniform requirements to support their drafted army, the South was a bit more lenient on their volunteers. Some southerners rest before the first day's battle.

Guns are fun, but cannons bring the noise. Again, most every piece was a replica made to specifications from the time, although the second canon from the right bore a datestamp from 1862. Officially, there is no supporting documentation with this canon, and no one knows if it is genuinely from the time or not. Accordingly, they don't know if it saw any war either. Still, the announcer said that they are reasonably certain it is genuine, and being from 1862, most likely saw some time on the varsity field.

Although he may look the part, it was time to get into character. "Now who was I supposed to shoot, again...Nazi's? No, that was last month. Charlie? No. Shoot..."

It was written that a good solider could load his weapon 3 times a minute. This soldier couldn't figure where the batteries went.

The army of the North held the high ground with cannons waiting for a spark.

"My husband could kick your husband's ass any day, dear Emma".

Although there weren't enough soldiers or the proper terrain to accurately reenact a given battle during the Civil War, the armies instead performed strategies and tactics that were used throughout the war. Each side drew formations, firing sequences, and a waltz of attack and retreat pairings until the losing side was chased from the field. Some theatrics were scripted, such as the opening scene consisting of southern POWs being escorted back to the North's camp. Only a few armed soldiers were needed to keep the prisoners at bay...

...until a southern cavalry unit intercepted and shot chaos into the walk.

The captives smothered the guards and stole their weapons...

...before beating them into a pulp and joining the remainder of their advancing force.

The varsity team from both sides took the field with a full cast of cavalry riders, artillery packers, foot soldiers, medics, priests, and a whole assortment of middle-managers.

From the south...and crazy.

A typical formation held two rows. Those in front knelt while the second fired above. The commander drew his pistol and called for the unit to fire in unison.

The North had quite a few cannons, and a repeating rifle on the near cart. One person loaded ammunition into the funnel, while the other cranked away round after round.

He's hit! A soldier applies his own bandages.

The canons were by far the loudest thing I have ever heard. They shook the ground with each rumbling fire. It was later explained that these blanks were still only a fraction as load out the real deal.

Awestruck soldiers soon to be cannon fodder.

Each soldier was responsible for his own death. I later found out that there was certain established etiquette for dying...although for all of shots fired, very few actually ended up eating dirt. This southerner fell without any chance for a medic.

"Sir, I have to potty." "Just past the front, soldier. You'll shit yourself in no time."

As the fallen fell, doctors rushed to mimic the rough techniques of the day. In the field, those with mild injuries were given top priority, because they had the greatest chance of living. Extracting the bullet from his shoulder, this guy gave some pretty convincing screams.

Pressing on, stepping over the dead.

Cavalry men of the day were quite lucky. Cavalry men of the reenactment were even luckier, because they couldn't die -- it would run risk to the horse if they fell off. Thus they would occasionally flinch as a bullet nipped too close, but otherwise they didn't add much fun to the atmosphere.

Hurry, boy!

North, the South. South, the North. You're now introduced.

The South was on the left, and the North held the higher grounds. It was fun through when the entire flag company fell after receiving some cannon fire to the face.

The flag fell with the soldier, but only one got up.

Down and out.

Overhearing folks later, I found that there were two convenient times to die. One, when you run out of ammo. Two, when you find yourself in the shade. There wasn't any shade to be had on the 200 yard dirt field, so one can only assume they went less willingly than they would have liked.

Once a soldier has accepted death, there are three parts. First, the hand is drawn to the bullet entry as the corpse reverberates from the contact.

Second, the solder must fall to his knees in an effort to shake the blow and regain composure while slowly slipping to the dust.

Lastly, in a cold quiver, life exceeds it's frame and it's breath escapes with last call to his love. Unless you want your face sunburned, you typically put your hat over your face as well, and twitch into a comfortable position you'll have to endure for the next twenty minutes.

The North advanced quite close to drive the rebels back.

While reaching down to help his fallen comrade, this soldier did better than most. He took one shot to the leg, which caused him to stumble past his friend...

...before combining steps 2 and 3 of the soldier death routine into a single stiffened kneeling position... the subsequent bullets drove him over...

...and finally back into the dirt as fertilizer.

People can sign up for either side freely, and the North had considerably less people than the southern forces. Rather than dress the soldiers into two ranks like the south to concentrate fire, the North frequently dropped into skirmish formations, where the soldiers were placed in a line on one knee. This made them harder to hit overall.

The Louisiana Tigers had a story with their outfits. Apparently, the soldiers left the city dressed in red silk outfits from head to toe. After weeks of treading the southern terrain, their shirts held up well while their pants became tattered and worn. The troops needed pants, but the only cloth that could be found in sufficient quantity was at a mattress factory. A deal was worked and the durable mattress cloth was sewn into pants. Because of their stripes, the soldiers took on the name of the Louisiana Tigers. Camouflage has certainly come a long way since then.

Really good character development -- this boy lost his arm in a previous battle, and was there today holding the flag.


Now late in the battle, the Northern generals rounded up the remaining troops into a concentrated formation and took on the South toe to toe. Fear would win the battle...

...Southern hospitality welcomed the oncoming force with a gentle greeting...

...or, rather, I mean barrage of fire.

From skirmish formation, everything a soldier needs to survive. The haversack on his backside held two days of rations should he get lost or captured.

Running low on musket fire, the North pulled pistols to delay the onslaught as they took to the hills.

Hold the line...hold the line!

The doctor with his bloody apron tried to clean up the fallen as the rest pressed on to the finish.

Field of bodies.

He was a good man, and a damn good soldier.

After the bugler of the winning side played taps in respect for the soldiers downed, reveille followed to raise the dead and greet the applause.

Our ears were still ringing from the musket and cannon fire... I can only imagine how loud it was at the butt of the gun.

A second round of applause while both sides emptied their weapons before leaving the pitch.

Nowhere for a doctor to wash his hands...just like old times.

What I did over my summer vacation.

The doctor of the North was holding sample surgeries between rounds. Unfortunately, they couldn't get an audience big enough to warrant a show.

Sons of civil war veterans had a booth with artifacts and other facts.

Close to shade with food.

"That Miss Confederate 1862...she had legs that would secede like the South. Too bad I had to eat her, one piece at a time."

Happy campers.

Twenty tents and a tepee: someone forgot to read the invite.

Early days of the Red Cross weren't quite so picky.

Oh, 2 B Kentucky... now that's commonwealth pride.

Remembering his last meal before he died, his first meal since then seemed lackluster and hardtack. Even the coffee was cold.

Liz Claiborne's spring fashion line, 1863. Ruffles were in.

The leader of the North's cavalry ate well. He also had a damn nice sword.

It was hot in cotton... I can only imagine how wool felt.

She was making blankets to keep the soldiers warm, she said. Although I guessed that the sewing machine was not from the period, she did say that there was an 1850 version in her car if I'd like to see. I thought this pickup line was a bit too obvious even for a reenactment.

Abe! He was very serious about his role as president and spoke of patriotism when it meant something seemingly more than today.

A leader's barracks...complete with a mobile desktop.

Tom and Huck.

The men fell into lines promptly at 1:30 for weapons' inspection.

Young and old alike.

Returning to the fields for the second wave. When the war kicked off, both sides figured it wouldn't last long, and spectators would actually bring picnic lunches alongside the armies to watch a fight. We had no picnics.

The announcer provided most of the stats you see here.

The second battle began as a flipside to the first. The south were escorting prisoners back to base, when they managed to break free and flee up the hill. He waddled.

The Confederate line came out swinging...taking sharp aim before the North could get settled.

"Where'd everybody go?" Actually, this was a protective formation where soldiers would fall into sparse groups facing outwards...ready for a cavalry attack while dodging the flood of bullets flowing uphill.

Bite the bullet is what doctors told you to do when they severed your limb while you were still conscious. Between rounds, soldiers had to bite off the top of the cartridge with the bullet still in their mouths while they fed the cartridge down the shaft with the bullet to follow. With the all the chaos, each actor had to be careful not to swallow.

With greater focus on artillery and a spread offense, the norther forces proceeded most in skirmish formations to thin out the Confederate lines.

"Take that!"

Wounded, a shot to the upper shoulder. He was able to recover, for a while.

Advancing early proved to be the South's downfall.

Oh to be the eager ones at the front of the line...

Sparing only a few on artillery, most of the south hit the field in dense packs.

He's HIT! He wouldn't fall though. To give him credit, he did shoot the remainder of the battle with his other hand holding the pistol and the reigns.

Falling like flies.

Even the tigers were nervous.

The fateful grimace that follows his hand to the smoking bullet's entry. First the frozen seizure. Then down to the knees...

...and lastly the roll while the doctor assessed the damage...

...before giving up and leaving him on the field. Of course the hat was a courtesy to keep the dead in good complexion.

Good smoke rolls from the muskets. As the encounter wore on, the soldiers were encouraged to fire at will. Will felt singled-out.

Right on target.

Old man falls, for a second time.

He really does deserve an honorable mention at the daytime reenactment awards.

There's too many! Pistols! Pistols, I say!

Tut, tut. It looks like rain. Rain of DEATH that is.

Shooting back...Ok, it's starting to get monotonous now.

For being the last battle of the year, many more were willing to die than before.

Last chance to turn up the acting. Oh! It hurts! I'm bleeding!

Still dropping. Just skim. There's a few cool ones coming.

More death. Keep going. Collect $200.

Three outstretched hands clinging for life. How fleeting.

The general of the North sees it through completion. The South was retreating.

His letter in his hand.

"No! Don't leave me. I can make it."

Even while retreating, there's no leaving the battle behind.


He helped his friend to his feet, but he then fell himself. His rifle was loaded. He fumbled the trigger twice. The enemy approaching...

...but as the doctor rushes to help treat the wounds, he shakes him off. The doctor helps him to his feet and together they take final aim into the eyes of the oncoming blues. Good storytelling.

"I don't like you! Raa! I don't like milk! Raa! I don't like homework! Raa! I don't like girls! ..."

Shoving down the runners...there was no escape.

The Southern minister did what he did best. Convert: to the North that is.

Shot dead. Killed dead.

A trail of bodies.

Lee suffered the defeat, but the ladies still came for autographs and to pet his horse. Such a rebel.