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Blast from the past 

by Pat Munts


The field of tall grass is strangely quiet. Suddenly a band of horsemen bursts from a pine thicket and charges across the field. Dressed in gray and carrying a Confederate battle standard, they fire noisy black powder pistols on a contingent of horsemen dressed in blue and carrying a 43-star U.S. standard. The riders in blue counter their charge. Soon the field is full of soldiers dressed in blue or gray and the air is filled with smoke and the sound of rifles, cannons and bugles. The battle is on.


It could be the First Battle of Bull Run, or Gettysburg or one of the many skirmishes fought as General Sherman marched through Georgia to the sea. There were so many battles fought like this between 1861 and 1865, the time of the American Civil War.


However, instead of being 1865, it is the summer of 2001 and the battle is the "Battle of Spokane Falls" right here in Spokane's Riverside State Park. Welcome to the world of living history reenactment by members of the Washington Civil War Association.


This Saturday and Sunday, several hundred members of the WCWA and the Northwest Civil War Association from all over Washington, Idaho and Oregon will meet in Riverside State Park and return to the time of the Civil War. But they will be doing more than just fighting mock battles. Their entire camp, whether it's Confederate or Federal (not Union, they will be quick to point out), will be set up to reflect the life and times of the era. Soldiers are in period uniforms and camping using authentic tents and equipment. Civilians are dressed in period clothes right down to the youngest children. Cooking is done with period implements over wood fires. At night, the canvas tents and camps are lit with kerosene lamps or candles. Evening entertainment is music played on fiddles, banjos and guitar. Even the chivalry and social graces extended to each other are often from the era. It is truly living history. Best of all, it will be open to the public to explore an important time in our history.


Reenacting is not a new hobby or sport. There are countless groups reenacting different periods of history from the Renaissance right up to World War II. Even before the revival of Civil War reenacting at the centennial of the war in the 1960s, veterans of the battles would gather to reenact its events themselves. Today there are 750 members of the WCWA.


But why would grown men and women, teenagers and entire families -- including dogs and horses -- want to give up the comforts of modern camping to live in the past? Peter Jenson, a long-time reenactor with the 7th Wisconsin Infantry, says, "I reenact because people should know about the Civil War. The heroism of these men on both sides to do what they did with the enormous amount of sacrifice was an incredible accomplishment. It allowed the United States to become one nation again and enter the 20th century with a sense of bursting energy." Jenson goes on to add that without the confidence and technologies gained from the war, we would not have built a railroad across the West in three years.


Others like Terry and Kathryn Morning and their daughters from Spokane joined because they had fifing and drumming skills honed in the former Percussionaute Patriots Fife and Drum Corps. Now they march the 7th Tennessee Hurricane Rifles Infantry, one of the two units from the Spokane area, to and from battle. Several people even say that their daughters got them into it because of interests in history or the need to do a report for school. One such family was pulled in this way more than 10 years ago. The daughter is now in her 20s and still an active reenactor, dad Bruce Wickler is the colonel in command of the Confederate Adams Legion of the WCWA and mom Linda is an infantryman. She decided being a soldier was more fun than just being in camp.


"This is cool for families," says Morning, "Everyone can get actively involved in it." There are 80-year-olds down to those old enough and tall enough to handle a snare drum. Anyone (women included) over 14 can be an active battle participant after they have passed mandatory safety testing. Safety is an important element in all of the organization's activities, particularly concerning activities around the black powder guns and artillery pieces.


People who join the WCWA usually join one of the outfits named for real units that were involved in the Civil War. Units such as the 20th Maine Infantry and its Medical Corps, 14th Virginia Cavalry, the 15th and the 4th Alabama, Stanford's Mississippi Artillery and the 7th Wisconsin Infantry each had their history during the war.


Each participant buys and maintains their own equipment, including the authentic reproduction weapons, wool uniforms, tents and camp gear. Members of the cavalry units own and keep their own horses. The artillery outfits maintain and haul their full-size guns all over the Northwest to participate. Many of the reenactors take on a persona of someone who actually fought in the Civil War. Often it is a relative and many have relations who fought on both sides, not unlike many of the opposing units where brother met brother on the battlefield. Sometimes the reenactors are even able to use their real world lives as the base of a persona. In the case of Doug Inman of Spokane, his real world job as an EMT drew him into the 20th Maine U.S. Medical Corps.


For those who don't want to be in a military outfit, there are civilian camps on both sides where the participants take part in activities that would have been typical for the entourage that followed the armies or were refugees pushed out of the way as a battle moved through their towns. To emphasize the fact that they had to depart in haste from their homes, some of the Confederate refugees have their tents furnished with household items such as wooden beds and dressers they were able to salvage before the Yankees burned down their house.


The events this weekend at Riverside State Park begin both Saturday and Sunday at 9 am when the Federal, Confederate and civilian camps open to the public. Throughout the weekend, there will be a number of demonstrations of daily living, including cooking, camp keeping, period clothing and quilts, medical care and fifing and drumming. Near the main entrance will be the sutlers, the Civil War version of storekeepers who will be selling dry goods and other wares typical of the era. Sunday morning at 9:30 there will be a church service done in the style of the times.


The highlight of the weekend's events will be the three battles complete with cavalry, infantry and artillery. The battles are intended to be a demonstration of how different elements of the armies functioned and not so much a reenactment of an actual battle. Times are 11 am and 3 pm on Saturday and 1 pm on Sunday.


Rich Bright, a member of the 14th Virginia Cavalry, says, "It is important to have the kids come and try handling the equipment, even the weapons. They are real, and the war happened. They are going to remember history out of this."


The Battle of Riverside State Park Civil War Reenactment takes place at Riverside State Park on June 16-17 at 11 am and 3 pm on Saturday, and 1 pm on Sunday. Period style camps are open to the public from 9 am-5 pm on Saturday, and 9 am-4 pm on Sunday. Tickets: $5 adults; $1 children 12 and under. Call: 467-4667.

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