Once a year, a grassy stretch of cow pasture near Duncans Mills, in rural Sonoma County, loses its cows, adds some bleachers and bridges and other structures, brings in cannons and horses and piles of artillery, and then invites more than a thousand high-spirited Civil War reenactors to move in, set up camp, and play war for the weekend.
Oh right. Then they open the gates for people to come watch.
Civil War Days, considered one of the largest Civil War reenactments west of the Mississippi, loudly lets its Union-and-Confederate flags fly once again this weekend, for the 17th consecutive time at Duncans Mills. The annual event is presented by the California Historical Artillery Society (CHAS) and the Casini Ranch Family Campground. To prepare for the influx of people, and ready the battleground for two big skirmishes a day, vast teams of volunteers have been working on the site for weeks.
“It takes a lot of planning,” acknowledges Teri Moretti, a Petaluman for 50 years, and a member of CHAS since 2004. “There’s a lot of brush cutting and field clearing to be done. And then there are all of the cow patties to deal with - but we don’t pick those up. We just pay attention to where they are, and try to avoid them all weekend long.”
CHAS not only sponsors and organizes the local Civil War Days event. The group also travels around the state, participating in other Civil War reenactments.
“We go to events from Shasta County all the way down the state,” affirms Moretti. “CHAS started out as an all-male infantry unit,” she says. “It’s expanded since then, to represent all aspects of the Civil War, incorporating women and children, soldiers and civilians, artificers - all of it.”
Artificers? For those unfamiliar with Civil War military jargon, Moretti adds a succinct explanation of what an “artificer” actually does.
“Everything we break,” she says, “the artificers fix.”
For those who participate in Civil War reenactment, it’s often much more than a hobby. According to Moretti, it can become a way of life.
“Whole families participate,” she says. “That’s why CHAS can represent so many different aspects of Civil War life. Most other units in the state don’t have that flexibility. They tend to be just military.”
CHAS is a relatively large group, too.
“We have members from all over California and Nevada and Idaho,” Moretti says.
CHAS represents the Union side of the great historical conflict between the states, while some reenactment units portray the Confederacy.
“It’s usually a pretty even balance between Confederate and Union,” she says, noting that the battles staged during the weekend – two per day, morning and afternoon – are organized to allow each side an equal number of wins and losses.
“The battles are planned ahead of time,” Moretti explains. “The North wins one on Saturday and one on Sunday, and the South wins one on Saturday and one on Sunday. Everybody gets an equal shot.”
Civil War Days is more than just a demonstration of North vs. South battle tactics. Before and after the skirmishes, visitors are invited to walk about through the military camps, and the adjacent “sutler” camp – sutlers being costumed merchants selling a variety of Civil War-themed items, from period garb and other gear to books, toys, and handcrafts. Visitors to the reenactor camps are encouraged to ask questions, take pictures, or just stand back and observe the authentic living history that participants work so hard to maintain.
WHAT? Civil War Days, a reenactment of life and warfare during the American Civil War.
WHEN? Saturday, July 15, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, July 16, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
WHERE? Casini Ranch Family Campground, 22855 Moscow Rd, in Duncans Mills
HOW MUCH? At the gate $12 (adults), $6 (7-12), in advance $10 (adults), $5 (7-12).