Re-enacting the Civil War in the Southwest

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By Mark Duggan
Senior Correspondent, Open Range News

On April 15, 1862, two small groups of Union and Confederate soldiers fought a battle near Picacho Peak, northwest of Tucson. The engagement left several Union troops dead, including the detachment’s commanding officer, and wounded some on each side.

The Battle of Picacho Pass was the western-most engagement in the Civil War. It was more a skirmish than a battle. But each year, it’s remembered by a dedicated group of historical re-enactors. They camp in the desert for several days, eat hard tack and drink sarsaparilla, don frontier period clothing and re-live the Battle of Picacho Pass.

This year, they staged the 150th anniversary of the battle. They also re-enacted other western Civil War battles, including Glorieta Pass and Valverde, both fought in New Mexico.

This dedicated group of people meets for several days every year at Picacho Peak State Park.

They pitch canvas tents in the desert, dress in period authentic clothing, and take to the battlefield with rifle, musket and cannon. In the evening, after the spectators are gone, it’s tall tales around the fire, a few bottles of sarsaparilla and Dutch oven cooking.

"Reach out and touch them!" With musket balls. (Image: Mark Duggan)

“Reach out and touch them!” With musket balls.
(Image: Mark Duggan)

The annual re-enactment of the Battle of Picacho Pass is a well-attended affair. Several thousand people array themselves across a hillside to watch the battlefield. Some lounge in lawn chairs, others stand on rocks for better views. More than a few people glass the distant reaches of the battlefield, trying to figure out where the artillery is.

You can hear it – a violent, shuddering BOOM! that echoes off the rocky spires of Picacho Peak. The cannons are most likely 12-pound Mountain Howitzers, a piece of field artillery commonly used in the western and prairie campaigns of the Civil War.

Closer to the spectators, close enough to make some of them uncomfortable, soldiers collapse, groan, feign deep and fatal gut wounds.

If it wasn’t for the P.A. announcer, it might be hard to tell that this is all an elaborate act.

The event includes more than battle re-enactments. There are cavalry and artillery demonstrations, a theatrical troupe and a sutler’s row.

The re-enactors even open their orderly encampment to spectators, who can see a little of what life was like when a canvas “A-style” tent was home.

The Cavalry has arrived. Hard stares and horseflesh. (Image: Mark Duggan)

The Cavalry has arrived. Hard stares and horseflesh.
(Image: Mark Duggan)

In between battles, spectators talk to the re-enactors and marvel over their tin dinner plates.

They ask delicate questions about the practicalities of hoop skirts, often worn by women in the Civil War-era and widely seen at re-enactments. They sip iced root beer and browse the sutler shops, trying on moccasins and sizing up muskets.

Then, when the next battle is announced, they hurry back to the battlefield to find a prime viewing spot.

Barry Schrock is playing both Union and Confederate soldier in two of the battles. He says there is no special training to become a re-enactor; anyone can join in and be handed a jacket and heavy boots.

Barry says he’s wondered what the battles actually look like. His role is to fall down dead early in the battle. To be authentic, he can’t pop his head up off the ground to watch the action around him.

Civil War re-enactor Barry Schrock relaxes between battles. (Image: Mark Duggan)

Civil War re-enactor Barry Schrock relaxes between battles.
(Image: Mark Duggan)

But he will be watching the Picacho Pass battle re-enactment. He’s not falling down dead in that one. He’ll be on the sidelines, watching other grown men like himself play soldier in the dirt.

Some don’t bother calling the Battle of Picacho Pass a battle. They call it a skirmish, at best, or just an engagement. A Union detachment of the 1st California Cavalry decided to check out rumors of Confederate soldiers near Picacho Peak.

They found them in a low pass between the peak and the Picacho Mountains to the north. The Confederates, from what was then called the Arizona Battalion out of Tucson, laid down heavy fire.

After ninety minutes of shooting, three Union men lay dead and several others were wounded. Confederate losses have always been unconfirmed, save for three that were taken prisoner by Union soldiers.

Despite the talk of ‘minor skirmish,’ the battle still looms large in the minds of some, including the re-enactors.

The website War Times Journal notes:

“The battle of Picacho Pass may have been only a skirmish compared to the great conflagrations in the East, but to the men killed and wounded there…it was the Civil War.”

Additional resources:
Arizona State Parks Civil War in the Southwest site
The Civil War Re-Enactor website
The dmoz open directory on the Civil War
A 19th U.S. Infantry web article on the frontier foodstuff known as hardtack

Author: Mark Duggan

Mark Duggan is a journalist and broadcaster with 30 years of experience, including at public radio stations in Tucson, Arizona and Boulder, Colorado. His work has been heard on NPR and the BBC. He has received two Edward R. Murrow Awards, including a national, for radio feature and documentary production. Mark is a lifelong resident of the American West who now lives in a rural area of Colorado where high peaks, desert mesas and red rock canyons meet.

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