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By Mark Duggan
Senior Correspondent, Open Range News
Picacho Pass, Ariz. – 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 canvas tents in the desert, don anachronistic clothing and re-live the Battle of Picacho Pass.
And every year, they meet for several days at Picacho Peak State Park, taking to the mock battlefield with rifle, musket and cannon. Later, after the spectators are gone, it’s tall tales around the fire, a few bottles of sarsaparilla and Dutch oven cooking.
The annual re-enactment of the Battle of Picacho Pass is always a well-attended affair. This year, about a thousand people arrayed themselves across a hillside to watch the battlefield. Some lounged in lawn chairs, others stood. More than a few people glassed the distant reaches of the battlefield with binoculars, trying to figure out where the artillery is hiding.
BOOM! BOOM! The cannons call in violent, shuddering waves, their gut-thumping reports echoing off the rocky spire of Picacho Peak. They’re 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, soldiers collapsed, groaned, feigning deep and fatal gut wounds.
Then, in the ringing half-silence that follows an hour of sustained cannon and musket fire, a lone soldier started playing taps.
It would be hard to tell that it’s all an elaborate act, if not for the P.A. announcer.
“We honor our dead,” he intoned.
But the dead suddenly rose and dusted themselves off.
“Resurrection, gentlemen,” the announcer added, to the eruption of applause. “Let’s give them a big hand. The battle is concluded.”
Another Civil War battle had been brought back to life. It was a re-enactment of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which happened near Santa Fe, and is one of three Civil War battles staged each year at Picacho Peak State Park, northwest of Tucson. The Battles of Valverde and Picacho Pass are also brought back to life.
Along with mock battles, there were cavalry and artillery demonstrations, a theatrical troupe, and a sutler’s row.
The re-enactors even opened their orderly encampment to spectators, who get a glimpse of what life was like when a canvas ‘A-style’ tent was home.
A walk through the encampment is to be transported in time, with bubbling dutch ovens and children chasing each other around the fire. Cell phones and other technology are noticeably absent.
After the Glorieta battle, spectators lined up to talk to the re-enactors and marvel over their tin dinner plates.
They asked delicate questions about the practicalities of hoop skirts, often worn by women in the Civil War-era and widely seen at re-enactments. They sipped iced root beer and browsed the sutler shops, trying on moccasins and sizing up muskets.
When the next battle was announced, they hurried back to the battlefield to find a prime viewing spot.
Barry Schrock is cleaning his rifle outside his tent. The Las Vegas man was cast as a Union soldier in one battle, a Confederate in another.
According to Schrock, there’s no special training to become a Civil War re-enactor.
“Tag along with a friend, or just walk through,” he explained. “We usually have a spare coat and hat, and we’ll get you out there for ten to fifteen minutes of interesting stuff.”
And for those who want to make a habit of Civil War re-enacting, the duds are actually easy to find, starting with the sutlers at most mock battles.
“Several of them will sell you authentic clothing from the time period,” said Schrock. The rest come from garage sales, thrift stores, swap meets.
But Schrock cautioned that Civil War re-enactment clothes require special care. He pointed to his outfit.
“To be period-authentic,” Schrock said solemnly, “I have not washed these yet.”
Schrock wondered what the mock battles actually look like to spectators. His role in the Glorieta re-enactment was to fall down dead early. To be authentic, he couldn’t pop his head up off the ground to watch the action around him.
But he was able to watch the Picacho Pass battle re-enactment. He wasn’t cast to fall down dead, so he was 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 90 minutes of shooting, three Union men lay dead and several others wounded. Confederate losses have always been unconfirmed, though three were taken prisoner by the Union.
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.”
Back by the mock battlefield, the crowd grew hushed.
The cavalry had arrived, all hard stares and horseflesh.
There are no booming cannons for the recreation of the Battle of Picacho Pass. It was fought entirely on foot and horseback.
But most in the crowd still jumped when the first musket shots pierced the air.
A Union soldier on a towering horse convulsed, went limp, and collapsed carefully on the ground, aiming away from a cactus patch.
For just a moment that day, the grown men on the battlefield seemed almost like children at play; aiming and re-loading and firing and finally pirouetting bug-eyed and gasping to the desert floor, clawing at imaginary corruptions of the flesh.
Later, after the battle was over and the spectators gone, the re-enactors relaxed by a large fire. A few bawdy songs were sung and a bottle of what was claimed to be sarsaparilla made its way around.
Soon came the stories: Boastful tales of glory and bravery in battle, punctuated by long, great gales of laughter, as they re-enacted the re-enactment of the Battle of Picacho Pass.
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