KNIGHTS FERRY — The Confederates took the bridge, routing the Yankees on Saturday afternoon in a doff of the cap to fairness, if not necessarily history. Today's battles will give the Union forces two more chances to set the record straight.
The soldiers won't know as they load gunpowder blanks and square their period uniforms for the pre-engagement prayer and march into battle. But the generals will.
"The commanders of each side agree on a scenario. It's all fair. One side wins, then back and forth," explained Union soldier Joe, one of the self-professed "history geeks" spending her weekend camping at Knights Ferry.
In real life, Joe is Jane Lehman, a San Francisco historical architect. As she relaxed in dappled sunlight on camp watch, Lehman said this re-enactment was particularly significant to her because the Knights Ferry covered bridge was just named a National Historic Landmark.
The 330-foot span was built in 1864, near the end of the Civil War, but the cannonballs flying in its shadow are a modern re-invention.
Gold from these poppy-strewn foothills bankrolled a bit of the war, and California soldiers protected border forts and trails west. That's about as involved as the new state got, said battlefield announcer Sgt. Major William Entriken.
"We get to script our own skirmishes," he said, unlike back East where actual battles are re-enacted precisely. "Out West we don't have to make the same mistakes they did," chuckled Entriken, who spends most his days as a Sonora electrician.
Hobby and then a passion
Like most weekend warriors, he said, "it starts out as a hobby and becomes a passion."
As hobbies go, this one's not cheap. Marla Bettencourt of Turlock, dressed in the full-skirted, cinch waisted calico of a soldier's wife, said her ensemble was a hand-me-down, but others spend as much as $200 per outfit. Men's woolen coats and breeches range as high as $500, plus authentic leather boots and weaponry. But the units have loaner gear for interested families, Bettencourt added.
"We encourage the kids to come out and learn history by living it," she said.
Ten-year-old Michael Matlock Jr. of Keyes was soaking it in. Dressed in camouflage cargoes and military-style shirt, he showed off the play gun and old money he chose as souvenirs.
Lupe Matlock said her son has studied the Civil War and other conflicts. "He wants to be a Marine," she said. "He sits there like he could watch (the re-enactment) forever."
But the Dodge family drove in from Oakdale only because mom insisted, they said. Linda Dodge remembered coming years ago with her oldest. "We came for the nostalgia, and because it's a fun, educational opportunity," she said.
Geology students Maritza Navarrete and Keeley Pettigrew came for a different education. They were among some 60 California State University, Stanislaus, students in Knights Ferry on a field trip. Studying the rock formations in the hills, they realized cannons were heading their way.
"We just made it back to this side in time," Navarrete said the travel schedule hadn't factored in battle time.
Behind them, two Southern belles held parasols and a basket for donations to the cause. Berlene Horne, a coin dealer from Vallecito, said she portrayed a plantation owner whose manse had been commandeered. "They moved us out and took our slaves," she said indignantly.
While she wore frills and petticoats, Sharon Daugherty of Novato wore a bloodied apron and Union cap. She played Mary Walker, a Civil War surgeon and sometimes Union spy who remains the only woman to earn the Medal of Honor.
Oh, and Joe, aka Jane that was real, too, Daugherty said. "There were 400 documented cases of women who cut their hair and went to battle," she said, to go with a husband or get away from one, or for the sheer adventure.
But in the 1860s, adventure met grim reality. While medicine included ether and chloroform for amputations while supplies lasted an understanding of germs was yet to come. Dysentery from drinking river water was as deadly as the hot lead, hollow bullets that could kill from 1,000 yards, she said. Medics just wiped off implements and turned to the next patient.
"Many surgeons (in the Civil War) had never seen mass carnage," she said with a sad smile. "They were often in tears or intoxicated."
Entriken said Civil War re-enactments honor the memory of all who died, and all who've fallen since. An estimated 700,000 troops and civilians were killed during the 1860s war, about 2 percent of the nation's population. "There wasn't a man, woman or child that wasn't touched by this war," he said.
The nation needs to remember, he said, "Especially in America today. It doesn't need to get this far ever again."
Bee staff writer Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter, @NanAustin.