Re-enactors Bring Civil War to Saint Mary's -- With a Bang!

"Prime the gun," one soldier hollered. "Fire in the hole!" another yelled. Two soldiers posted on either side of an enormous cannon crouched down as the charge was lit and the gun went off with a deafening boom.

The scene wasn't a battlefield but the courtyard outside the Soda Center at Saint Mary's College, and instead of the roar of return gunfire, the next sound was hearty applause from the audience of history buffs and curious community members.

"That was cool!" one dazed teenager said to his dad.

The artillery demonstration was part of a Civil War re-enactment staged on Saturday, March 19, by members of the National Civil War Association in conjunction with the Hearst Art Gallery's "Lee and Grant" exhibit, which closed Sunday. The event drew a large crowd despite the rain that pelted down for much of the afternoon.

The courtyard outside the Soda Center presented an anachronistic tableau of soldiers in Union blue and Confederate gray uniforms carrying 19th-century rifles. Inside the building, women in bonnets and floor-length checkered frocks showed off their skills in crochet and needlepoint.

Among the re-enactors was Javier Hansen, a Saint Mary's sophomore who sported a Confederate uniform, an Enfield sharpshooter and a scabbard for a bayonet, though he noted that if a sharpshooter ever got close enough to the enemy to need a bayonet, "he'd be in trouble." Hansen, who participated in Civil War re-enactments in high school, jumped at the chance to join in the event at Saint Mary's, where he is an intern at the gallery.

Visitors listened intently as the NCWA members showed off all the accoutrements of 19th-century life, from washboards and handmade soap to a full apothecary. John Fitzpatrick of Moraga, a member of the Irish Brigade and father of two Saint Mary's alumni, helped explain the evolution of the era's weaponry from the musket to the rifle.

The re-enactors are fonts of information about the Civil War era. If you ask a question, be prepared to spend some time listening to the answer. Did you know, for instance, that the peculiar firing mechanism of the flintlock musket gave us a host of phrases we still hear today, including "lock, stock and barrel," "flash in the pan," "keep your powder dry," and "don't go off half-cocked"?

Or that soldiers during the Civil War nailed horseshoes to the bottom of their boots to make them last longer? Col. Frank Dickinson, the commander of the Confederate re-enactors' First Provisional Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia, raised his foot to show off the horseshoe nailed to the bottom of his boot -- all in the interest of authenticity.

And did you know that San Franciscans fought for the Union in the Second Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War? One of the re-enactors, 83-year-old Larry Rogers of Concord, is a direct descendant of one of those soldiers. His grandfather, Abraham Loane, was among the first group of volunteers from San Francisco, known as the California 100. Today, Rogers is a member of a company of re-enactors that bears the same name.

If you'd like to learn more about the Civil War era but couldn't make it to the re-enactment on Saturday, you will have another chance this summer. The NCWA is scheduled to return to the area for a Fourth of July event at Moraga Commons.

Teresa Castle
College Communications

Photos by Thomas Vo '11