The Army of Northern Virginia awoke in its bivouac Sunday morning at the bottom of a sloping grassy plain under the shade of giant oak trees--just off Interstate 5 near Lebec.
The Rebels, more than 100 strong, occupied about two dozen white duck tents scattered around a creek. They sported a ratty wardrobe of cowboy shirts, bowler hats and trench coats to complement the basic look of the sun-faded gray wool.
The Army of the Potomac stood nearby on high ground at the top of the grassy plain.
Its white tents were in one neat row alongside an adobe building called "Officers' Quarters." Its soldiers wore crisp blue smock-coats, gold buttons and the sky-blue pants of the Union. The 5th New York Zuaves in the natty red pantaloons of the French Foreign Legion gave an air of dash and gallantry to the regiment.
The ladies of both camps sauntered among their men in flouncing hoop skirts, rolling lace parasols over their shoulders.
A cheerful sun bathed the small valley in warmth. It was a beautiful day to make war.
About 180 men of the Ft. Tejon Historical Assn. made the most of it, driving from the Valley and from places as far away as San Diego and San Jose and camping out for their monthly re-creation of Civil War combat.
The group's mock battles, held on the third Sunday of every month from April through October at Ft. Tejon State Historical Park, are part play, part history and part showmanship.
They are also events when grown men exult in the smell of gunpowder without the smell of blood and the cry of battle without the cry of pain.
"When you're out there, you don't feel like you're playing," said Tom King of Mission Hills, a member of the 1st North Carolina Cavalry. "When the enemy presses you, the anxiety builds."
As the hour of battle approached Sunday, the women and infants withdrew to positions of safety beside the plain.
A band of Union cavalry provoked the fight by stealing into the Confederate camp.
"There's Yanks in the camp," a soldier shouted.
Officers began to bark commands: "Twenty-sixth, draw your revolvers. Shoulder arms. Forward, march."
Half a dozen Rebels ran at the intruders, hollering and blasting clouds of smoke from their .57-caliber muzzle-loading muskets.
The invaders withdrew to the center of the plain. Three columns of ragtag Confederate infantry then marched to the field to meet the advancing Union Army.
They deployed shoulder-to-shoulder in phalanxes of eight to 10 men. Then they aimed and fired in unison, setting off a great percussion and a cloud of white smoke.
"Look at that," a Rebel at the rear observed. "We get a whole volley of rifle fire and not one of the Yanks fell."
Soon field guns were blasting plumes of smoke 20 feet long that drifted over the field, obscuring the armies.
Between cannon rolls, Union officer Nick Utt, standing on the fort's wooden porch, called the action over a loudspeaker for about 100 picnickers who watched from the sidelines.
Utt, a Union regimental quartermaster sergeant, said the men on the field were re-creating the precise formations and tactics of the early days of the Civil War, the last war fought on the Napoleonic model of gallantry.
After several minutes of constant fusillades, the first Confederate soldier went down.
He wasn't killed. He produced a bandage from his pocket and tied it around his thigh. After that he limped from his make-believe wound.
Later, soldiers began to fall in greater numbers. Women in white dresses scurried across the field to repair their wounds. Some of the soldiers got up and fought again.
The tide of battle turned when a Rebel company charged. Fierce volleys of Union fire cut them all down. A second attack met the same end. Confederate bodies littered the field. Union soldiers stepped over their bodies pursuing their enemy in flight.
In an unexpected gesture of mercy, a Union infantryman broke ranks to place a hat on a Rebel who fell face to the sun. The dead soldier thanked him--a poignant scene of war.
"Recall. Recall," Utt shouted over the loudspeaker to officially end the make-believe battle. "Shortly, we'll have living history as soon as all the dead are risen and back in camp."
At their leisure between battles, the armies of North and South accepted their 20th-Century audience into their camps.
As a Union brass band played a polka, soldiers demonstrated their authentic replicas of Civil War rifles, showed the hardtack and salt pork that Civil War soldiers ate and gave short talks on the theory of battle, circa 1862.
Around a tripod of rifles, 2nd Lt. Norton Aronow of Mission Hills grumbled about the decimated condition of his company.
"About half of my company didn't show up," the 43-year-old mutton-chopped company commander said. "Thank God for artillery today."
Aronow joined the Civil War re-enactment group several years ago, when he met some of its members at a gun show.
'Enlisted on Spot'
"I enlisted on the spot," he said.
His men were enlistees, too. They had strong reasons for joining the North.
"Defend the Constitution," said one infantryman.
"Preserve the Union," echoed Rick Wall, a Burbank resident who wore golden epaulets and a black hat with the brim pinned to the crown on one side.
"My great-grandfather was from the South," Wall said. "I've thought that I would have joined the Union, anyway. I believe in a strong central government."
Receiving guests in front of his tent, Maj. Edward Evans of Cerritos answered some nagging questions about the battle, such as how a soldier knows when he must die.
"When they're told," Evans said.
Responsible for Deaths
In real life, Evans is an aircraft engineer. At Ft. Tejon he is commander of the Union Brigade, a position that makes him responsible for the death of his men.
"I've got my orders. When it's time for more casualties, the company commanders tell the men which ones are to fall."
Evans' counterpart in the Southern camp was Maj. John Lindsay of Burbank--in real life a business manager for hospitals.
While waiting for the second battle, he sat on a cane chair with a needlepoint seat at a small table in front of his white duck tent.
He loaded his revolver with blanks to prepare for the battle ahead.
South's Turn to Win
This time, according to the program, the South was going to win.
"It is my responsibility to make sure that everything that is supposed to happen does take place," Lindsay said in the cultivated voice of the Southern gentleman.
When it was time to do battle, Lindsay slid on his gray Confederate coat, strapped on his saber, holstered his revolver and gathered his men.
"We're going to do a touch and retreat until we whittle them down. Then we're going to move in line for a big charge," he instructed his men.
Again, the armies faced off.
From under an oak, Lindsay watched. But instead of executing a carefully choreographed assault, his army wildly charged ahead.
Sensing the loss of discipline, Lindsay rushed into their midst, firing his revolver as a wave of Rebels overtook the Yankee camp.
Moments later, the captured Evans listened to his version of the battle.
"They were advancing, so I had to be up there with them and maintain some semblance of control," Lindsay said. "But they blew."
"They did good," Evans said. "It looked great."