COSTA MESA — An essential ingredient to Civil War fighting these days is Cream of Wheat.
The food is good for breakfast, but it also works well in your gun, providing you put in the black powder first.
“The Cream of Wheat is used to pack the powder so that it doesn’t come out,” said Eric Agaki, of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry.
As I watched him prepare pistols at his unit’s base camp, I wrote down that small (but nonetheless essential) snippet of sage advice.
It was just one of many details imparted to me Saturday afternoon at the third annual Battle of Costa Mesa, a Civil War reenactment event hosted by the American Civil War Society that made an otherwise serene Fairview Park into a battlefield of mid-19th century proportions.
And unlike some of the pesky journalists from that time, I tried to be fair and objective. I ventured into both the Union and Confederate camps — separated by an imaginary Mason-Dixon Line — multiple times to get both sides of this story that had some 300 participants and thousands of attendees.
(Full disclosure: I did use the hospitality of the 2nd Kentucky as my home base and have, coincidentally, quoted mostly Confederates.)
This weekend had dedicated historical hobbyists camping in pup tents, fastening triangular bayonets and garbing up with some seriously vintage fashion sense — all in the name of a war that began 150 years ago last week.
But unlike the actual conflict that left more than 600,000 soldiers on both sides dead, these lightly choreographed battles only rattled a few ears and trampled some tall grasses.
Organizing the event was Col. Scott Peca. The Costa Mesa resident is in his 23rd year doing reenactments, but it was his second time organizing the Battle of Costa Mesa — aka “Scott’s Backyard Garden Party,” according to Mrs. Peca.
“Only in America can I invite people to my backyard to shoot guns,” Peca said as he helped reenactors get registered Saturday morning.
The Battle of Costa Mesa started out as a small event on the Fairview Park grass alongside Placentia Avenue. But that area was too close to modern civilization, what with all those passing cars and modern buildings in plain view. So in the second year the event got permission to duel in the park’s wilderness area, with its tall grasses and small hills, away from the road.
Many of the reenactors camped out Friday and Saturday night, using the time to really get into a period-authentic state.
Anything not of the Civil War period is dubbed, jokingly by some and seriously by others, as “farb” or “farby.” I received various definitions of the word’s root, all being along the lines of “far be it” from authentic or historical.
When I took pictures inside the tent of Capt. David Hunter-Inman, of the 2nd Kentucky, he moved aside any farby items so I could get an authentic glimpse inside his trunk of era belongings. The brigade commander has been reenacting for 15 years. He really loves getting into the years 1861 to 1865.
“It’s a 24-hour hobby from the moment I put this uniform on,” he said. “I’m living the life.”
“It’s easy to get in the moment,” Hunter-Inman added. “It’s easy to get that feel of what it must have been like out there. Of course, there isn’t the fear of being struck by a .50 caliber lead ball, but you do get the urgency of the movement of troops on the field, the sound, the smoke, the dust — it all adds to the impression.”
I was told multiple times by folks that moments like those are called “Civil War moments.”
“When you’re in a major battle reenactment, it can become a very real feeling,” said Capt. Tom Atkins of the 8th Louisiana Infantry. “Even though there are no bullets, there is still shooting. People are maneuvering. You’re in charge of your men, and you have to do the right job to win the battle.”
Civil War reenacting is “a great hobby, if you can call it that,” Atkins said. “It’s camping out. It’s got the military aspect. It’s playing with guns — like cowboys and Indians when you were a kid.”
Still, the loud reenacting can evoke real wartime memories for some veterans — from later wars, that is.
Jiggs Caudron has been reenacting since 1981. The Vietnam veteran from Wrightwood said reenacting one time at Gettysburg, where tens of thousands gathered, was enough to give him wartime flashbacks. Others reacted differently.
“Guys were actually breaking down on the field crying because they couldn’t get to it or they were blocked off," Caudron said.
For Paul DeNubilo, president of the American Civil War Society and a member of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, Civil War reenactments are about educating the public. The Thousand Oaks resident said he loves teaching the children best, because for youth who don’t know their history, “Every day is a new day. It’s like a goose getting up in the morning!”
His mission is to get kids interested in the history of their families and their country.
“This country is a continuum,” he said. “This country is where we are today because of what happened before. Where we’ll be in the future is because of what we do now.”
He got involved in reenacting in 1995, founded the Washington Artillery unit in 2000, and has been to all three Battles of Costa Mesa.
And, with no offense toward his musket-wielding brethren, DeNubilo said his (older) boys like to stay put and leave the “running up and down the hills” to others. But it’s not like his unit’s contributions aren’t important.
“When we start shooting the cannons, it really makes an impression,” he said.
I couldn’t help but agree as I photographed both of Saturday’s battles. Each side took a turn “winning,” the second battle being the most exciting as the Confederates hooted and hollered their way to capture the Yankees.
But what’s a battle — even a fake one — without someone to treat the wounds?
There’s where “Doc” Malarkey (Larry Duncan of Redlands) came in. The Yankee physician and surgeon who also offers “relatively painless dentistry” (because he “feels nothing”) takes his medical gig seriously. He’s got a period replica amputating kit. He even shops at Halloween stores to find things like limbs and rats for his field hospital.
The doc’s not-so-healing arsenal includes 100-proof “medical whiskey” (which in the Civil War era was filled with opiates) and a Florida sea sponge. In the Civil War, hospitals used the sponges to clean up the blood-filled messes.
“But they didn’t realize that bacteria just love all those holes in there,” Malarkey said with a devious smile. “All they were doing was spreading disease.”
After the first battle, he and reenactor nurse Genny Smith of Garden Grove showed a small crowd how to take an arrow out of a wounded Union soldier. I left before they finished the demonstration.
Later in the day I wanted to know how the surgery went, so I caught up with the good doctor.
Turns out it was bad news for that arrowed Yankee. With a lighthearted smile, Malarkey proclaimed, “Lost another one!”