10 Things I learned at a Civil War battle in Northern California

Published April 21, 2016

It sounds absurd. The idea of a Civil War reenactment in California, which was technically part of the Union but never actually had shots fired in the state. And I could see how attending fictitious battles more than 2,000 miles away from any of the actual battlegrounds could be a bit of a hard sell for history buffs. But give it a chance and you may find that with equal parts creative fiction and authenticity, it works.

Stanislaus River Parks is home to several well-preserved structures from the Civil War era including the Knights Ferry Bridge, a national historic landmark and the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi, so it looks really cool to re-live historic battles there.  

Oh…and bringing history to life to shed light on a pivotal moment in our nation’s past is not too shabby a reason either.

Having no idea what to expect, I stepped back in time for an afternoon and here are 10 things I learned. 

1. The Soldiers take really good care of their gear.

Each troop can have thousands of dollars invested into their authentic equipment. From the rifles and cannons to the tents and canteens, everything is as close to the real thing as possible.

2. They take their roles very seriously.

If you mess around in this cook’s kitchen, you get The Spoon. It’s not just fighting men and women. Some of the role players include drummers, doctors, postmasters and even families of soldiers back at camp that are keeping the home fires burning.


3. Safety first – it’s always good to have handrails as you march to battle.

 It was so strange to see 19th century soldiers occupying this 21st century park.


4. It’s very cool to see history meet history.

The Knights Ferry covered bridge was destroyed by a flood in 1862 and rebuilt in 1864, smack dab in the middle of the Civil War.


5. The costumes are authentic down to the smallest detail.

Including the shockingly thick wool uniforms that seem more suited for battle on Antarctica than a warm, sunny spring day in the Sierra Nevada foothills. 


6. Each plume of smoke is equal to a movie ticket.

It cost roughly $12 in gun power every time a cannon is fired. I recall consistent booms from the cannons during the approximately 15 minute battle.  Not sure what consistent booms times $12 equals, but I’m confident it ain’t cheap and it’s always exciting.


7. The weekend is extremely loud.

Even when you’re expecting the boom, it still rattles the nerves.


8. A little elevation provides the best view.

Approximately 2,000 people make the hike up the hill to watch the show during Civil War Days weekend.


9. They take pride in their rings.

A well-fired cannon makes a perfect smoke ring to the delight of the crowd.

10. The ending is much more cordial than I imagine the real battles were.

The North and South hold four total battles over the weekend – each side  “winning” two of the  conflicts. 


The American Civil War Association has been reenacting battles at the Knights Ferry Recreation Area for the last 28 years and I highly recommend you check out this family-friendly event with lots to do and a ton to see. Both North and South converge on the park every March.  Keep an eye on the ACWA events page for their next reenactment and the Stanislaus River Parks website to find out what this unique recreation facility has to offer year-round.