General Robert E. Lee will lead the charge. Abraham Lincoln will honor the dead. And Scott Hinkle will be having one heck of a good time. At least, that’s the plan for the carefully planned, joyfully improvised Battle of Payson, that will rage back and forth in Green Valley Park — to determine whether the Confederacy or the Union will wind up in proud possession of Zane Grey’s Cabin.
“Everybody will be in character all day long,” said Hinkle, an actor and sometime public speaker who a decade ago founded the Scottsdale-based group, We Make History.
“It’ll be scripted, we definitely have a plan — but it’ll also be fluid with lots of live action, which will involve the spectators,” said Hinkle, who will command a band of about 80 happy warriors, half in Confederate gray, the rest in Union blue.
Local organizations provided funding for the first-time event, which town officials estimate will draw more than 1,000 spectators — although they’re bracing for up to 5,000. Food vendors will serve the crowds all day, while the re-enactors dressed with nitpicking authenticity will act out small dramas and big battles — treating the spectators as part of the action.
The battles will end by 4:30, in time for a ceremony to honor the nation’s dead from all its wars at the War Memorial in the park, where the Vietnam Wall Memorial was set up last summer and drew more than 20,000 people.
Hinkle attended that ceremony, where he made the connection with Payson organizers that set the stage for this weekend’s event.
The tentative plan calls for a man who plays Abraham Lincoln at the We Make History event to deliver the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery for many of those who died there.
This time, General Robert E. Lee will stand bare-headed in the audience, or at least the decorated Vietnam War veteran who will play him for the day. Ironically enough, the real Robert E. Lee’s estate in Virginia was seized by the government and turned into Arlington National Cemetery.
Sponsors for the Battle of Payson include the Northern Gila County Historical Society, Gerardo’s Italian Bistro, Kiwanis, Rotary and the Gracie Lee Haught Foundation.
The re-enactors all have characters of their own creation, with an imagined biography. The day will include at least two set-piece battles, staged to gain control of Payson, which is to say the museum, Zane Grey’s Cabin and the parks and recreation office.
In that regard, the action will resemble the long-running re-enactment of the Battle of Picacho Peak, which Arizona State Parks has hosted for years.
Budget concerns prompted state parks to cancel that event this year, which could boost attendance for Payson.
The Battle of Picacho Peak re-enactment centered on the skirmish between a handful of Union and Confederate forces there in February of 1862, which proved the westernmost battle of the Civil War. The confused encounter in a mesquite thicket between two advanced patrols for much larger forces produced few casualties, but had big effects. That battle prompted a small Confederate force from Texas to abandon Tucson and begin a long retreat back to Texas.
The Confederates had briefly seized New Mexico and Arizona in hopes of eventually taking control of the California gold fields.
Some communities, like Tucson, welcomed the Confederates, hoping to get protection from Indian raids. But a 2,000-man force of California Volunteers forced the Confederates out of Arizona — then spent the balance of the war fighting the Apache.
The Battle of Payson this Saturday will make no attempt to imitate either the Battle of Picacho Peak or the larger clashes in New Mexico — the 1862 battles of Glorieta Pass in March and Val Verde in February. Those two battles pitted the Texans against Union volunteers from Colorado and involved thousands of troops and hundreds of casualties.
Instead, the Payson event will aim for the perfect blend of education and entertainment, with the struggle for the control of Green Valley Park intended to evoke the plight of towns in border states that changed hands repeatedly.
Not only will the day feature two different assaults on the hypothetical heart of Payson, but the re-enactors will play out small dramas throughout the day — many designed to involve spectators, like the imaginative subplots hatched by the dressed-up characters at the Renaissance Festival.
Early Civil War battles like Bull Run fought on the outskirts of large towns drew a gallery of spectators, complete with picnic baskets. At first, people on both sides expected the Civil War to produce a brief, gallant affair — with armies marching briskly in the bright sun. Few expected it would turn into the first truly modern war, a gory slug-fest ultimately decided by the remorseless logic of economic production. The south finally ran out of men, bullets and resources, but only after the carnage killed at least 618,000 on both sides, a third of them deaths in battle and the rest due to disease and infected wounds.
The We Make History re-enactors hope to invoke that tragic history, in a way that still creates a perfect family outing.
Many of those subplots devised by the re-enactors touch on the “brother versus brother” aspect of the Civil War, especially in border states and the West.
Hinkle said the group planned the day with towns like Winchester, Va. in mind — which changed hands more than any other settlement as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia repeatedly turned back Union invasions.
Hinkle said he has 30 or 40 historically accurate outfits in his closet, including a couple of very convincing George Washington outfits. He and his wife both have become expert tailors. They have hundreds of books from which they draw the details to make their costumes as authentic as possible.
Well. To a point. During the Civil War, cobblers generally didn’t make boots for the left foot any differently than the boot for the right foot. As a result, the soldiers made long marches with boots that a modern hiker would probably consider a form of torture. In fact, as the war continued some soldiers ended up barefooted — especially in the Confederate ranks.
Hinkle said his group stages eight or 10 major events each year and he’s driven by the need to get people excited about history — especially kids.
“The passion for our heritage has disappeared,” he said. “So I’m passionate about conveying it — especially from a family-oriented perspective that’s kind of outside the box.”
To underscore his point, his daughter Emily, 13, comes to many of the events — and has made up her own character. During a recent interview, she was clutching a copy of a book about Mosby’s Raiders and conceded that the grown-ups in the We Make History group can give even an imaginative kid some real competition in the “let’s pretend” department.
Asked what she planned to do when she grows up, she noted with great precision that she’s going to start a mail-order Western wear outfitting company, including saddles and bridles. And she’ll live on a ranch that doubles as a rescue shelter for unwanted or abused horses.
Hinkle just laughed, making his General Custer-long, blond ringlets shake. “See?” he said.
And that’s the whole point of the Battle of Payson, said Hinkle — to use drama, imagination and the smell of black powder to stoke that passionate interest in history.
“You’re out there and in character and all of a sudden, it just seems very real,” he said.