The attack came suddenly on a breezy Rim Country afternoon, shattering the chatter of the crowd with the rattle of rifles, the screams of the dying, the shouted orders of the officers.
The Saturday morning charge launched the daylong, tragedy-laced Battle of Payson, as a skirmish line of 25 blue-coated, full-throated, musket-blasting soldiers came right at the gray-clad defenders — caught by surprise loitering about in front of the Payson Historical Museum.
Thousands of bystanders and town folk fell back, wide-eyed, pointing.
The defenders formed a ragged line and the attackers advanced. The wounded dropped with mortal screams. Gaps opened in the line of the defenders, which wavered, then yielded — as reason got the better of valor.
Finally, the defenders of Payson broke and fell back, firing as they went.
The cheering boys in blue streamed into “town.” Payson had rejoined the Union.
No Rebels here. No, sir. All loyalists — don’t care what Johnny Reb says.
The brat-sellers, Navajo Taco fryers and deli-doers rubbed their hands together happily as the smoke of the battle cleared, amiable war profiteers. They fell to serving up lunch to an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people, the townies and out-of-towners who mingled in the course of Payson’s first-ever Civil War battle — a mere 134 years too late to affect the outcome.
Some 80 members of the Scottsdale-based We Make History group journeyed to Payson to stage the battle, one of a dozen similar events they put on each year. They promised a two-part battle to possess the hypothetical heart of Payson in Green Valley Park just across from the war memorial, with lots of audience interaction between clashes.
The group included the usual lineup of 50-something history fanatics, who spend their time collecting or making authentic uniforms and fooling with their black-powder muskets. Some of them have four of five complete outfits, both Civil War and Revolutionary War. But the group also includes a sampling of 20-somethings, closer in age to those who fought in the real Civil War — not to mention women and children in period dress to add subplots and enactments to this bit of happy play acting.
The event marked a gamble for Payson, trying to bolster a potentially weak tourist season with a total of about 104 events. Actually, it was probably more of a gamble for the business sponsors of the event, who agreed to cover the cost of the event in return for for the right to set up food booths. Sponsors included the Gracie Lee Haught Foundation, the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs and Gerardo’s Italian Bistro. The Historical Society contributed and opened its gift shop Saturday. The gamble apparently paid off, as the event drew the biggest crowd so far this year — doubling projections by Payson Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Cameron Davis.
Kiwanis President Bobby Davis said the club sold about $1,800 worth of bratwurst and probably cleared about $1,000. The Historical Society reportedly took in about $700.
“It was absolutely wonderful,” said Davis. He put the crowd at 3,000 to 4,000 based on sales of about 1,000 coupon books, museum attendance and on counting the people in photos taken during each of the two battles and the memorial service for the nation’s war dead, which took place at 4:30 p.m.
That somber service at the memorial in the park represented the emotional high point of the day, thanks in part to the delivery of the Gettysburg Address by a veteran re-enactor who is the spitting image of Abraham Lincoln — although at 6 feet tall, the fellow was 6 inches shorter than Lincoln. But then, who knows how tall you are when you’re wearing a stovepipe hat?
Davis said advertising coupled with coverage in Valley papers contributed to the event. He also credited We Make History’s network and notices, since the group reliably draws devoted fans.
In truth, the Civil War never got close to Payson — which was largely unoccupied by whites at the time. The Union withdrew most of its troops from the Arizona territory at the outset of the war to rush them east.
The We Make History re-enactors hoped to capture some of the confusion, tragedy and cruel choices embodied by that bloody conflict with a series of battles to take and retake the same little town, a replay of the real-world tragedy for many small border communities.
So the crowd of brat-munching spectators watched the re-enactors chat and interact, like strolling Renaissance Festival players. Everyone from the kids in britches and suspenders to the dignified Abraham Lincoln took advantage of the lull in the fighting to answer questions, all the while in character.
“The thing that blew me away was the educational factor,” said Davis. “My family stepped away and my kids were talking to four young individuals who were part of the Confederate Army, and they were just so knowledgeable and quick-witted — my boys just loved it.”
Ah. But it was a war, after all.
After a couple of hours, the routed Confederates regrouped.
They came on the run, moving forward boulder by boulder — firing their black powder muskets and letting loose with rebel yells.
In town, a couple of Confederate Southern belles, flung themselves on the rattled Union soldiers to spoil their aim at the rebels.
The crowds of spectators pressed forward eagerly, and Cameron Davis hastily drafted some members of the crowd to keep everyone back behind the curb line.
Out across the parking lot, the wounded fell, with cries of anguish. Stretcher-bearers bore them to the rear. Fortunately, medical care has improved considerably — so instead of suffering the routine amputations and lethal infections of the real Civil War, these fellows got fixed up and back in the fight before their muskets cooled.
This time, it was the Union line that broke.
Payson changed hands.
Oh, Lord, boys — we’re rebels after all.
And a good time was had by all.