Ready. Aim. Fire! The 1st Virginia Regiment of the South came to Payson Saturday to battle the 1st Minnesota Regiment of the 3rd U.S. Artillery Brigade in a Civil War re-enactment. This is the second year the Valley-based We Make History re-enactors staged the Battle of Payson at Green Valley Park.
Photo by Andy Towle.
Oh dear. The town fell.
We’ve gone rebel.
This could be bad.
A black-powder band of passionate history buffs staged the second annual Battle of Payson Saturday before a couple thousand laid-back spectators. But this time when the blue-gray smoke cleared, the Confederates held Green Valley Park and the Union dead lay in little, smiling piles.
The back and forth skirmishes mingled with good-natured role playing entertained meandering crowds from 1 to 4 p.m. on a perfect, breezy spring day — almost exactly 148 years after a skirmish at Picacho Peak north of Tucson — the westernmost battle of the Civil War, if you don’t count a non-lethal clash near Yuma.
At Picacho Peak on April 15, 1862, a patrol in front of an advancing Union force from California blundered into an ambush by a scouting party of ragged Texas Confederates from rebel-held Tucson. The Union forces split, with one column walking into an ambush and the second force ultimately flanking the Confederates on the side of the mountain. The Union suffered three dead and several wounded, but captured three Confederates. But the clash was enough to prompt the Confederates to abandon Tucson and undertake what turned into a death march back to Texas.
The clash in Payson turned out much more pleasantly — even for the faux dead Union soldiers sprawled on the brilliant green grass in front of the Zane Grey cabin, while their hoop-skirted womenfolk wept ’ore their still quite warm bodies.
The audience took it all in stride, waving Confederate and Union flags as the mood struck them, while choosing to overlook that whole “fighting for slavery” thing as blithely as the governor of Virginia.
The Payson Parks and Recreation Department invited about 100 members of the Valley-based We Make History re-enactors back for the second year to stage the event, which formed as a kickoff for the festival-rich run of the tourist season in a town that’s been hanging by a tourist thread for the past year.
The crowd seemed to have thinned a bit from last year, perhaps because this year Picacho Peak State Park didn’t cancel its annual re-enactment of the battle there, despite the decision of the state parks board to close the park in June for lack of funds.
Still, local businesses that set up booths and offered discounts in a coupon book paid the several thousand dollars it took to stage the event, and the genial crowd caught up on the gossip, watched kids roll down grassy banks and slathered peppers and onions on Kiwanis brauts.
The 100 cast members threw themselves into the reconstruction with enthusiasm, each with a character with a complete, fictional history. They acted out little side dramas all day — cheeky kids, grieving widows, sassy Scarlet O’Haras, bitter prisoners, dying soldiers, taunting captors, gallant officers.
The re-enactors played their roles with intensity, engaging the sometimes bemused spectators in impromptu arguments about the tyrannical Mr. Lincoln and the disloyal Confederate vermin.
The battle see-sawed back and forth through the day.
The first big skirmish came when the Union soldiers charged the center of town — in this case the cluster of buildings around the Zane Grey cabin.
They sent the Confederates retreating through clouds of musket smoke in the direction of the war memorial.
The two sides formed up and exchanged fire on the breezy grass a couple of times, before the Confederates retook the town with a two-pronged assault at about 3 p.m., capitalizing on a mysterious advantage in numbers that seemed to have materialized in the course of the afternoon.