Crack! The sound of a single shot echoes off Picacho Peak, sparking a volley of gunfire. Black powder rises from the battlefield as soldiers, snug and warm in their wool uniforms, fall like dominoes in this bloodless reenactment of the Civil War.
"You get kind of drawn into it, and it fuels your imagination," said John F. Crossen, a member of the Phoenix chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"I think a lot of people are still fascinated by the Civil War because it’s the birth of our nation. It’s a struggle for individual rights and issues that people still continue to fight to this day."
Every March thousands gather at Picacho Peak State Park to preserve this slice of Southwest history, to watch Confederates take their best shot at Union soldiers in a loose interpretation of three Western clashes: The New Mexico battles of Val Verde and Glorieta Pass and the Arizona skirmish of Picacho Pass.
More than 200 soldiers representing Union and Confederate troops set up camps and re-create 1860s military life with artillery demonstrations, medical care and cavalry exercises.
"There’s been times when we march into battle and you see the flags waving and the drums beating and the sounds of black powder and you get butterflies," said Mesa resident Don Jolley, a member of the Union’s 3rd U.S. Infantry, Company A, a Civil War reenacting group representing a unit that fought in the West at the beginning of the war. "Sometimes you can lose yourself in the battle. I think that’s always the goal."
Other than this annual event, there’s little to suggest that American history was made in this corner of the West. But on April 15, 1862, three Union soldiers were killed at Picacho Pass after an advance detachment of Union fo rces from California attacked a Confederate scouting party. Although only 24 soldiers were involved and the fight itself lasted just 1 1 /2 hours, it was the most significant Civil War battle in Arizona.
The Southwest’s largest battles were in New Mexico on Feb. 21, 1862, at Val Verde, and five weeks later on March 28 at Glorieta Pass.
For Jolley, who’ll be participating in his eighth Picacho Pass re-enactment, the weekend is a way to get a glimpse into his family’s past. He has ancestors who fought for the Union and the Confederacy.
"I had some great-uncles and great-grandfathers who fought," he said. "A lot of people have ancestors who fought. You get closer to knowing what it was like to be a soldier. (By doing this) you find out just a little of what they experienced." Crossen also had family members on both sides of the conflict. "For a lot of re-enactors, I think it is about putting themselves in the shoes of their ancestors," he said. "When I found out about it, it was very, very exciting. I realized there was quite a heritage in my family. As far as my pedigree goes, we really sacrificed a lot for the War Between the States."
Civil War battles
What: Civil War re-enactments of the New Mexico battles of Val Verde and Glorieta Pass and the Arizona skirmish of Picacho Pass
When: 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday Where: Picacho Peak State Park is an hour south of Phoenix off Interstate 10, Exit 219 Cost: Free
Information: (520) 466-3183 or www.azstateparks.com