Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Battle of Duncan's Mills

On the Russian River, just upstream from Jennerthat Battle of Duncan's Mills. 

As a San Francisco Bay Area resident, and a self-annointed Civil War blogger, I was interested to see that one of the fresh-faced bloggers over at (the online presence of the slowly vanishing San Francisco Chronicle, and a site I depend on daily) chose to write on her visit to a Civil War reenactment. 

I'd heard that there was some kind of Civil War event in Duncan's Mills, a little town near the coast, a couple hours north of San Francisco, but it never coincided with my occasional forays into Sonoma County, and would have been too far afield from a wine tasting room to get my full attention. [Interestingly, though I've driven that road on several occasions in years past, I did not know of the unincorporated community of "Sheridan" before I took a snapshot of that Google map tonight. As far as I know, that's one of two unincorporated places in California named for the diminutive Civil War general.]

The author of the blog considers a Civil War reenactment to be an exceedingly unusual noveltyshe enjoys "highly specific weird subjects," she announces up frontbut young urbanites are not expected to be aware of the surprisingly large number of regular reenactments that take place across the state, and which have been going on for decades in some cases. When I spent most of my 20's and early 30's in San Francisco, I became aware of the annual event at Roaring Camp in the Santa Cruz mountains, complete with a steam locomotive transporting troops in open cars, only because I was fully plugged into the all-but-invisible community of Civil War nerds in the Golden State after attending a Civil War conference in San Diego in the late 80's. It's true. In the prime of life, I travelled to the wonderland of San Diego specifically to spend the weekend in a Holiday Inn listening to hours of talks on things like "Berdan's Sharpshooters."

I make light of it, but it was a seminal weekend, ultimately leading to a 16-year career in publishing, and other things. . . That's where I first met Ted Savas, Jerry Russell, Bob Younger — William C. "Jack" Davis was the featured speaker, and he was tremendously inspirational, and hilarious. . .   But I digress. 

historic postcard of Union Square
By and large, San Franciscans don't know the rich Civil War heritage under their feet (same can be said for nearly any city, with reference to any historic period). When they think "Union Square" on Geary Blvd., quite naturally they think of Macy's or other high-end shopping, or the St. Francis Hotel. I think of those heady days when the state declared itself for the Union, right there in that spot (if only for a second, it passes through my mind because it happened there), and I think of General Geary holding his dying son in his arms at the midnight battle of Wauhatchie. Such a sad vision is inescapable. [I hasten to point out that I keep these things to myself, not that you were going to invite me to go shopping with you, or to view the Christmas displays on Black Friday.]

That is what history majors do, if they're like me. They look at a landscape or a cityscape and imagine it the way it was before, always daydreaming in one little pocket of the mind (and reserving one pocket of consciousness for coherent answers to companions). But time travel knows no bounds. I also look at San Francisco and see the wind-swept dunes of a virgin peninsula, the Portolla expedition first sighting the bay from land on the high ridge overlooking SFO, and I try to picture where serpentine was before it got thrust up on top. It's why every year I order the Anchor Steam calendar for my cubicle, to stare at beautifully reproduced works from Bancroft showing views of the city that exist only that artist's historic view. . .   But I digress.

It just occurred to me that I should invite the blogger, Ms. Spotswood, on my next Civil War San Francisco tour.

Nowadays the state is lousy with reenactments. And it's not uncommon to encounter some kind of "Civil War Days" event in any obscure location from one end of the state to the other, from McCloud in the north, to Fort Tejon in the south. 

Our Culture Blogger did an adequate job conveying what happens at events like this. I read it with bated breath, because invariably these kinds of pieces include some choice quotes from a member of the southern camp who takes pains to explain that the war was not over slavery, but states rights (see Claude of the Turbervilles, an earlier blog post). Mercifully, though the most quoted reenactor was on the southern side, the blog entry was entirely free of Lost Cause mythology. I feel like sending a thank you note for that alone.

Other miscues are not so egregious. Saying this reenactment was "3,000 miles from any actual Civil War experiences" did cause me to wince just a little. Even if we disregard the Civil War garrisons in California, or the fighting in Arizona and New Mexico, even if we disregard the experiences of those Civil War soldiers sent to fight the Sioux in the Dakotas, it's less than 2,000 miles to the battlegrounds of Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Who am I kidding? Yes, you're right, it's nearly 3,000 miles from Sonoma County to Gettysburg, the only battle of the Civil War. To be fair, what with the Sierra and the Rockies blocking the way, everything on the other side of the mountains might as well be 3,000 miles distant.

Alfred Pleasonton
Speaking of local celebrations, the town of Pleasanton, Californiaone of Money magazines top 100 places to liveused to incorporate some Civil War stuff into one of their annual celebrations. I used to know the man who dressed up as General Alfred Pleasonton, the late, great Ormond Eckley, who started a CWRT in that area. To me the town will always be most notable for a misspelling (others may remember it as the background for "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm").

John H. Kottinger, an 1851 pioneer in the area, named the town in 1867 after Pleasonton, under whom he'd served in the Mexican War. When the post office was established June 4, 1867, a clerical error (it is believed) changed the name to Pleasanton. An 1898 Postal Guide set the record straight again, but in time, the error crept back into the books [this according to Kyle's, Historic Spots in California, and Gudde's, California Place Names]. Apparently, when one comes across the name Pleasonton, there's an irresistable urge to fix it.

Could be worse. At least they didn't spell his name wrong on his tombstone. See General Irwin [should be Irvin] McDowell's grave in San Francisco's Presidio National Cemetery.


Drew@CWBA said...

Your new template colors remind me of the East Bay hills! Are you finished with the new look?

Do you take your SF CW tour patrons to the Starr King grave and statue?

dw said...


It does look like summer in California. I made some changes to the template, then couldn't find my way back, so left it. That you ask me if I'm finished with the new look makes me think I might not be!

Hadn't thought about the Starr site! Good suggestion, and easily done.


Drew@CWBA said...

LOL, forget I even mentioned it!

I often think of redesigning my own template just to freshen things up but always worry something will go terribly wrong, even if I did backup the original.