Thick smoke covered the grassland. The smell of fresh gunpowder lingered in the air.
It was Civil War Experience Day at Gibson Ranch Regional Park in Elverta. About 600 history buffs and Civil War fans converged on the park Saturday to relive the conflict that threatened to destroy the United States. More than 600,000 soldiers died during the war, which lasted from 1861 to 1865.
"Americans were killing Americans," said Andrew Crockett, treasurer for the National Civil War Association, the event organizer. "It's better to settle at the ballot box than with bullets."
A battle between Union and Confederate soldiers was Saturday's highlight.
About 200 re-enactors participated as civilians, soldiers and medics. The re-enactors are all volunteers and purchase their own historical costumes and props, Crockett said.
At 9 years old, Joaquin Cranmore-Sanchez was one of the youngest re-enactors, as a civilian in the Union camp.
"I'm here just for show," Joaquin said, adding that he was looking forward to next year when he will be allowed to serve on the battlefield as an ammo boy.
The beating of drums and sounding of bugles signaled the start of the battle. "The Yankees are coming," the announcer said.
As the Union soldiers moved into position, a dozen Confederate sharpshooters aimed their rifles.
"Aim and fire," shouted one Confederate officer.
The volley of gunfire set off a thick plume of white smoke. Many spectators plugged their ears to block the piercing sounds and sporadic boom of cannon fire.
The Confederates retreated when Union reinforcements arrived. Still, the battle went back and forth, with one side advancing but then, minutes later, retreating.
Such re-enactments are spontaneous and not necessarily coordinated, said Zach Ezzell, 15, dressed as a Union soldier in the 7th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry. Asked how soldiers know when to die, Ezzell replied, "If you find shade, that's a good time to drop dead."
"Every battle will always be different," he said, adding that soldiers aren't told which side will win.
While spectators watched from the safety of shade in 88-degree weather, the re- enactors were less fortunate. They were dressed in period costumes, which included bulky dresses, wool socks and four-button sack coats.
Battle re-enactments don't take place without safety risks.
The actors must go through extensive training before they are allowed to engage others on the battlefield. The gunpowder used in rifles can be deadly at very close range, said Jesse Maurier, 18, of Santa Cruz.
Maurier started doing re-enactments at age 11, but it wasn't until age 14 that he was allowed to fight and shoot a gun.
Bob Wheatley of Rocklin was busy snapping photos of the skirmish with his two cameras, one mounted on a tripod. The native of England said it was his first time watching an American war re-enactment and that he was "proud to be an American."
"This is a talking history book," Wheatley said.
In an odd twist, the 40-minute engagement screeched to a halt after two men mistakenly wandered onto the field. The announcer called out, "Cease fire," and seconds later, all gunfire stopped.
At the end of the battle, bodies littered the grass, an obvious reminder of the cost of war.
"The bodies," Crockett said, "epitomize the futility of conflict."
Call The Bee's Richard Chang, (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.