ECW is pleased to welcome back our friend, Dr. Curt Fields. Curt is nationally known for his acclaimed portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant. This week, he reflects on some of the highlights of his career thus far. (part one of seven)
Part One: Walking the Ground and Meeting Grant
For the last several years, I have been extremely fortunate to frequently assume the persona of General and President Ulysses S. Grant at re-enactments and other events/occasions. These have ranged from an evening talking to three men at a Civil War Round Table (because three were all that showed up) to a thousand students in a school auditorium (I expect they had no choice except to show up). The experience has been nothing less than a historical odyssey resulting in a deep change in my own perception about Grant the man and the soldier. Along the way, my outlook on history and my initial opinion of the man I portray have both changed.
In this experience, I have more than met Grant: I have become acquainted with him and far better than I anticipated. I have discovered he was a father devoted to his children to distraction and craved to be with them as much as possible. He was deeply sympathetic to those less fortunate and, on more than one occasion, gave money to a needy person that he didn’t have to give. He had a strong sense of humor and liked to laugh, which is certainly not touted in books. I have come to the conviction that he was far more than the successful general we have read about. He was a genuinely nice guy, even by today’s standards, that I have come to like very much. That, too, was unexpected. I have morphed into a Grant enthusiast while not becoming a Grant apologist. He certainly had his moments of less-than-stellar performance.
Another result of portraying Grant is that I quickly found history looks much different when it is viewed through the eyes of another person. That was an unexpected benefit and surprised me. As the current buzz term says: I didn’t see that coming! I had to embrace that there really are two sides to every story or, at least, two interpretations of every story. Reading multiple sources, from period to contemporary material, about Grant and his actions emphasized the discrepancies and myths that are perpetuated in history as they apply to him: a drunk, a butcher, a failure, ad nauseum. I read accounts by people who liked Grant and people who could not abide him. Why the difference in positions? I understand there are people who didn’t/don’t like him or what he did, but what can I do or say, in character, that Grant did or said that may change a point of view? It is not for me to convert or convince. It is to inform with accurate information. The listener must be left to make their own decision.
Intense study of history transcends merely reading about it. The former is to understand while the latter is for information. “Living historians” must have a deep understanding and command of what was done or what happened because most people will take what is said to them in character as what happened. Moreover, a thorough command of a subject, both in statements and actions, is necessary for people to have a suspension of belief.
Another revelation was that history is equally different when viewed through the eyes of individuals who may or may not have cared for Grant and what he did. Yes, I have encountered open hostility on more than one occasion. I have even said, as soothingly as possible, “You know, I’m not REALLY him.” Being challenged by individuals who were/are anti-Grant or anti-Union has made me think seriously about how he is perceived in history and how important it is to portray him accurately. That has required me to look at him more critically so that I may put forth an accurate demeanor with equally accurate information about what he said and did. Presence and explanations have stronger footing when firmly grounded in fact.
I frequently think of Ed Bearrs and his consistent advocacy to “Walk the ground!” I strongly agree with Ed. To begin to understand what happened on a battlefield, it is imperative to get out on the field and, indeed, walk that ground and try to see what ‘they’ saw. I have been privileged to walk some historically hallowed ground as General Grant. I have tried to see what he saw and feel what he felt. The feelings that I did sense have been profound in many ways.
In tomorrow’s segment, Curt will take us to “walk the ground” at Fort Donelson.
For more on Curt’s work, check out the ECW Podcast/YouTube video with Curt, or read about the “Fridays with Grant” series sponsored by the Civil War Roundtable Congress. And, of course, you can find Curt on the web on the web at generalgrantbyhimself.com.