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 two of seven)
Part Two: Fort Donelson
Fort Donelson is rough terrain and must have been extremely physically demanding on the Federal troops as they invested the fort. I have been there on the anniversary of the battle when the temperature plunged and snow fell, so I was fortunate enough to experience something akin to what the soldiers of both armies endured during the battle.
I walked some of those fields at Donelson and Dover, TN, trying to see it as he did and evaluate it he would have done, all the while, wondering what is the “good” ground and where would I want to place troops for maximum effectiveness? The effort to see ground as a battlefield was a sobering exercise. It continues to be so.
It’s hard not to smile when reading the telegrams Grant sent to General Henry W. Halleck after Fort Henry fell to the Navy instead of him, as planned, and about taking Fort Donelson in a couple of days after a quick march over to Donelson. He learned that weather can, and definitely WILL play a significant role in what armies do, or don’t do, in the field and that played out dramatically for him and his inexperienced soldiers. He did not learn at that time not to send prophetic telegrams to his commanding officer. It took a while for him to absorb the import of ‘did’ being a much better verb than ‘do.’
However, it was not at the Fort Donelson battlefield or anniversary re-enactment, that I first realized the impact of portraying Grant both on the people at an event and upon myself. It was at the annual period dance held by the friends of Donelson shortly before one of the events. I was going to make my first appearance as General Grant and, I thought, fortuitously, at Fort Donelson where he essentially began his rise to prominence. I had received an invitation to come to the event as Grant. So, a couple of people knew I was going to be there but kept it quiet for the surprise factor. When I entered the room with Julia (Lena), the buzz of talking among the crowd in the large room fell silent, and in that silence we were shown to our seats as the crowd opened a path for us. Only when we were seated did the conversation erupt and folks surrounded and welcomed us. I have not forgotten that moment and will not.
It was in that moment that I realized the import of portraying General Grant and felt the weight of presenting an accurate, knowledgeable portrayal. I was overwhelmed with the feeling of how critical it was that I present substance commensurate with the appearance.
I went on to portray General Grant at the 150th event for Fort Donelson (and other anniversaries there). Another warm discovery was the feeling of walking among the soldiers and civilians camping on the grounds for the event and how I was welcomed. That remains a joy. I drank much coffee there—and since then—out of hot tin cups, and I eat meals with the troops as much as possible. I marveled at how they embraced me and treated me with reverence and respect as if they actually had their commanding general seated at the fire with them. I like to think they did feel that way and did all I could to perpetuate the feeling.
Speaking to the crowd at the national cemetery during the anniversary events is always a privilege but another hurdle for a portrayal of General Grant. Saying something he would have said without putting words in his mouth is a heavy responsibility. The acceptance from the crowd at the cemetery events was gratifying because it comes from both re-enactors and the public.
In tomorrow’s segment, the Sesquicentennial continues as Curt visits Shiloh for the 150th anniversary of the battle.