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 five of seven)
Part Five: Appomattox Court House
The Appomattox 150th was the obvious milestone in a Living Historian’s career that anyone might think it to be. Being selected by the National Park Service to portray General Grant at that time, at that place, was beyond anything I could have thought or expressed when I began my portrayal of General Grant.
The surrender re-enactment was done in real-time on April 9, 2015, and of all possible favorable circumstances, the weather turned foggy and cold on the evening of April 8 and remained so into the next day until mid-afternoon. So, we Living Historians and the spectators all got to experience the same weather the soldiers did on that historic day in 1865. There were hundreds of soldiers at the event, and white canvas covered the area around the McLean house and the fields behind the visitor center.
I take many significant memories and emotions from that day. Two are appropriate, I think, for this narrative. The first is the sight of hundreds of spectators on both sides of the long lane leading to the McLean house as my cavalry escort and I topped the small rise at the top of the lane in our approach to the house. There were well over a thousand people in that crowd, and the silence was stark as we rode through them and into the front yard of the McLean house. No one said a word. Not a word. The only sounds were the plopping of the hooves of our horses on the dirt road and the whirring and clicking of cameras.
We were in the house for 75 minutes as were Grant and Lee on April 9, 1865. When General Lee (Thomas Jessee) and I exited the parlor and onto the front porch, we were greeted by the silence of the still-packed crowd. As General Lee rode Traveler through the gate and into the road going back to the Confederate camp, a lone bugler (Jim Cherven) softly played “Auld Lang Syne,” just as a Federal band had played on that day as Lee rode away. Emotion was thick, and soft crying was heard throughout the crowd.
A second, and heart-warming, memory I have of that day is of a gentleman stopping me in the yard of the McLean house after the surrender event. He apologized for ‘bothering me,’ but asked if I would take a photo with his father? He had brought him to the event, and Dad wanted a “picture with General Grant, if he didn’t mind.” I said that I would be pleased to do so and saw that his father was an elderly gentleman and sitting in a walker. His son then casually told me that his father had brought him as a child to the 100th celebration of the surrender there in 1965, and now he was bringing his father to the 150th. At that time, I was so moved that I told him, “Just a moment!” and called to a nearby orderly. I asked him to go to the Federal camp next to the house and tell all officers present in the yard that General Grant wanted as many of them as could come immediately at the gate of the McLean House. Quite a few, all present in the area, came running, asking what I wanted/needed. I explained to them the situation and told them that not only was Dad going to get his photo with General Grant but with most of the Federal command staff! They were all as touched as I was over the story. We all lined up on the front fence with Dad and son with the McLean House in the background for what I feel was probably the best photograph taken at the sesquicentennial of the surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox. It was one of the most poignant examples of the good a Living Historian or Re-enactor can do in the portrayal of a person in history and, by doing so, bring history into the minds and hearts of the public in the most positive way imaginable. I still think that Grant would be pleased about that.
(all photos courtesy of Curt Fields)
Tomorrow, as we wrap up our series, Curt pays a special visit to West Point.
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.