Being Grant: Now and Then (part one)
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.
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.
Being Grant: Now and Then (part three)
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 three of seven)
Part Three: Shiloh
The Shiloh 150th was an eye-opener because of the size of the 150th crowd and the hundreds of re-enactors in attendance. It was my second experience in looking at the field as Grant would have looked at it. I had been to Shiloh many times before the sesquicentennial event but had never experienced the need to see it as HE did—or, depending upon whom you read, how he did not. This time I experienced that need.
I walked to the river, along the last line of defense, around the Hornet’s nest, and across that field where so many Confederate charges were made on April 6. For the first time, it sank in that Grant’s army nearly had its boots in the Tennessee River at that last line and how close they came to defeat.
Walking the few hundred steps across Duncan field from Ruggles’ battery to the sunken road in front of the tree line of the Hornet’s Nest made me realize the savagery that happened on that field because the distance is short—too short for fuzes to extend beyond the shell. Oh, yes, I had seen it before, but not in the context of Grant hoping that Prentiss would hold until he was able to put that last line of artillery in place before dark. I had not embraced or internalized the terror of the questions “What if this doesn’t work? What if they don’t hold?” Walking that ground after I had put on the uniform and tried to envision the responsibility Grant felt gave it a different appearance and feel.
A shiver or two went through me on occasion during that weekend of the sesquicentennial. The acceptance of the General Grant portrayal by the troops at Shiloh was heartwarming and touching.
My assessment of the man more sharply focused when trying to see Pittsburg Landing through his eyes. Walking that ground, I saw what he could have done to establish a better defense. Indeed, I saw what he could have done to establish ANY defense. It is painfully obvious that he was completely surprised that morning in April. Sadly, his troops paid a high price for his inexperience. However, the debacle proved to be the crucible in which he demonstrated his coolness and determination under fire. Shiloh was the refining moment when he clearly showed he could pull back from the brink of disaster through sheer presence on the field. He also learned from his mistakes. There was no repeat of that surprise for the rest of the War.
Shiloh was a consciousness-raising event for Grant in two significant areas:
1) He realized and accepted that the War was not going to be short but long and bloody and
2) He developed a healthy respect for the fighting fierceness of the confederate soldier.
Grant had developed, in the Mexican War, a respect for the volunteer soldier, and at Shiloh he added respect for the Confederate soldier. Both convictions served him well for the rest of the war.
In tomorrow’s segment, the Sesquicentennial continues as Curt visits Vicksburg for the 150th anniversary of the city’s surrender.
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.