Starting in 2010, I worked on The 1861 Project [Spotify]: “A collection of new, original songs, recorded in a contemporary acoustic style, telling the stories of the real people who fought and lived through America’s Civil War…” The project was the brain child of Thomm Jutz, who co-wrote all of the songs and produced all the tracks on three CDs released between 2011 and 2014. I partnered up with Thomm and co-writer Peter Cronin to get the CDs produced and distributed.
Besides my role as the Executive Producer on the project, I also found myself supplying all the photos for the CDs ands the few live shows we did. This meant that starting in the late winter of 2011, I attended numerous Civil War reenactments, during the course of which I got to know some of the unique… ummm… characters.. that populate these events.
Among the most colorful characters I encountered was Dr. Curt Fields, an educator from the Memphis side of Tennessee who portrays Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander who did “the terrible arithmetic” (Lincoln’s words) that finally ended the war in 1865. I first met Curt at the Sesquicentennial reenactment of the Surrender of Fort Donelson, which was one of the first engagements that marked Grant’s ascendance in the winter of 1862.
Let’s just say that “General Grant” has a keen sense of “his” place in history, and so is quite cooperative about posing for photos. In fact, I went back to another reenactment of Fort Donelson a year later, and Curt arranged for us to get onto the grounds of the actual fort where the battle was fought for a few location shots – like this one of General Grant and two of his aides posing with one of the big guns overlooking the Cumberland River.
I ran into Curt/General Grant at several other events over the course of the years of the Sesquicentennial. I guess he rather liked the photos I took of him, because he always did me the great honor of addressing me as “Mr. Brady” – i.e. “The Matthew Brady of the Reenacted Civil War.” Considering how many people have also worked with the very photogenic “General Grant” – and Curt’s equally photogenic wife Lena who portrays Mrs. Grant – it’s quite a distinction.
The last time I saw Curt was in Appomattox, Virginia, where he portrayed General Grant at the Sesquicentennial of Lee’s surrender in April, 1865. That excursion produced this photo:
…which I still like to think of as one of the defining images of the Sesquicentennial.
When I first saw that image in the LCD on the back of my camera, I thought I had my “Hindenburg” shot (OK, maybe not quite that dramatic, but you get the idea…). I tried to get prints or products with this image into the Appomattox National Park gift shop, but they turned me down. The manager said the horses are too fat. Go figger…
But I digress…
The image that I’m submitting as the penultimate entry in my “Facebook Photo Challenge” (which I have failed utterly because you’re supposed to put up 7 pictures in 7 days and I think I’m on the second week here…) is the one at the top of this post…
It shows “General Grant” shortly after emerging from the McClean House, where Lee accepted Grant’s terms of surrender on April 9, 1865. After the formal reenactment ceremonies were concluded, General Lee rode off quietly in one direction, and General Grant rode off to greet the crowd that had assembled for the occasion, where he delivered what can only be described as a “comedy routine on horseback.”
I don’t know how he does it, but Curt Fields is so well steeped in everything that has ever been written either by or about Ulysses S. Grant that he can hold forth for hours at a time and tell stories about Grant from Grant’s own perspective. The material is all Grant, but the delivery… well, that’s all Curt. He keeps audiences enthralled, and while he has their attention he delivers a rich education on the true history of America’s Civil War and the men who fought, won, and lost it.
Curt Fields is much more than a cliche “Civil War reenactor.” He is the quintessential embodiment of a “living historian.” I’m proud to consider him my friend and I hope these photos capture a little bit of what he brings to the experience.