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CURT FIELDS: Bringing History to Life

Michigan State University artistic image

Curt Fields is a self-described “walking, talking, interactive 3-D teaching tool.” It’s easy to see why. He’s the spitting image of U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, circa the Civil War. In his cavalry-style slouch hat, blue wool sack coat, mud-splattered boots, dark beard  and ever-present cigar, he’ll make a  believer out of anyone.

Because he’s so convincing, the National Park Service enlisted Fields for a re-enactment of events ending America’s Civil War. On April 9, Grant and his men rode horses to Appomattox Court House to accept Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Some 10,000 people huddled in the rain to commemorate the event’s Sesquicentennial. Scores of others donned period clothing and completed the moving tableau, which played out at the precise times as on that day in 1865.

“As we rode up, there was not a sound. The only thing that could be heard was the sound of hooves on gravel and creaking saddle leather,” said Fields, still awed by the reverential atmosphere that day. C-SPAN 3’s cameras captured it all.

Fields has played Grant about 500 times at such locations as Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg and a host of other battlefields. And the requests keep coming.

“I’m not a re-enactor. I don’t appear in combat at staged skirmishes,” he said. “I’m what’s known as a living historian. I talk to folks in first person.” To channel Grant’s philosophies, manner of speech and life experiences, Fields pores over Grant’s memoirs and consults secondary source material left by those who personally knew the general, who also became the 18th president of the U.S.

“I enjoy the looks on people’s faces when they see me and listen to me,” said Fields, a retired teacher, school administrator and hostage negotiator with the Memphis police.
The lightbulb went off in 2010 when he happened to pose for a photo with an Abraham Lincoln lookalike. That’s when he realized that he resembled Grant. He grew a beard, purchased a replica Union Army uniform and began gracing historical events—and his hobby was born.

His respect for Grant is more than skin deep. “I’ve come to like him as a person,” Fields said. “Grant was a brilliant man, a devoted father and a compassionate military leader. He was always asking about the number of (Confederate) POWs who’d been captured. He said, “‘Every man I can feed is one more I don’t have to kill.’”

In a serendipitous coincidence, Fields’ wife, Lena, resembles Grant’s wife, Julia. She owns a closet full of the era’s beautiful gowns, bustles and all. The couple often appear together.

Raised in Memphis, Fields came north to Michigan State University to study at its nationally respected College of Education. He earned two graduate degrees here. “The research I do now is child’s play compared to scholarly programs MSU put me through,” he said with a laugh.

Author: Paula Davenport