By J.M. Wasko
Happy Memorial Day! Salute those who fought in the American Revolution with living historians from the 3rd New Jersey Regiment on Saturday and Sunday and with the Second Continental Light Dragoons on Monday! The troops will be encamped in the Museum to answer your questions about life on and off the battlefield. Look into a Continental soldier’s tent to see their uniforms and equipment up close, learn how cavalry fought on horseback, or line up to learn a military drill.
On Monday, we’ll also be joined by Michael J. Grillo in costume as a continental soldier. Michael is not only a historical reenactor who can frequently be seen at the New-York Historical Society, but also the Museum Educator at the Van Cortlandt House Museum in the Bronx. We recently sat down with Michael so he could tell us about himself and what serious fun living historians have to share with us.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: How would you describe a living historian? What is living history?
Michael J. Grillo: A living historian is someone who brings the past to life. They are any living individual that dresses in clothing and accessories that are appropriate for the character they are portraying. Living history is bringing that character off of the pages of history and breathing life into them. It helps people understand history better when they can actually see, touch, or feel the past!
DCHM: How did you become a living historian?
MJG: I started scoping out reenactments in 1992. The largest one was the Battle of Monmouth in Freehold, NJ. While there, I was attracted to a very large group on the battlefield, who turned out to be the recreated 23rd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and the first group that I joined that fought for the British! I’m also part of the 2nd New York Regiment, a unit that fought for the colonies!
DCHM: If you fight for both sides, what characters do you bring to life?
MJG: To date, I have 24 different uniforms, both American and British, as well as civilian apparel. I enjoy making my own clothing, as well as props for students and visitors, and will research what I need by reading biographies and hopefully finding an image. I know it will come out right after the numerous tailoring courses I’ve taken over the last 20 years.
One character that I’ve chosen to reenact is George Washington. In order to portray him, the most obvious choice was to reproduce one of the uniforms that he wore during the American War for Independence. I picked one that he is shown to be wearing during the Battle of Princeton (I love the scalloped cuffs). Since then, I’ve made other outfits for Washington, including a coat based off of a British Dragoon officer’s coat, his black suit that he wore as President, and then the brown suit he wore during his inauguration.
At Van Cortlandt House Museum, I portray two characters. In a program called “Growing Up in Lower Yonkers,” I play Mr. Crickett, a clerk or man servant who works for the owner, Mr. James Van Cortlandt. In the other program, “The Recruiting Sergeant,” I have a far more elaborate persona. I use the same name, but am a soldier named Sgt. Crickett who arrived in North America in 1755, was a member of the 1st Regiment of Foot during the French and Indian War, lived in the village of New Utrecht, Long Island, and then joined the Westchester County Militia in 1775 to fight for the British in the Revolutionary War.
DCHM: You ‘live history’ in a lot of different places! Do you have a favorite?
MJG: My favorite place? Well, I actually I have a few, but Samuel Fraunces Tavern holds a special place in my heart. I met my wife, Maria, who was volunteering as a grant writer, there. Of course, I truly enjoy meeting and greeting visitors to the New-York Historical Society. I get to speak with visitors who are really interested in history and come from all over the world!
We are so grateful to Michael for taking time off from teaching and sewing to come and visit us. Stop by on Monday to meet him yourself at Living History: Memorial Day!
And if you love Living History, visit the Museum’s special exhibit, First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare, on Saturday, June 11, for a very special Shakespeare-themed program, Living History: First Folio Live!