Next Tuesday is Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery. On June 19, 1865, military orders to free enslaved people were finally, officially enforced in Texas—two months after the end of the American Civil War and two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
What can you expect at this program? There’s no one better to ask than one of our best Living Historians! On Sunday, Algernon is leading the day’s Civil War reenactors (though he also reenacts the American Revolution on other occasions). Read on to discover what Living History means to Algernon, how he became a reenactor, and what he is most excited for this weekend.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: How would you describe a Living Historian? What is Living History?
Algernon Ward: The names “Living Historian” and “reenactor” are often used interchangeably. Simply put, they are people who bring historical figures to life by adopting their persona and acting as if they were that person. “Living History” is the act of telling a story from history by acting like a person who was actually there at the time.
DCHM: When and how did you become a Living Historian?
AW: In 1999, a friend of mine named Fred Minus convinced me to come and see a reenactment of a Civil War battle. I was so impressed by the authenticity of not only the battle but also the campsites—complete with horses, tents, women cooking food true to the period, and even children dressed in period clothing. It was as if I had gone back through time in a time machine. It looked like fun, so I bought a uniform from one of the merchants there, and I participated in a battle that afternoon. I’ve been having fun ever since.
DCHM: What is your favorite part of being a Living Historian? What has interested you most about it?
AW: I really enjoy sharing the stories from history that people often don’t know about. I have found that people will adjust their thinking about today’s world when they learn from history and how things came to be as they are.
DCHM: Who will you be portraying from the Civil War and how will you distinctly portray them?
AW: I portray an African American soldier from the Union Army. During the Civil War, the U.S. Army separated soldiers by race, and African American soldiers were called “United States Colored Troops.” My portrayal includes weapons, everyday articles such as combs, eating utensils, a wooden flute, and clothing.
A soldier’s uniform contained a lot of information about a soldier’s identity! Soldiers often wore the number of their regiments on their hats, which were called kepis or forage caps. They could also wear symbols for the branch of the army to which they belonged. If he was a member of the infantry, the soldier would wear a ‘hunting horn’ symbol. Cavalry wore a ‘crossed sabers’ symbol and artillery, ‘crossed cannons.’ The color of the trim on a soldier’s dress uniform also designated his branch. The infantry wore blue, the cavalry yellow, the artillery red, and the medical corps green. A soldier’s rank can also be identified by his uniform. Two chevrons or stripes meant he was a corporal and three to six stripes a sergeant. Officers wore even more signs of their rank.
DCHM: What advice would you give to a kid who is interested in becoming a Living Historian or learning about history?
AW: Find a person or event that interests you, then do the research on that person by reading books, watching films, and going to the places where that person lived or event happened. Talk to historians and other people who know about the topic.
DCHM: What kinds of stories do you think need to be told more often in Living History?
AW: There are many stories from the past that have yet to be told. The lives of ordinary people, including women and people from different races, are often neglected. Dare to be different. Tell the stories of those who are usually overlooked in order to do something new.
DCHM: What are you most looking forward to sharing with families at the Museum? What’s something kids shouldn’t miss?
AW: We’re looking forward to sharing the stories of what it was like to be a soldier during the Civil War. We want everyone to experience what daily life was like hundreds of years ago. Willing kids can even join us in a drill like a real soldier! See you at the New-York Historical Society for Juneteenth!
Thanks to Algernon for taking the time to tell us all about Living History with the 6th United States Colored Troops!
Written by J.M. Wasko
Coordinator of Living History Programs at DiMenna Children’s History Museum