Ulysses S. Grant impersonator Curt Fields gives a lecture during Tuesday's inaugural Michael B. Ballard Lecture Series at Mississippi State University's Grant Presidential Library. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
February 7, 2018 10:53:01 AM
To hear him tell it, Curt Fields is the best-known impersonator of the least-known, best-known person in American history.
In other words, Fields plays the role of Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union forces during the Civil War and later the 18th President of the United States.
Now in his eighth year of playing the role of what Fields insists is the least understood man of the 19th century, Fields -- aka Grant -- was the lecturer in Tuesday's inaugural Michael B. Ballard Lecture Series at the Grant Presidential Library, located on the fourth floor of Mississippi State's Mitchell Memorial Library.
The lecture series honors Ballard, who spent more than 30 years as an archivist and historian at the university. Ballard died in 2016.
For Fields, who plays Grant 35 to 40 times a year, the role has become a second career. As the 150th anniversary events of the Civil War arrive, he has performed at ceremonies at Fort Donaldson, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Appomattox Courthouse. The role has taken him all over the country -- from Buffalo, New York, to Florida, from Los Angeles to Nebraska to Texas. He has performed on two river cruises on the Mississippi River with two more planned this year.
Grant, the man
Fields has played Grant the general or president, depending on the occasion, with six military uniforms of the ranks he held in the Army as well as two presidential suits, complete with top hat.
In some respects, the role he played Tuesday -- Ulysses S. Grant: The Man Behind the Uniform -- is his most difficult he noted while beginning his speech before the overflow audience in the Grant Library auditorium.
Speaking in character and using the vernacular of the times, Fields/Grant told the audience of 80:
"I have been requested to come down here by one of the local authorities to talk about myself," he said. "I must needs tell you that I do not like to do that. I don't like the personal pronouns, 'I' and 'me.' I much prefer 'us' and 'we.' But because I am going to talk about myself, I cannot avoid that, so I beg your indulgence."
For more than an hour, Fields told Grant's life story as Grant might have told it, spending time correcting the errors and myths that grew up around the man as well as providing little known details of his life.
"A lot of people think they know Grant," Fields said. "They don't."
For a man who "made a name for himself," how Grant became Ulysses S. Grant is no small irony.
Grant told his audience he was not given a name at all until he was six weeks old. At that point, his parents called a family meeting to choose the name, asking family members to write their suggestions on a piece of paper and place them in a hat. The first two names pulled from the hat where "Hiram" and "Ulysses," so Grant began his life as Hiram Ulysses Grant.
When he was accepted to military school, the Congressman who approved the appointment identified him as Ulysses S. Grant on the official papers. After a mild protest by Grant upon his arrival at West Point, an Army colonel loudly pronounced that Grant would remain Ulysses S. Grant as far as the Army was concerned. That was that. The "S" in Grant's name stands for nothing.
"I suppose you expect me to say great things to you," Grant told his audience. "I will not. I will say small things ... because I want you to know who I am."
The small things
It was the small things Grant revealed that seemed most captivating to his audience.
For example, Grant was the oldest of six children born to a father he respected but clashed with and a mother who remained emotionally detached. He hated working in his father's tannery, but loved the big draft horses his father used to pull the company wagons, grabbing the horses by the tail and swinging on them as a child of four or five.
His first ambition was to work on the river or, perhaps, become a farmer. It was his father's idea for Grant to go to West Point, something Grant pursued reluctantly. He was recommended for the appointment on the last day appointments were accepted in 1839, by a Congressman who had been his father's years-long enemy.
For Fields, filling in the minutiae of Grant's life helps humanize the man.
"When I decided to play the role of Grant (in) first person, I realized I had to make that shift from reading about him to studying him," said Fields, who spent 33 years as a high school teacher and administrator. "I read everything I could get my hands on for a year, a year-and-a-half before I made my first appearance as Grant in February of 2011."
Over the past seven years, Fields has come not only to know Grant intimately.
"I came to genuinely like Ulysses S. Grant," Fields said. "He was, by any standard, a nice guy."
Fields was inspired to "become Grant" after attending a re-enactment that featured Civil War generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and President Abraham Lincoln.
"I thought, 'If I grew a beard, I could play Grant.' I won't tell you I look like him, but I do resemble him. I am a body double, the same weight (150 pounds) and height (5-foot-8) as Grant. When you look at me in uniform or in my presidential suit and top hat, it's like looking at him."
For Fields, that resemblance is the best part of playing the role.
"It's parting the curtains of time and looking down that long corridor of time and seeing the man as he really looked," he said.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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