Sitting on a stump beneath an old oak tree, beside a weathered barn in Sharpsburg, Maryland, a black man in a homespun woolen shirt and threadbare breeches butchers a turkey with a dull blade. His name is Marvin Greer; he is 29 years old. Around him, seven other African Americans, all of them wearing the period garb of freemen and liberated slaves — cotton dresses, straw hats and antique bonnets — go about the business of preparing breakfast for a dozen white men in blue Union uniforms who are bivouacked just downstream, a 19th-century tintype come to life.
Greer rode a bus 14 hours from Atlanta to participate in this Civil War re-enactment deep in the mountains near Maryland’s border with West Virginia, hard against the Potomac River. It’s breakfast time, and he’s part of the cooking detail. Bacon and onions sizzle in a cast-iron skillet along with apples and yams; a tin pot of coffee boils over, releasing fragrant plumes of smoke into the morning air.
A graduate of traditionally black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Greer has embraced history as more than just a major. Currently a part-time employee of the Atlanta History Center, he is paid to dress up as a slave and re-enact Southern history. Recently he landed a full-time job at Colonial Williamsburg, where he will exchange the garb of a slave for the knee-breeches and waistcoats of a freeman. As a site supervisor, at the Williamsburg, Virginia, theme park, Greer will be charged with integrating the African-American experience into the 18th-century programming.
On this warm September morning, Greer is on his own time, pursuing what many would consider an unusual hobby. He spends his weekends trekking to battlefields across the Southeast. Sometimes he shoulders a musket as an enlisted man in the Union Army — which employed freedmen as soldiers in the War Between the States. Other days, he’s simply a laborer, bearing witness to the approximation of history.
Today Greer is playing a real historical figure named Scipio Africanus, who was born free in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in the mid-19th century. When the Civil War broke out, according to Greer’s research, Africanus left his family to become a body servant to Captain Francis Adams Donaldson of the 118th Pennsylvania, part of the U.S. force pressed into action by Abraham Lincoln to fight against the rebels. On this day 153 years ago, the 118th was pursuing Confederate forces along this route as they retreated southward from their defeat on the bloody battlefield in nearby Antietam.
Though Africanus likely never kept a journal — one has never been found, and his ability to read and write was probably limited, Greer says — he is mentioned in Donaldson’s meticulously kept logs, which state that Africanus was here with the captain more than 150 years ago. The diary contains only a passing description of Africanus as a “sassy nigger,” so in order to fill out the servant’s spitfire personality, Greer has incorporated elements — vernacular, backstory and even posture — of other freemen he’s researched from the area and time period. For instance, Africanus most likely would’ve camped with the other African Americans, most of them newly liberated from a nearby plantation.
The turkey starts to crackle in the pan. “There’s an upside of being in a Union camp,” Greer says with an amused smile, stirring the mix with a corroded two-tine fork. “They eat a lot better than the Confederates.”
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