Voice of living historians reach across time

September 15, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Maryland Historical Society Player member Britt Olsen-Ecker portrays Clara Barton at the Antietam National Battlefield on Saturday.
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

SHARPSBURG, Md. — History doesn’t linger only in old structures or on the pages of a book.

Sometimes, it’s found in the voice of a living historian who reaches across time to provide a glimpse of people from a distant century.

Through stories, speeches and songs, characters come to life, along with their dreams, their accomplishments and their emotions.

Take the portrayal of Clara Barton that was offered Saturday at Antietam National Battlefield.

Standing before an audience of about 50 people, the founder of the American Red Cross and Angel of the Battlefield gave a hint of being an early feminist, sharing that she was called to be a teacher, “but when the job of principal was given to a man, I departed. I will not be passed over because I’m a woman.”

She was a clerk in Washington, D.C., she recalled, but after the battle at Bull Run, she couldn’t stop thinking of the soldiers who were injured and neglected.

“I’m no longer a clerk. Now, I’m a healer,” she said. “I am a patriot and I support the Union cause. I am an abolitionist to the core. But my greater concerns are for those who are injured in battle. There is very little difference. Men are men, boys are boys and grieving families are grieving families.”

She told of her work at Antietam and how she tried to escape “the sad loss that surrounds me. But loss is everywhere.”

Following her war efforts and the founding of the American Red Cross, she gained a certain degree of celebrity, she admitted. But she always used it to help others.

At the end of her story, Clara Barton received a hearty round of applause.

But the crowd wasn’t clapping for Barton, although her comments were stirring. They were applauding the stage performance of Britt Olsen-Ecker.

Olsen-Ecker is one of the Maryland Historical Society Players, a project created as part of the society’s latest exhibit, “Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War.”

It’s the job of actors such as Olsen-Ecker to bring the exhibit to life.

Olsen-Ecker was joined on stage Saturday by Roderick Howard II, who presented a portrayal of Christian Fleetwood, a free black man who fought in the Civil War and received a Medal of Honor for bravery.

Fleetwood lived in Baltimore, where, Howard told the audience, “half of the population was slave, the other half was free like me. But we work hard like slaves.”

“My life was privileged, and I received a good education, including a college degree, thanks to a wealthy sugar merchant,” he said.

“But I saw the pain and suffering of others and it was hard on my soul that so many were never given a chance.  So, after the Emancipation Proclamation, I rushed off to enlist in the 4th Regiment United States Colored Infantry, Union Army,” Howard said in his portrayal. “I was a sergeant, but soon received the promotion to the rank of sergeant major.”

Fleetwood and his regiment fought in a battle on the outskirts of Richmond, Va., and faced fierce fire from the enemy when they were ordered to charge the Confederate fortifications

Caught in a deadly storm of bullets, he witnessed the color guard, officers and friends drop all around him, but he seized the American flag, which had been given to the regiment by the Patriotic Colored Women of Baltimore and kept it aloft.

“I wanted both the Union and Confederate soldiers to see that we were willing to die for a cause we had not yet attained,” he said.

Fleetwood continued to carry the flag closer to the fortifications, but eventually had to fall back to the reserve line. Still, he rallied the survivors around the flag and continued to fight.

In 1865, he was awarded his country’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor.

When Howard graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County with a fine arts degree in acting, he didn’t know at the time that he would be using his stage talents to teach history, he said.

“But I’ve been acting for 15 years,” he noted. “I was open to anything.”

Howard said both he and Olsen-Ecker auditioned to be part of the Maryland Historical Society Players and are honored to be portraying individuals who made important contributions to Maryland and the United States.

“It’s a pretty amazing job,” Howard said. “It’s an education for all of us, both the actors and the audience.”

Olsen-Ecker said she attended the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University to study singing and has performed with a variety of theater companies.

When she joined the Maryland Historical Society Players, “I knew about the Civil War, but not in-depth,” she said. “Now, I’m a Civil War nerd. I’ve learned so much, but there so much more to learn.”

Howard said the performance at Antietam on Saturday was one of several living-history programs the players have presented at historic sites throughout Maryland.

“It’s really helpful to look out into the audience and see how invested the audience is in your performance,” Howard said. “We kind of feed off each other.”

In addition to Barton and Fleetwood, the Maryland Historical Society Players offer portrayals of other famous people, including John Wilkes Booth and Harriet Tubman.

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