Photo courtesy Nancy Wright Beasley
Every January, it seems that I have leftover resolutions, but I started this year with one less to scratch off my bucket list. In November, after a family visit to Roanoke, I stopped at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park to reacquaint myself with the site of the final surrender of the Civil War and also the newly established Appomattox location of the Museum of the Confederacy.
My timing was perfect, as I happened upon a living-history lesson in session. I watched in awe as Michael Hudson, a teacher for the past nine years, seemed to literally crawl inside the skin of the Yankee soldier whose uniform he was wearing. Hudson, a native Southerner, portrays James Cook, who enlisted when he was living in Fayette County in southwestern Pennsylvania and served during most of the war. At 34, the same age as Hudson is now, Cook witnessed the surrender ceremony that took place almost 150 years ago.
"I began teaching in 2004, the last five at Liberty Christian Academy," Hudson explains. "That summer, I learned there were paid positions for living history at the park. I knew the history and the background of the park and was accustomed to speaking before people, but I'd never put the two together."
A Lynchburg native, Hudson became interested in the Civil War when, at age 11, his father drove him to Appomattox. "Dad took me to historic sites because he realized that the [history] bug bit me on the very first trip. I remember trying to visualize what happened here, wanting to drink in every detail."
Hudson began volunteering at 17, expanding his level of understanding during his senior year of high school and continuing through his college years at Liberty University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in history and psychology and a graduate degree in education. He also spent one year in Petersburg and another in Richmond, conducting battlefield tours at Civil War parks and volunteering at the Museum of the Confederacy.
"My mother, in a very gentle way, said, ‘You know, this isn't the most profitable career.' I realized that, but this is what I loved. The pay isn't great in education or public history, but I derive a tremendous sense of satisfaction from what I'm doing. I've never regretted my decision."
Hudson's decision eventually led him to research James Cook's life. He traveled to Pennsylvania, met Cook's great-granddaughter and even visited Cook's grave. "I learned that he was a stonecutter by trade, served in three different regiments and rose to the rank of corporal. His wife died prior to the war, but Cook married her sister when he came home on a brief furlough.
"The park keeps correspondence with the descendants," he continues. "I've tracked down some myself, and I correspond with them. I chose Cook's story because his life lined up with mine, and I could relate to him very well. I take great pains to tell the story as accurately as I can. It's not about generals and movements, but that this was a terribly grievous time in our history. These people, in whatever role I play, need to be remembered."
Hudson's father has relatives in Maryland and Missouri, giving him a non-regional dialect. "People can believe that I come from up North. However, when I play a Rebel, I borrow my Confederate Southerner's accent from my mother. She grew up in Amherst County."
In his monologue, Hudson (as Cook) describes seeing the Southern army surrendering, one regiment at a time. "That had to be terribly difficult for them, as there are records of some of the Rebels crying when they laid down their weapons and colors. The Yankees, knowing the Rebs were half-starved, even gave up their food to them. I talk to visitors at the very end and tell them that Cook is supposed to be home by Christmas. He actually made it on December 21, 1865."
Recent veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan say they can identify with Hudson's character.
"They feel his frustration. He felt like he had done his job and just wanted to go home. It's appalling how many of those men tried to drown their pain with medication, drug addiction, domestic violence and suicides. The war didn't end for them in 1865. It affected them forever. The Cook family told me the war was not discussed in their home but that, years later, when children came for Christmas, Cook would teach them how to march like soldiers and how to hold a musket. But he never told them about his actual experience or about friends and comrades he had lost. I love children, too, and I embrace every opportunity to teach them."
Hudson has already started teaching his two sons, ages 6 and 8, about the war. His wife, a former French teacher and history buff, supports his penchant for battlefield and historic sites.
"Wives are very important" to the story, he adds. "The museum has a very aggressive collection, made up of memorabilia from widows and daughters of Confederate veterans. It's a fantastic collection. There are many efforts between the museum and the historical park to work with one another to produce community programs, especially since it's the sesquicentennial.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2013. All rights reserved.