Meet Joseph McGill. Most days you'll find him hard at work at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Southern Regional Office, where he is a program officer. Other days, you'll find him suited up - musket and all - on the battlefield.
Joseph is a Civil War reenactor who marches with a Charleston-based group dedicated to keeping the amazing story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry alive today. If you've seen the movie "Glory," then you know that the 54th were African American troops who fought for the Union during the war, waging an infamous battle on Morris Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.
However, come next Tuesday, Joseph will be representing the 54th in a whole new location: Pennsylvania Avenue. The Boston-based reenactors of the 54th were invited by President-Elect Barack Obama to join the inaugural parade, and Joe is still overwhelmed at the news that he will be able to join them.
In anticipation of the big day, we had a chance to chat with him about the significance of the parade - both for him and for the original members of the 54th.
PreservationNation: How long have you been doing Civil War reenactments, and what made you want to get involved in the first place?
I have been a Civil War reenactor since 1991. As a park ranger at Fort Sumter National Monument, I made friends with several Confederate Civil War reenactors. That, along with the award-winning movie"Glory," helped convince me that African Americans had a say in the outcome of the Civil War. I became a Civil War reenactor because it allows me the opportunity to interpret the rest of the story - the part that is usually left out of the history books.
PreservationNation: What is one behind-the-scenes aspect of reenactments that people might not know about?
There are many behind-the-scenes aspects of reenactments that people might not know. One such aspect is the amount of research that it takes to become a reenactor. Reenactors should study both sides of the conflict. Reenactors should know what motivated the northern and southern soldiers to participate in the war. Reenactors should also know how to conduct themselves in formations on the march or on the field of battle. Safety is always important.
PreservationNation: Did you ever think that a hobby would one day land you on Pennsylvania Avenue escorting our first African-American president to the White House?
No, when I started this hobby in 1991, I never thought it would earn me the opportunity to participate in the inaugural parade of the first African-American president. Heck, I never thought that I would see an African-American president in my life. I was satisfied with disseminating the history of the approximately 200,000 African Americans who joined the Union Army and the Navy, but participating in the inaugural parade was an offer I could not refuse.
PreservationNation: Tell us more about the significance of President-Elect Obama choosing reenactors of the 54th to march in the parade.
I think that it was destiny that we were chosen to participate in the inaugural parade. President-Elect Obama is a fan of President Abraham Lincoln. It was President Lincoln who gave the 54th the opportunity to serve the Union during the Civil War.
PreservationNation: If the men of the 54th were alive today, what do you think they would have say about what will happen on January 20th?
If the men of the 54th could speak to us, they would say job well done. They would look at January 20th as a stamp of approval for why they served. They would say that, just as we encountered tremendous odds, so did President-Elect Obama. They would go on to say that the fight is not over, and that we will face the challenges as a unified nation - not a divided one.
PreservationNation: The Trust has put together an inaugural guide of historic places and neighborhoods people can visit while they are in D.C. for the inauguration. Other than the sights and sounds of the parade, what else are you looking forward to seeing in Washington?
The Lincoln Memorial is on my short list of places to visit. It will take on a special meaning this trip. I will also be travelling with my wife, Vilarin, and my 11 year-old daughter, Jocelyn. I am certain that Jocelyn will want to share her experience with anyone willing to listen.
Visit the National Trust for Historic Preservation's special inaugural guide to learn more about everything the D.C. area has to offer visitors over the coming days.