Five Minutes With: Joseph McGill, Civil War re-enactor

May 21, 2010 

  • Joseph McGill will speak at 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Coastal Discovery Musuem on Hilton Head Island. A $5 donation is requested. Details: 843-689-6767, ext. 223

Sometimes the best way to understand history is to try to relive it.

Joseph McGill is a program officer based in Charleston with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He's a founder of the re-enactment regiment of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the troop of African-American soldiers portrayed in the movie "Glory." And he's started on a project to stay a night in slave cabins across the state.

He'll be discussing the 54th in a program at the Coastal Discovery Museum on Wednesday. Beforehand, he'll be staying the night in a slave cabin at the Heyward House in Bluffton.

McGill explains how he relives history.

Question. What's the program about?

Answer. It's a program on African-Americans in the Civil War with a focus on South Carolina. It's quite appropriate (that) it's going to be held on Hilton Head Island because the group I'll be talking about, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, had some history on Hilton Head. After they completed their training, they came to South Carolina and disembarked in the Hilton Head area and stayed there for a spell. They left from there and went to Darien, Ga., and came up north to the Charleston area where they saw their biggest engagement. That engagement was portrayed in the movie "Glory."

Q. How familiar are people with the 54th?

A. The newness of the movie has faded. It has been over 20 years. There's still a lot of folks who are unaware of those men. An even more important element to tell is the story of the other African-Americans in the Civil War. Most of the 180,000 African-Americans who served for the Union were uneducated. They did not leave the documentation that would lead to books and movies.

Q. Where did the idea come from to sleep in slave cabins?

A. I'm trying to sleep in as many existing slave cabins as I can get permission to. I've slept in one so far on Magnolia Plantation (in Charleston). About 10 years ago, I was part of a documentary for the History Channel called "The Unfinished Civil War." As part of that I stayed at a slave cabin in Boone Hall Plantation (in Mount Pleasant). I discovered that there are many cabins that have not been preserved. I think this can help gather interest about preservation. Moreso, it can get people more interested in this part of African-American history. ... It's not a pretty story, but it had a happy ending. We had to endure to get where we are now. If we can reflect, it can allow us to appreciate where we are now.

Q. What do you bring with you?

A. I try to rough it as much as possible. I've got a sleeping bag. I've got a club in case a critter comes in and tries to invade my space (laughs). Flashlight and all that. But I've got to embrace the natural setting as much as possible.

Q. Do you sleep well?

A. Well, I sleep well after I resolve myself to the fact that the noises I hear are just nature (laughs). I don't believe in ghosts. But looking back when I was at Magnolia Plantation, I got up five times to investigate noises outside. I resolved to myself that it was just nature. I was fine after that. But it did take five times.

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