Of cigars and Civil War: History impressionist channels U.S. Grant in Mt. Lebanon
Let’s climb aboard Dr. Brown’s DeLorean and head back in time to, oh, how about the summer of 1866.
There, we meet up with our friend Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who continues to ride a wave of popularity following the Union’s victory over the Confederacy, but assures us that the future 18th president has no aspirations of higher office.
That’s the premise established by living history impressionist Kenneth Serfass as he brought his portrayal of Grant to Mt. Lebanon Public Library for one of the programs in its Civil War Summer series, co-sponsored by the Historical Society of Mt. Lebanon.
The presentation took place on the lawn of the Southminster Manse, across the street from the library, which provided a parklike setting for Serfass to field questions from the many history aficionados in attendance. He answered in the first person while, just like Grant used to do, he fired up cigar after cigar.
The stogie habit, he explained, started at the pivotal Civil War Battle of Fort Donelson, Tenn., in February 1862. Prior to the conflict, Grant broke his pipe, a situation that a newspaper reporter remedied.
“He handed me a cigar,” Serfass said. “I go ashore, and I have the cigar lit the whole battle. And I get it down to just a little nub in my fingers. It’s in there all day. Every order I’m writing, every direction I’m giving, that cigar stub is in my hand. And the newspapermen write about that.”
Meanwhile, Northerners were happy to hear about the Union victory.
More Civil War Summer programs at Mt. Lebanon Public Library:
• Aug 2 – Hands on History: The Civil War. Meet a re-enactor in full military dress from the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves and a docent from Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Museum with a Civil War footlocker.
• Aug 16 – The Civil War in Pennsylvania: A Photographic History. Kenneth Turner will discuss the history and photos in his new book.
“And they’re a bit superstitious. Imagine baseball players who don’t change their socks because they’ve won, and all those other habits people have when they’re superstitious.”
So they started bestowing boxes of smokes on Grant, Serfass explained, with accompanying notes along the lines of: “I’ll keep sending you cigars as long as you keep winning.”
While members of the media helped pave the way for Grant to get plenty of free tobacco, he seemed to take a relatively dim view of coverage about him.
“I find a lot of people have misunderstanding about me because the newspapers write all kinds of notions,” Serfass said, continuing to channel the general. “I’m not even portrayed physically in any kind of drawings or lithographs” with accuracy.
“There was an incident during the Vicksburg campaign where one of Lincoln’s man came to visit, and he presumed that a bald man with two stars on his shoulders and another foot taller than me was me. He tells him, ‘You look just like all your pictures that I see in the paper, general.’ And it was my surgeon.”
That anecdote drew plenty of laughs, as did Serfass’ reading of a contemporary editorial from a Cincinnati newspaper, in Grant’s home state:
“Grant is a jackass in the original package. He is a poor, drunken imbecile. He is a poor stick sober, and he is most of the time more than half drunk, and most of the time, idiotically drunk.”
Besides the atrocious writing style, Serfass assured that the lack of sobriety in no way applied to Grant while he was leading the Union Army.
Serfass, a Gettysburg resident, augments his Grant portrayals with an 1860s-era general’s uniform, and he was not the only one at the Mt. Lebanon program dressed in period garb. Trenton Wood, 11, attended as a Union private, complete with infantry insignia on his cap.
A Civil War buff who has read a substantial amount about Grant, Trenton was happy to hear more.
“I loved all the information I did not know,” he said, “and some of the stuff that I did know.”