This post was written by Heidi Holmstrom. Heidi works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.
It’s no surprise that history is a passion for many of the employees at the National Archives and Records Administration. But even in this environment, there are people whose dedication to interpreting the past stands out. For over forty years, Mark Meader, an Archives Specialist in NARA’s Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Branch, has participated in living history reenactments spanning the time from the 17th Century through the First World War. Several of his early performances with the 1st Maryland Regiment reenactment group were captured in National Park Service films now held at NARA. Mark recently told me about his living history activities and the experience of making some of those films.
Archives Specialist Mark Meader as Gun Captain aboard the USS Constellation in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy of Mark Meader)
During the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s, Mark and his family lived in the Western United States, far from the battlefields where large-scale reenactments were taking place, and he was unable to see them or participate. When he moved to the mid-Atlantic, he was finally able to become a part of the living history and reenactment community. In 1974, the same year he began working for the Federal government, Mark joined the 1st Maryland Regiment.
The 1st Maryland, led by the late William Brown III, reenacted Revolutionary War life and battles, and was named after a historic regiment praised by General George Washington. (Historians cite the 1st Maryland as the source of the state’s nickname—the “Old Line State”.) Brown was dedicated to creating a group that was authentic in all ways, from the hairstyles to the weaponry. Brown, also an employee of the National Park Service, volunteered the 1st Maryland Regiment to participate in the creation of historical films for several Revolutionary War-era historic sites. One of these, Victory at Yorktown (released 1975, filmed in October 1974), ended up being the first time Mark would perform in uniform.
Rather than focusing on the siege and battle of Yorktown, Victory at Yorktown depicts the formal ceremony of surrender as the British march between columns of American and French soldiers and lay down their arms. The British, led by Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, had surrendered after almost three weeks of siege and bombardment by the combined American and French forces, led by General Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau. After the British surrender on October 19, 1781, Great Britain and the United States began peace negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the formal end of the War of Independence.
Slideshow: Stills from Victory at Yorktown.
Mark recalls that in addition to William Brown’s 1st Maryland Regiment, other reenactment groups involved in the production were the 9th Virginia Regiment and the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment, which notably was able to play the part of either American or British soldiers. Reenactors in possession of French muskets (used by both French and American soldiers during the Revolution) were tapped to don French uniforms. The men portraying the British marched between the columns as their musicians, wearing reverse regimental colors, played “The World Turned Upside Down”. The camera travels along unbroken columns of soldiers that never seem to end, but it turns out that this was a form of cinematic wizardry. In order to make the number of French and American troops look larger, Mark says that as soon as a soldier was out of frame, he would run around behind the camera and step back in line.
Another film that Mark participated in is A Few Men Well Conducted (1978), made for the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana. The title comes from a letter that Clark wrote to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry proposing a campaign to retake the British Fort Sackville in Vincennes. (“Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted.”) The film depicts Clark’s February 1779 trek from Kaskaskia to Vincennes as he and 170 volunteer frontiersmen marched across the cold, flooded plains of Illinois to surprise the British with a winter attack. Clark was able to deceive the British into thinking they were surrounded by a much larger American force and after less than two days of siege the British surrendered. Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton, reviled for the bounties he was said to have paid for American scalps, was among those captured. This victory has been credited with greatly enlarging the size of the young United States, as Great Britain relinquished claims to the Northwest Territory (including Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin) in the Treaty of Paris.
Fortunately, Mark and the 1st Maryland Regiment did not have to cross flooded plains in the middle of February during filming. Instead, those scenes were filmed in March 1977 at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, but the water was still cold enough that the participants wore wetsuits under their period uniforms while they stumbled over hidden rocks and roots. Other scenes, notably that of Clark’s men shivering around campfires, were filmed in August. Standing in for Fort Sackville was Prickett’s Fort State Park in West Virginia, which is now a site of regular living history demonstrations.
Slideshow: Stills from A Few Men Well Conducted. Mark Meader is wearing the green hat.
In addition to appearing in these and other government films, the 1st Maryland Regiment also regularly performed a half hour show called “Music and Musketry of the Revolution”. Mark also marched with the regiment in the 1976 American Bicentennial parades in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. One of his favorite memories is from a 1983 trip to Paris as part of the Expedition Liberté for the bicentennial of the signing of the Treaty of Paris. As the group marched down the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, many French spectators came up and thanked the Americans for helping liberate Paris in 1944.
The original 1st Maryland Regiment was disbanded in 1984, but Mark also participated in the New 1st Maryland Regiment until 1996. He currently performs living history demonstrations as Senior Leftenant of the St. Mary’s City Militia (circa 1634) at Historic St. Mary’s City in Southern Maryland, and as Gun Captain aboard the U.S.S. Constellation in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with Ship’s Company. He enjoys taking part in an activity that is a way to learn how our ancestors lived, “but without the death and disease” he notes with humor.
Mark Meader (R) serves as Senior Leftenant of the St. Mary’s City Militia at the 400th Jamestown VA Celebration in 2007.
(Photo courtesy of Mark Meader.)
If you are interested in learning more about living history, look for groups like Ship’s Company online or attend an event like the annual Military Through the Ages at Jamestown, Virginia. Please tell us about your living history experiences in the comments!