They say that to truly understand someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. So how deep do you suppose that understanding runs when you not only walk a mile in their shoes, but also in their thick wool uniform and while carrying their pack?
Ask Steve Quick.
“Playing a bedraggled Confederate, you’re hauling 15 to 20 pounds of gear in a wool uniform on a hot summer day,” he said. “When you see photos of soldiers, you don’t see a lot of Jenny Craig ‘before’ photos.”
Still, for him the understanding is worth the sweat. Through living history displays that run the gamut of America’s great epochs, from the Revolutionary War to the explorations of Lewis and Clark and through to the First World War, he has put himself in the shoes of some of the greatest patriots, scoundrels, heroes and explorers that our country has produced. So, what has he learned walking all those miles in all those different shoes?
“Over time, I began to realize that what we are taught about history is 80 percent wrong. After these events where there is so much bloodshed, there’s a push to make sense of things and wrap them up in a way that camouflages us from understanding how we got there in the first place,” he said. “I’m fond of telling people that history is like a good therapist. A therapist will help you understand how you got where you are, and history can do the same thing if it’s not hijacked, distorted, politicized or weaponized.”
He’s also learned that half the battles ever fought by Americans were against their own uniforms.
“There’s one letter from a lady in Maryland during the Civil War from when soldiers came through saying you could smell them for an hour afterward,” he said with a laugh.
Still, for him the discomfort is worth the perspective he gains from living like the historical subjects he studies. And while he’s always had a passion for history, living history was something he fell into when it appeared on his honey-do list. His wife, a teacher, was looking for ways to make history more exciting for her students.
“Halfway through telling me about it, one of her colleagues fixed me with a look that I recognized right away from my wife – that she was going to get me to do something,” he said.
Despite having a fear of public speaking, and access to nothing more than a “really awful Halloween costume that’s a little embarrassing to look back on,” Quick tried his hand at living history and fell in love.
“I had fun, the kids had fun and I realized this was a way to tap into an avocation,” he said.
Starting with the Civil War, he expanded into the Revolutionary War after a year of preparation. But it wasn’t until South Carolina became the nexus for one of the most exciting historical renovations of the modern era that his avocation exploded.
“When the (H.L.) Hunley was resurrected, next thing I knew I had nine different programs I was running, and I was burning through my vacation time going to all these schools,” he said, referencing the Civil War-era submarine that was recovered in 2000.
His vocation as an insurance investigator helped fuel his avocation as a living historian, and before long it was difficult to tell one from the other.
And naturally, he’s upgraded somewhat from the Halloween costume.
“There’s a guy who works in historical textiles from N.C. State, who oversees everything —the spinning, the vegetable dyes used… he’s inspected original jackets and copied their patterns,” said Quick of his source for the ultra-authentic costumes that have become his hallmark. “I tell people, ‘Get your kids involved with reenacting. They’ll never have enough money for drugs.’ ”
This intimate relationship with history has given him greater perspective, and working locally on special events like his reenactment of the Burning of Bluffton this June (hosted by the Historic Bluffton Foundation, which plans to host more living history events this year) have helped make history personal for him. Doing research into his own history turned up an ancestor who served on the 11th on Hilton Head Island.
“That’s one of the reasons I agreed to wear blue,” Quick said. “People love knowing that you’re a descendant of someone you’re portraying because they’re looking at someone who looks like the person who was there.”
Quick plans to be involved in further living history programs at the Heyward House, helping Bluffton discover its own history.
“With the welcome center being moved, they’re looking for ways to add to the Heyward House and I think living history could be it,” he said.
Stay tuned to see when you can meet history face to face, and gain a better understanding of where we’ve been.