World history -- 1 figure at a time

Pick a century, any century, and Jeff Miller can likely take you there

April 30, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jeff Miller might look like your everyday historical re-enactor when he dresses as a medic from the War of 1812.

But that look is downright contemporary compared with some of the other characters and periods of history Miller portrays.

Sometimes the 49-year-old Havre de Grace resident dons armor worn by Irish soldiers from the 17th century. At other times, he puts on chain mail and portrays a 16th-century Scottish mercenary. And sometimes he reaches way back and sports a tunic like those worn in A.D. 780 by warriors in Dal Riada, the Gaelic kingdom that became Scotland.

"I just can't help taking an interest in new subjects and then wanting to portray them in living history," Miller said about his tackling such a vast span.

Next weekend Miller will go relatively modern at the Lock House Museum in Havre de Grace when he depicts the life of a medic in the attack on the area during the War of 1812. The event will include a military encampment, musket-firing displays, marching, a military hospital and candlelight tours.

Miller takes part in re-enactments, but his main concentration is on living-history portrayals. Whereas a re-enactment recreates a specific event, a living-history presentation focuses more on the culture and life of someone from a particular era, he said.

Miller, who was born in Washington, got his start in living-history portrayals when he was in the Army from 1978 to 1984. Among his duties in the Intelligence Corps was creating opposing forces for training exercises. That entailed dressing soldiers in Soviet uniforms, equipped with Soviet gear and equipment.

Word about his work spread and eventually Miller, who earned a history degree from Wake Forest University, was in demand. He received requests - mostly from the military - for his services creating opposition forces. At the same time he was recruiting Civil War and Revolutionary War re-enactors, and he began participating in those events.

Miller makes presentations in venues including Fort McHenry and the Marietta House Museum in Maryland; the Smithsonian Institution in Washington; Gettysburg, Pa.; and Kenmore House in Fredericksburg, Va.

His impressions range from depicting Dal Riada warriors to Colonial men in Maryland, to several Civil War, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 figures. His passion for history has been the spark, he said.

"To do living history, you have to be on fire for the subject," said Miller, who is a supervisor in the Aberdeen Proving Ground division that tests military equipment from other countries. "You can't just rattle off boring facts and figures. You have to know history."

Bringing men of other eras to life in a compelling way is something Miller seems to have mastered.

Every April, he does a presentation at the Marietta House Museum in Prince George's County. Though dozens of groups make presentations at the museum, Miller's stand out because of the range of characters he portrays, said Sue Wolfe, museum manager.

"He deals with unusual topics, but he always manages to engage the audience," Wolfe said.

This year he presented the Irish Easter Rebellion of 1916 at the museum.

Miller used his interpretation as an 18th- or 19th-century military surgeon to explain how he tries to hold the audience's attention.

For starters, he comes well-prepared.

"When I do the impressions of a medic or surgeon, I almost always have a doctor there asking me questions," he said. "They try to stump me."

He fills his presentations with information from the era, such as describing the primitive nature of the resources available - there was no anesthesia, microscopes were just being tinkered with, and the word germ as a medical term was unknown.

He uses artifacts to reinforce his presentation, talking about a 17th-century amputation saw and an 18th-century trepan, used to drill holes in the skull.

Miller's resources include his collection of thousands of history books, as well as the Internet.

The oldest figure he portrays is a Dal Riada warrior, for which he dons a linen tunic, a leather helmet and moccasins. He carries a shield made of wood with only a small amount of armor to cover the warrior's knuckles.

Some of the re-enactments take the form of street theater.

For instance, for a previous re-enactment of the War of 1812, a home built during that time in Havre de Grace was used to demonstrate British pillaging. In preparation, local antique dealers donated old pieces that were broken or being thrown out and they were set up throughout the house.

"We marched down to her home and broke in and threw things out the windows and ran out the doors with the stuff," said Miller. "The crowd booed us and really got into it."

Miller has landed bit parts in movies such as Gettysburg, in which he was one of thousands of extras who had to sit in a field all day during a lull in production. That was until Martin Sheen showed up.

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