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Mount Vernon Historic Site Celebrates Presidents Day

Phil Jessen portrays Abraham Lincoln at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
Phil Jessen portrays Abraham Lincoln at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Photo Credit: Chaya Babu

MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. -- St. Paul's National Historic Site in Mount Vernon opened its "St. Paul's Church & The Civil War" exhibit Monday, which included a special holiday event.

Along with various objects, photos, and text displayed in the exhibition to illustrate how the Civil War was experienced locally, re-enactors and a short two-person play commemorated Presidents Day.

David Osborn, site manager at St. Paul's, said the exhibit is specifically about how the church and local community viewed and reacted to the war.

"It's based on the interesting stories of veterans laid to rest in the cemetery," he said. "But no one is buried here for being a soldier; they’re buried here because they lived here, went to church here, their family bought a plot here. People of the north wanted to feel like they had come back from war and resumed their normal lives as civilians, laborers, farmers, fathers, so this is kind of the perfect setting to represent their stories."

Osborn said that 8,000 people are buried in the cemetery. Specific experiences of a few men were documented on a large panel on the wall. One was a freed slave who came up from Virginia. Another was a doctor who had tried to save President Lincoln after he was shot. Both later lived in Mount Vernon.

Other highlights of the exhibit are a diary with authentic writing that reveals the war activities of the 6th New York Heavy Artillery, a real 20-pound shell, a rifle kid with a sword bayonet, a battle diorama, and more. 

"This is about the Civil War in this corner of the republic, and it’s our contribution to people wanting to learn about it," Osborn said.

The re-enactors portrayed Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, providing a visual sense of their characters, animating their personalities, and telling stories that would have mattered to them in an entertaining but historical way.

Lincoln, played by Phil Jessen, gave a little anecdote about meeting his wife at a cotillion dance: "I went over to her and I said, ‘Mary Todd, I would like to dance with you in the worst way. Will you dance with me?’ And then she went back to her friends, and I didn’t know this until years later, but one of them said, ‘Now Mary, did he dance with you in the worst way?’ and she said, ‘Yes he did, the very worst!’”

About 70 people were in and out of the event and exhibit throughout the day.

“It was just delightful; he did such a good job," Diane Drugge said of the Lincoln re-enactment. "I teach school and I can see little kids being in awe of a very complex person, and to have him brought down to earth with jokes and fun, I thought that was absolutely wonderful and engaging.”

The "St. Paul's & The Civil War" exhibit will run through 2014.

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