Historian’s play to commemorate Civil War’s 150th anniversary

01/26/2015 10:00 AM |
Local historian Richard Wines (left) along with Doris McGreevey and Richard Radoccia stand in the Jamesport Meeting House, where Mr. Radoccia and Ms. McGreevey hope to present a play about the Civil War on the 150th anniversary of its end. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Local historian Richard Wines (left) along with Doris McGreevey and Richard Radoccia stand in the Jamesport Meeting House, where Mr. Radoccia and Ms. McGreevey hope to present a play about the Civil War on the 150th anniversary of its end. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Richard Radoccia of Laurel said he was stunned to hear little local fanfare was planned to observe the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.

So the amateur historian is setting out to change that.

Mr. Radoccia and Doris McGreevy of Mattituck plan to produce a play he wrote about the Civil War to commemorate its April anniversary. 

The play — called “Appomattox” after the Virginia courthouse where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union forces — centers on the words of three major Civil War-era players: freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and President Abraham Lincoln.

The dialogue has been taken from the men’s original speeches, Mr. Radoccia said.

“All I did was cut things out,” he said. “I didn’t change any of their words.”

But before work on the production can begin, Mr. Radoccia and Ms. McGreevy need funding to pay for it.

“We’re trying to make the community feel this is something special,” he said.

So far, they have secured the support of the Jamesport Meeting House, where Mr. Radoccia wants to set up a multimedia component of the play to represent “correspondents” for a fictional news service reporting to the audience about the war.

Jamesport Meeting House president and local historian Richard Wines said the production aligns well with the organization’s mission of sharing and promoting local history.

“It fits right in, in many ways,” Mr. Wines said, noting that the 1731 building’s main room looks much like it did during the Civil War, when it was renovated. “The setting is all there.”

Last week, Mr. Radoccia and Ms. McGreevy met with a potential sponsor at the meeting house. Mr. Radoccia said ticket sales wouldn’t fully cover production costs.

He laced his pitch with lengthy anecdotes of Civil War history, gesturing around the empty space to demonstrate where different parts of the play would be performed.

Ms. McGreevy has worked with Mr. Radoccia on library events and seminars, but never a production like this.

“When he said he wrote a play I was surprised,” she said.

Ms. McGreevy said she hopes the play reminds people of the importance of the Civil War.

“The whole point of this is to inform people that the United States — underlined ‘United’ — is united because of this event,” she said.

Although the play’s setting is located far from Riverhead, Mr. Wines said North Fork residents absolutely felt the war’s polarizing effects.

“Everyone thinks today’s [politics] are bad, but you look back in the 1850s in the Civil War period and it was much, much worse,” he said. “There were people here in Riverhead … who would walk on the opposite side of the street from the Hallocks because [the family] was Republican and they were Democrats.”

Mr. Wines estimates that despite being part of the Union, about a third of Riverhead Town was “vehemently opposed” to the war.

“It got bitter. Very bitter,” he said. “This was important history here, too.”

The divisions lasted long after the war ended, Mr. Wines said. One Northville church in particular was deeply divided during the conflict, he said, as most of its congregation opposed abolition.

Those disputes spilled over into all kinds of petty arguments, Mr. Wines said. Churchgoers fought over the kind of music played and even threw a church organ off the balcony in protest. This eventually led to the church burning to the ground, supposedly set ablaze by its minister, he said.

Learning about the Civil War may show us how we failed as a nation — and how to avoid the mistakes that led to bitter divisions, Mr. Wines added.

“Our country basically fell apart,” he said. “You want to learn from those things.”

Mr. Radoccia said the United States is more diversified and open-minded than it was during the Civil War, but emphasized the importance of learning how that came to be.

“It was all made possible by the million people who died during the war,” he said. “In particular, if you look at what’s going on in the world today — if you look at the difficulties going on between people of color and police — in these issues, it’s clear that the struggle for equality is not yet complete.”

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