For many, time travel is a fantasy, but for Chris Bingham ’03 it’s been a workaday reality for years. Since 2007, Bingham has spent summers performing living history at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, the site of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, which was the beginning of the end of the Civil War. Assuming the identity of Thomas Tibbs, a young Confederate soldier who lived less than a mile from the battlefield, Bingham vividly shows park visitors what it was like to be in post-Civil War 1865 Virginia.
“Living history is a great way to teach,” said Bingham, who majored in history at Longwood. “The acting part came pretty easily, but there are challenges. As Tibbs, I am in 1865 and know nothing of what comes after. That requires a lot of research. I need to know all facets of Tibbs’ life—his military experience, his siblings, family stories, the 11 slaves his family owned and how they farmed tobacco. While there aren’t a lot of primary sources about the characters—like diaries and letters—we do have census and service records that increasingly can be found online. Sometimes you have to fill in the holes in a character’s story to deliver a program of good history that is also dramatic and compelling.”
Bingham said some park visitors have difficulty making the transition to 1865 and seeing Thomas Tibbs—not a reenactor— but when they’re willing to go there, meaningful discussions ensue. A particularly memorable conversation involved an African-American visitor who asked Thomas Tibbs what he thought about the participation of African-American soldiers on the Union side. Tibbs saw them as runaway slaves fighting against their former masters.
“It’s hard to represent your character’s beliefs on race and war, especially when you’re playing a former slave owner and Confederate soldier,” said Bingham, whose own Civil War ancestors were Union soldiers from Wisconsin.
Born in Seattle and brought up mostly in Florida and later North Carolina, Bingham got hooked on the Civil War after visiting Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, as a boy. His interest was further piqued by Civil War history courses taught at Longwood by Dr. David Coles. As an undergrad and later while earning a master’s in American history from East Carolina University, he portrayed a Confederate soldier in Civil War reenactments.
Recently promoted to a full-time position as a guide at the park, Bingham’s living history chores are winding down. His new duties include ranger talks, staffing the park’s visitor center, handling its social media accounts and training new employees. Bingham is married to Alyssa Holland ’04, a fellow Longwood graduate and park guide. They work together and live in the nearby town of Appomattox just three miles from the park.
Bingham said, “Being Thomas Tibbs was a great experience. He taught me a lot about history and people.”