2010-08-07 / Top News

Civil War Period Is Focus for Island Couple

By Rebecca Jaskot

Robin and Kelly Dorman dress in 1860s period clothing as they participate in re-enacting the time of the Civil War. (Dorman family photograph) Robin and Kelly Dorman dress in 1860s period clothing as they participate in re-enacting the time of the Civil War. (Dorman family photograph) An interest in learning about the Civil War's role in American history has grown into an avocation of teaching it to others for one Mackinac Island couple. Robin and Kelly Dorman reenact history, and several times a year they don period clothing and do impressions at events or conferences.

The Dormans focus their reenactments on the Civil War period of the 1860s, and they have been doing it for 13 years. Mrs. Dorman first became interested when she went to a reenactment of the 135th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg with some friends. The Mackinac Island couple already had an interest in history and Mrs. Dorman even owned some clothing from the early 1900s.

“She's the driving force behind this,” Mr. Dorman said. “She's the one who wanted to do it first, and I found an interest in it. I like history, so whether or not I dress up doesn't matter to me a whole lot, but it is kind of cool.”

Like a lot of women reenactors, Mrs. Dorman said, the clothing drew her in. Now she makes all of the clothing for herself and her husband, which she says is a learning experience in itself. Putting on the clothing taught her a lot about daily life years ago, like why a woman needs to put on shoes before the corset.

“That's the living history part of it,” she said. “Until you've actually worn it yourself and see how you have to behave in it, you don't fully understand.”

In the case of the corset, bending over to put on shoes would be difficult, once it is tightly laced.

Although much of Civil War reenacting involves soldiers and battles, Mr. Dorman gave up the solider impression after a year because he did not like the routine. An interest in history and wondering how people lived led the Dormans to investigate the material culture of the time period.

“We began a quest to educate ourselves about that period of time and, over the intervening years, we have learned a lot,” Mr. Dorman said.

The couple has a collection of period books, including both primary sources, such as diaries and letters, and secondary research sources. They do a lot of reading during the winter.

The Dormans usually attend three events a year, mostly in the lower peninsula. They belong to an organization called Michigan Soldier's Aid Society, which existed in the 1860s as a group that provided aid to soldiers by rolling bandages, writing letters, knitting clothing, and sending packages of provisions. The society helped families raise funds, cope with not having a spouse, and deal with the government to get payments. Today, the society honors the original members by having its members do reenactments of the time period.

The Dormans attend a conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, called “Ladies and Gentlemen of the 1860s,” Memorial Day weekend events at Greenfield Village, and Historic Charlton Park in Hastings.

At these and other events, they interact with the public by answering questions about the lifestyle and culture of the period. Mr. Dorman has also put together an impression of a white cooper, who makes washtubs, buckets, and churns. These containers typically hold white produce, such as flour or milk.

Occasionally, the Dormans have helped in reenactments of ladies' academies. Young women from middle-class families during that period were often sent to women's academies to study. The reenactments allow the public to participate and learn about the subjects firsthand.

The couple has also organized fashion shows for the public or reenacted simple picnics. They have participated in sanitary fairs, which in the 1860s were used to help raise funds for medical supplies. The federal government created the U.S. Sanitary Commission in 1861, which provided services for soldiers such as hospitals, nurses, and teaching troops how to cook in order to avoid disease.

Mr. Dorman and another reenactor once portrayed a master and a slave, using the language of the time period, which elicited an emotional response from some people.

“We took a lot of grief for that, but we're not telling you it's right, we're telling you what was,” he said. “That's how he lived his life, even though I disagree with it.”

He said most of the reenactors strive through research for historic accurately, and recreating history can sometimes be upsetting when viewed from the perspective of modern times.

“This is what took place in our country,” he said of the past. “Most of us who do this believe this is what we should do. We have a responsibility to do it accurately, so it doesn't get lost.”

The most important thing people can take away from the reenactors, Mrs. Dorman said, is an accurate portrayal of the past.

“It's history and there's a lot of aspects that people don't want to talk about anymore, but I don't think we can ignore them,” she said.

Their impressions, she said, show how culture has changed over time.

“What we believe today is going to be different than what they believe 150 years from now,” she said. “So we need to respect and understand why they acted that way.”

In addition to reenacting at events, the Dormans have lectured at conferences on the art of the cooper, etiquette, botany, and servants. Mr. Dorman is preparing a talk on hunting and fishing, both for leisure and commercially, and they are expanding their interests to other conferences and events which will take them to new areas of the country.

“The longer you do it, the more you know and the easier it gets,” said Mrs. Dorman.

The couple have met hundreds of people throughout their years as reenactors, and have made many friends.

“It's a hobby that you can do for a long time,” said Mr. Dorman. “We have people in their 70s and 80s who are dressing and portraying civilians.”

The reenactors range from staunch to relaxed and from authentic to what is referred to as “farbe,” or “far be it from reality.” Some men keep their hair and beard styled in oldfashioned ways because they participate in events so often.

“It's a very broad-ranging, living history type of society that's out there that a lot of people don't even know exists,” Mr. Dorman said. “There are just so many wonderful, talented people and educated people about various periods of times that it's a joy to talk to them.”

The hobby is a lot of fun, Mr. Dorman said, but it can also be a lot of work to carry equipment around. Reenacting costs the Dormans $300 to $500 for clothing, equipment, and research materials. Getting involved is not difficult, he said, and there are always people willing to help. There is no formal training, but reenactors learn as they go and there is a lot of research available to help participants portray the time period accurately.

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is coming up, beginning in 2011. The Dormans hope to participate in at least one national event each year during the five-year remembrance.

“That should really be a huge time in the reenactment field that's likely to regenerate interest in that period of our history,” Mr. Dorman said. “A lot of organizations hope it gives them an influx of new candidates.”

He said a lot of their friends joined the hobby during the 125th anniversary. The battle of Gettysburg had about 40,000 soldiers, and it is estimated that the reenactment of the battle in 2013 will draw 40,000 to 50,000 reenactors

The Dormans hope the anniversary of the Civil War reminds people about the importance of the event in United States history.

“This made a pivotal change in how we run our country, but we're lucky if it gets covered in one 45-minute [history] class,” said Mr. Dorman.

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