Living the Civil War

COPPER HARBOR – Fort Wilkins may not have been in operation during the American Civil War, but last weekend, nearly 150 years after the Confederacy’s surrender, Battery D brought the Civil War to Fort Wilkins State Park.

No one actually died Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and the United States was in no danger of being split asunder. But the 30-odd Battery D reenactors from throughout Michigan who gathered for the battery’s 30th annual Fort Wilkins encampment cooked, slept, dressed, worked and trained for war using only those amenities available in the 1860s, and they shared that experience with visitors to the reenactment.

Larry Smith, a reenactment soldier from Davison, Michigan, said he had ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War. For him, reenactment was about honoring their memory, and sharing their history.

“I’ve been doing this nine years,” he said. “I like the history, and the ability to touch base with other people who don’t know about the past.”

For the record, Fort Wilkins reopened as an active military base shortly after the war, and many Civil War veterans served out the remainder of their enlistments there, just as the Keweenaw was experiencing its first copper mining boom.

Along with watching the reenactors go about their daily chores, visitors to the fort were also treated to several scheduled performances each day, including military drills, a fashion presentation, a demonstration of 1860s surgery, and what one regular cited as the most popular demonstration, the periodic firing of the battery’s four cannons over Lake Fanny Hooe.

Those cannons were brutally effective during the war, noted Major Jim Newkirk, who founded and leads the battery. Military formations at the time emphasized tight, closed ranks, and when a single shotgun-style cannon blast blew a 40-yard hole in a military formation, other troops were expected to fill the gap and present a fresh target.

“The Civil War was the last civilized war, and the first modern war,” he said. “We got really good at killing our fellow Americans.”

During Dr. Bandit’s Medicine show, Bill George, a Cadillac doctor in modern life as well, brought a 120-pound arm wrestling champ, an addled infantry officer, and a fake Indian chief on stage to demonstrate the power of his snake oil elixir, winning plenty of laughter from the audience before being arrested by infantrymen as a shyster.

There was also a period wedding Saturday morning, but there was something a little bit different about the wedding. The bride and groom were reenactors, but while the cannons may have fired blanks, the wedding was decidedly real, uniting Calumet’s Nick Lambert with the former Virginia Ruona.

Lambert, the civilian Nick the Taylor in his reenactment persona, and a sewing machine sales and repairman in real life, learned just how real in the months leading up to the wedding, when he sewed period outfits for each member of the wedding party.

Virginia Lambert, nee Ruona, said she’d first met her husband at the Fort Wilkins reenactment two years ago, and was immediately impressed with his dashing sense of historical style.

“I saw him in his reenactment outfit and thought he was the most handsome man ever,” she said. “I thought any man who was doing this kind of thing had to be a good man.”

Barb Wachowski works for the Fort Wilkins Natural History Association, which uses proceeds from a gift shop at the park to sponsor the reenactment and other events.

She said she looks forward to the shooting of the cannons each year, and believes this is the first year there’s been a wedding as part of the festivities.

Wachowski said the goal of the sponsorship is to bring living history to the park and create a “real” historical experience for the visitors. Battery D makes that happen, she said, and visitors she’s talked to are stunned by the experience.

“Everybody that comes in can’t believe what it was like,” she said.