What Did Soldiers Wear Under Their Uniforms?

Soldiers of the 23rd Infantry using a net to catch fish in the Devil’s River in Texas in 1898. Most of the men are wearing their blue shirts, but the second soldier from the left appears to be wearing his undershirt. The men wearing light-colored pants could just be wearing their drawers into the river, but they might also be the white trousers authorized for summer wear in 1888.

   If you’ve visited Fort Mackinac, you’ve probably seen our historical interpreters performing demonstrations and leading tours while wearing the uniforms of the U.S. Army of the 1880s. We strive to have accurate reproductions, but what did the historic soldiers of Fort Mackinac wear under their uniforms?

Soldiers of Company K of the 23rd Infantry relax inside the barracks in the 1880s. The card-playing soldier at left, wearing the straw hat, may also be wearing his gray undershirt.

   The British and early American soldiers on Mackinac Island probably wore a single piece of underwear in the form of a long-sleeved linen shirt. The shirts usually reached almost to the knees, allowing the soldiers to wrap them around their upper legs and groin. Shirts were changed and laundered regularly, as having clean linen against the skin was considered essential to staying healthy. By the 1880s, the American army provided considerably more complex undergarments, which could be mixed and matched in layers depending on the climate and a soldier’s needs. By the mid-1870s, soldiers were regularly issued drawers to wear beneath their uniform trousers. Made of unbleached flannel, the drawers issued by the mid-1880s had a reinforced crotch and a full-cut seat, and closed with two metal buttons in front as well as buttons to close the ankle cuffs. Beginning in 1881, soldiers also received an undershirt to wear against their skin. Made of a 50/50 blend of fleece wool and cotton, the gray pullover shirts had knit cuffs to ensure a snug fit around the wrists. Soldiers received three undershirts as part of their yearly uniform allowance, but they often complained that the shirts were too hot and heavy, especially for men stationed in the south or the deserts of the southwest. Soldiers also began receiving blue flannel shirts, worn over the undershirt, in 1881. After receiving feedback (meaning complaints) from soldiers about the 1881 shirts, the Quartermaster Department issued a new design in 1882, and again in 1883. The 1883 model shirts were cut in much the same way as the undress blouse, with a falling collar and fitted cuffs. These shirts featured three black rubber buttons at the throat and down the front placket, which extended to mid-chest. The shirts also included two breast pockets, each with a single black rubber button for closure. The army always intended for these shirts to be worn as outerwear in hot climates, and soldiers were issued three every year.

Soldiers of the 23rd Infantry police the grounds near the East Blockhouse in the 1880s. The two men standing at right are wearing their blue flannel shirts. The
man standing at center, sideways to the camera, may also be wearing his gray undershirt- note his forearm.

   By layering these garments as needed, soldiers could somewhat adapt to changing weather and keep a ready supply of clean undergarments on hand. Although it’s not something that visitors to Fort Mackinac ever see (and would have only rarely seen back in the 1880s), these pieces of underwear were critical to creating the look of the U.S. Army in the late 19th century. Be sure to ask the interpreters about their uniforms next time you visit Fort Mackinac, and don’t forget to check out Mackinac Associates, which helps fund the purchase of uniforms and other supplies every year. Also, if you’re interested in seeing more images of army life in the 1880s, this summer Mackinac State Historic Parks is pleased to offer a new book featuring over 120 images collected by a Fort Mackinac officer: Through an Officer’s Eyes: The Photo Album of Edward B. Pratt, U.S. Army 1873-1902. The three images illustrating this post all come from the book, which will be available in our visitor’s centers and museum stores.

African American Soldiers and Fort Mackinac Officers

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger, accompanied by 2,000 federal troops, read out General Order No. 3 to the residents of Galveston, Texas. Gordon and his troops were part of the federal forces occupying the defeated states of the defunct Confederacy. The order informed the people of Texas that all formerly enslaved African Americans were free, and although American slavery would not be completely abolished until the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 18, 1865, June 19th is now celebrated as Juneteenth, marking a significant episode in the defeat of slavery in the United States.

William Manning

   While General Granger was reading General Order No. 3, two future Fort Mackinac officers were also on occupation duty in the south. William Manning and future post commander Greenleaf Goodale were both stationed in Louisiana in the summer of 1865. Goodale served as a captain with the 77th Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops, while Manning acted as major to the 103rd Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops. Both units were comprised of African American enlisted men, some of them formerly enslaved. Manning had served alongside African American soldiers since 1863, when he accepted a lieutenant’s post with the 35th Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops. The regiment saw heavy fighting at the Battle of Olustee in Florida in 1864. During a fierce rearguard action, the soldiers of the 35th, along with African American members of the well-known 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, helped repel Confederate cavalry attacks. Manning was severely wounded in the battle, and transferred to the 103rd Regiment.

Greenleaf Goodale

   By the time Goodale and Manning served at Fort Mackinac with the 23rd Infantry in the 1880s, the U.S. Army had shrunk considerably, with far fewer units than had existed during the war. African American soldiers were still forced to serve in segregated regiments with white officers. None of these segregated units, the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments and the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, served at Fort Mackinac. However, Goodale and Manning both carried the experiences they gained (and for Manning, the wounds he sustained) serving alongside African American troops during the war for the rest of their careers. The American military remained officially segregated, with African American officers and soldiers serving in separate units, until 1948.

   Today, as Juneteenth celebrations mark a victory over the system of American enslavement, we hope that you’ll reflect on the legacies of slavery and the service of African Americans during the Civil War. If you would like to learn more about Goodale, Manning, and their experiences during the war, two of Mackinac State Historic Parks’ recent publications, The Soldier’s of Fort Mackinac: An Illustrated History and Through an Officer’s Eyes: The Photo Album of Edward B. Pratt, U.S. Army 1873-1902 discuss these and many other officers’ careers. Fort Mackinac has officially opened for the season, so we hope that you will join us soon to hear more about how the Civil War shaped the lives of the men of the 23rd Infantry in the 1880s.

Mackinac Island Airport Archaeology

Refuse revealed by the stripping of the runway.

In September 2011 all of the pavement at the Mackinac Island Airport was removed prior to the regrading and relocation of the runway to correct sinkholes and a hump in the runway. The airport was originally established in 1934. Maps from 1902 and 1913 show that the area was used as a dump. The stripping and regrading exposed and removed several areas of refuse.


When examining a dump archaeologically, it is not productive to try to salvage, or even record, every object. Instead the goal is to sample enough artifacts that can be dated to determine the timeframe in which the dump was used. In this case these artifacts were primarily ceramics and glass. In general, the glass suggested a date of the first two decades of the twentieth century, matching the maps. The ceramics skewed slightly earlier, probably because they have a longer use life before being discarded.


Example from Grand Hotel when operated by Planter’s (1900-1918).


Over four hundred ceramic sherds were collected, including fragments of earthenware, stoneware, porcelain and lots of hotel ironstone vessels. Marked examples from Grand Hotel when operated by John Oliver Plank (1887-1889) and Planter’s (1900-1918) were recovered. Other forms collected include marmalade and mustard containers, a candlestick, matchstick holders, porcelain doorknobs, architectural tile, and electric insulators.


Three hundred fifty-six bottles and other identifiable pieces of glass were recovered. These included wine, liquor, beer, mineral water, grape juice and other beverage bottles. Six Michigan breweries were represented: Detroit Brewing Company, Goebel Brewing Company, Koppitz-Melchers Brewing Company and Stroh Brewing Company, all of Detroit, as well as the Grand Rapids Brewing Company and Soo Brewing Company. Other consumer goods included condiments, salad dressing, capers, olives, prescription and over-the-counter medicines, skin cream, perfume, ink, and a variety of cleaning products. These products came from across the Atlantic Ocean and as close as Bogan’s pharmacy on Mackinac Island.

Part of an oil lamp.

Bottle from Bogan’s Pharmacy.

Electricity came to Mackinac Island in 1911. This dump spanned the transition. Both lightbulbs and oil lamp parts were recovered.

Fire extinguisher.

Metal artifacts are much harder to recognize from just a fragment. In addition to lamp parts, cooking utensils, buckles, horseshoes, and enamelware vessels were recovered. Some of the more obvious and interesting metal artifacts included a fire extinguisher and part of a push lawn mower.

Push mower.

A Model 1884 Springfield Rifle

The .45-70 Springfield Rifle.

The Buffington sight. A second adjustment screw (not visible) swiveled the entire sight left or right.

During the summer months, visitors to Fort Mackinac are able to see a real piece of history in action every single day. Historical interpreters representing soldiers from the 23rd Regiment of Infantry perform rifle firing and drill demonstrations throughout the day. The weapons they carry, the .45-70 Springfield rifle, are all 19th century originals, making them at least 130 years old. Let’s take a closer look at one of these fascinating weapons.

 

Introduced in 1873, the .45-70 remained the standard issue arm of the American army for 20 years. A single-shot weapon, the rifle derived its name from the cartridge it fired: a .45 caliber bullet propelled by 70 grains of black powder. Over the course of its service life, the army refined the rifle several times, making almost yearly changes to the design to reflect the realities of daily use and at the suggestion of officers and enlisted men. Only rarely did these design changes cumulatively result in the designation of a new model, but in 1884 the army approved a “new” design incorporating improved features.

 

The improved cleaning rod, with tapered button tip.

Note the knurling on the trigger and on the hammer.

This Model 1884 displays many of these design elements. The two most prominent “new” features are the sight and the cleaning rod. The sight, designed by Lt. Col. A.R. Buffington of the Ordnance Department, includes a leaf that can be flipped up and adjusted to sight the weapon at ranges up to 1,400 yards. It also includes an adjustment screw to compensate for windage- by turning it, the entire vertical leaf swivels right or left. The cleaning rod, meanwhile, incorporates the flared button head adopted in 1879 and put into widespread production in 1882. The breechblock is stamped U.S. MODEL 1884, although in reality these stamps were not added to new rifles until 1886, and weapons marked this way did not enter widespread service until 1887. The rest of the rifle incorporates several other design improvements adopted over the years, such as knurling on the trigger and hammer, which was intended to improve a soldier’s fingertip grip on these critical pieces.

 

The star symbol stamped next to the serial number (it looks like a flower) indicates that this rifle was probably rebuilt at an arsenal at some point.

The rifle’s breech in the open position. When opened after firing, the weapon automatically ejected the spent cartridge, allowing a soldier to quickly reload.

This particular rifle has a serial number in the 141000 range, indicating that it was probably originally produced in 1879 or 1880. How, then, can it incorporate features only authorized in 1884, and not actually put into service for a few more years? The small five-pointed star or flower next to the serial number most likely indicates that this weapon is an arsenal rebuilt. In 1879 the Springfield Armory began collecting older .45-70 rifles and using some of the parts to build new weapons, which were held in reserve or eventually issued to various state units (the forerunners to the National Guard). Furthermore, since the rifles were built using entirely interchangeable parts, after the weapons left frontline military service and entered the civilian market (which many did- they are still relatively easy for collectors to obtain) it was simple for gun brokers and owners to cobble together “new” weapons with a mixture of parts from different model years.

 

In any case, this rifle, and the others in daily use at Fort Mackinac, are truly history that you can see, smell, hear, and touch. Our interpreters carry rifles of both the 1873 and 1884 models, with many of the small variations added each year. We even have a few rifles equipped with ramrod bayonets, an experimental design attempted on three different occasions in the 1880s. These weapons had a small, sharpened metal dowel mounted under the barrel in lieu of a cleaning rod in an effort to eliminate the need for soldiers to carry a separate bayonet and scabbard. Historically, one of the two companies of the 23rd Infantry stationed at Fort Mackinac from 1884 to 1890 were issued the experimental ramrod bayonet rifles for evaluation. When you visit us at Fort Mackinac, be sure to ask the interpreters about their rifles- they’re a fascinating link to the past!

Mackinac Parks: 125

Mackinac State Historic Parks turns 125 years old in 2020. Established in 1895 when the federal government shuttered the country’s second national park, Mackinac National Park, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission has pursued the important mission of protecting, preserving and presenting Mackinac’s natural and historic wonders. Today, Mackinac State Historic Parks is a family of living history museums and nature parks located in Mackinaw City and on Mackinac Island. (more…)

2019 Collections Acquisitions

German made souvenir porcelain china.

In 2019, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission accessioned 188 gifts and 107 purchases to the historic object and archival collection. The park purchased or was gifted several large collections of souvenirs, paintings, glassware and postcards. Some of the interesting items were a large collection of souvenirs, paintings and other items related to Mackinac Island purchased from a long-time collector. Several black and white press photographs and an invoice from the business of an islander was acquired. Donations included the engine room plate from a Straits of Mackinac shipwreck, several pieces of Kriesche glassware and photographs and archival material belonging to a former Mackinac Island State Park Commissioner. (more…)

America’s 19th Century Christmas Traditions: A Connection Between the Past and Present

Many of the Christmas holiday traditions Americans honor in the early 21st century were shaped in the 19th century as this image from an issue of Harper’s Weekly in January 1869 reflects.

Christmas in the United States is not only a federal holiday but arguably the most celebrated holiday in the country, as evidenced by more retail and holiday decoration sales devoted to it than any other holiday during the year. However America’s celebration of this holiday has not always been universal and indeed, its traditions as celebrated in the United States are much more recent than most Americans likely are aware of, with most present day variations of American holiday traditions descended from the 19th century Victorian era. This was also the main time period Fort Mackinac was in active use as a military garrison and this heritage of holiday traditions is also reflected in the history of the fort and local inhabitants. (more…)

Support Mackinac Associates on Giving Tuesday

Mackinac Associates’ mission is simple and encompassing: Friends Preserving and Sharing Mackinac’s Heritage.

Mackinac Associates is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that supports programs at Mackinac State Historic Parks through membership dues and other gifts. Mackinac Associates has supported needed projects in every area of museum operation, and make possible interpretive programs, publications, exhibits, natural history education, park improvements and more. (more…)

The Company of Fort Mackinac Descendants

Fort Mackinac ca. late 1890s

Genealogy, the study and tracing of one’s lines of descent or ancestry, has become increasingly popular in recent years. Document-rich sites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and MyHeritage.com, contain billions of records that help individuals discover their family roots. The resources created to serve genealogists are extremely useful to professional historians looking to learn more about the human history of their fields of research.  In writing The Soldiers of Fort Mackinac, An Illustrated History, Phil Porter, Mackinac State Historic Parks Director, spent countless hours on Ancestry.com looking for information about the men who served at the island fort.   (more…)

Huron Road Rest Area

The structure in November, 2019.

Progress is moving forward on the Huron Road Rest Area. Mackinac State Historic Parks identified the long-standing need for an easily accessible public restroom and rest area within in the state park. Located behind Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, the rest area consists of a 30 ft by 44 ft pavilion. Construction began in December 2018 and will be completed this upcoming spring. The state park maintenance crew is currently evaluating winter usage with the intention of having the pavilion open to the public year-round. The Huron Road Rest Area will be a great spot for guests to relax and enjoy their time within Mackinac State Historic Parks.

Guests will be able to rent the pavilion for events as well. The pavilion will serve as the perfect host for private events, wedding receptions and more. Contact our Special Events Coordinator, Cassie Boothroyd at boothroydc@michigan.gov or (231) 436-4100 for more information.

The rest area is located east of Fort Mackinac, across Huron Road from the Scout Barracks.

Mackinac State Historic Parks protects, preserves and presents Mackinac’s rich historic and natural resources to provide outstanding educational and recreational experiences for the public.