Michigan State Troops at Mackinac, 1888

Drill was a regular feature of daily life for the soldiers of the 23rd Infantry posted at Fort Mackinac in the 1880s. Like American soldiers across the country, they spent several hours every week at drill, target practice, and other exercises to hone their skills. However, the small American army of the 1880s was widely dispersed at isolated posts, meaning that soldiers rarely had the opportunity to practice large-scale maneuvers or tactics. To provide the soldiers with a taste of regular campaigning, through the 1880s the 23rd Regiment partnered with the Michigan State Troops (a forerunner to the Michigan National Guard) to host summer training camps. In 1888, the Michigan State Troops elected to hold the annual encampment on Mackinac Island.

Fort Mackinac during a summer encampment- note the tents in the distance, pitched on the government pasture.

  Since over 1,000 men belonged to the brigade of the Michigan State Troops, they visited Mackinac in two waves. The 2nd and 4th Regiments came to the island July 12-16, while the 1st and 3rd Regiments arrived on July 19 and departed on July 24. Additionally, Colonel Henry Black, commanding officer of the 23rd Infantry, brought two more companies of regulars and the regimental band from Fort Wayne in Detroit. Alongside the men of Companies E and K stationed at Fort Mackinac, these professional soldiers of the 23rd were expected to teach the part-time troops of the Michigan State forces by example. All of the visiting soldiers set up camp on the government pasture, now the Grand Hotel golf course, and named their small tent city Camp Luce after Governor Cyrus Luce.

  For the most part the camp went smoothly, with the amateur and professional soldiers working alongside one another. The troops participated in a variety of large-scale drills, culminating in a sham battle staged for Governor Luce and Governor Richard Oglesby of Illinois on July 23. However, numerous reports from the Cheboygan Democrat newspaper, and some of the officers of the 23rd and the Michigan State Troops, make it clear that some of the men may have had a bit too much fun at Mackinac. On July 12 the Democrat shared the story of an MST soldier who, after drinking downtown, went back to camp

“but did not have the countersign, and was afraid of the guards. Finally a bright idea struck him. He went back downtown and secured two bottles of beer, and one under each arm proceeded back to camp. Soon he was halted by a sentry, and the following conversation ensued: ‘Halt! Who comes there?’ ‘A friend with two bottles of beer.’ ‘Advance, friend, and deliver up one bottle.’ The truant did so and passed into camp.”

Soldiers inside the fort.

  The summer nights were apparently quite cold for the men sleeping in tents in the pasture. On July 19, the Democrat reported that as the sentries called out “Two o’clock and all is well” one man “in a sober strong, foghorn voice,” yelled back “Two o’clock and colder than hell!” In the same issue, the Cheboygan reporter noted that Mackinac’s saloons were doing brisk business, with one taking in $218 in a single day. “Pandemonium reigned in the village and respectable ladies had to keep off the streets.” Later the same week the paper reported that a gang of soldiers boarded the yacht Julia in the harbor and “stole two marine glasses valued at $75, and even went so far as to climb the mast to steal the brass ball off the top mast head.” The same soldiers apparently “stole everything they could lay their hands on in the stores and elsewhere.” On July 26, the Democrat proudly related that at least some of the mischievous MST men met their match earlier in the week and “had a genuine experience in war in about one-hundredth of a second after they insulted a Cheboygander’s better half Monday. One had both eyes blacked, and the other had his bread basket kicked in, and the rest took to their heels.”

  Reflecting on the island camp, Colonel E.W. Irish of the 2nd Regiment of the MST advocated against returning to Mackinac. Given the hijinks reported by the Cheboygan Democrat, Irish’s assertion that “I fear the many attractions of the isle of ‘Fairy Legends’ necessarily interfere somewhat with the devotion to duty which ought to be expected of soldiers” seems to be a bit of an understatement. According to another Democrat report from July 12, the “dude soldiers with new uniforms and a pocketful of cash” from the state troops also caused friction with the regulars of the 23rd Regiment.

  In any case, the 1888 summer encampment was the first and last time the Michigan State Troops ventured to Mackinac. In 1889 they stayed in southern Michigan, going into camp at Gognac Lake, near Battle Creek (previous summer encampments were held at Island Lake near Brighton). The men of Companies E and K traveled south from Mackinac for the summer training period, this time joined by the entire 23rd Regiment. If you would like to learn more about the soldiers of the 23rd Infantry and the summer drills held on Mackinac Island, plan a visit to Fort Mackinac. Please also consider joining or making a donation to Mackinac Associates, who fund projects throughout Mackinac State Historic Parks’ museums.

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!

Mary Ella Cowles

Mary Ella Cowles

Mary Ella Cowles

Mary Ella Hitchcock was born in 1855 in Rochester, New York. At 18 years old, she, her younger sister Kate, and parents Charles and Eliza Hitchcock headed west. Her father had purchased a silver mine near Prescott, Arizona, but the family was caught in a snowstorm for several days. They retreated to Fort Verde on December 27, 1873 and were under the protection of the soldiers. Just days prior, a young lieutenant named Calvin Duvall Cowles had arrived at the post with the 23rd Infantry. He was soon smitten with Mary Ella and, within six months, they were married.

For the next ten years, the Cowles family lived at ten different posts. Twice Calvin left on campaigns, with Mary Ella caring for home and family. Their first child, Mary – called Toosie to avoid confusion with her mother Mary – was born in 1875. Sons Robert, William, Calvin, Jr., and Josiah followed. To reorganize a household on an annual basis, and move with young children and infants was hard on the family, especially Mary Ella.  It was also a struggle financially to move the family so often. Mary Ella was frustrated with the lack of amenities and help to care for their growing family.  (more…)