A historic black and white photo showing a large white building known as the Fort Mackinac Post Hospital with three cannons in the foreground.

The Hospital Corps at Fort Mackinac

For much of the United States’ history, military medicine was the responsibility of a few surgeons. These Post Surgeons would be stationed at forts and posts nationwide. They would travel with campaigning regiments across the country, often with limited supplies and help. These men often held commissions as officers in the army or were given civilian appointments when an army surgeon wasn’t available, as was often the case in Fort Mackinac’s history. Different forts posed different challenges to surgeons depending on the climate of the fort or the condition of the fort buildings and waste systems. This situation would change dramatically during times of war, as the risk of disease and injury increased significantly with a much greater number of soldiers interacting with one another even outside the chaos of combat.

A historic black and white photo showing a large white building known as the Fort Mackinac Post Hospital with three cannons in the foreground.

Fort Mackinac’s 1860 Post Hospital prior to 1887.

 During the Civil War, army surgeons could depend on a complex web of volunteer and charity organizations supplying them with volunteer civilian doctors and nurses (both men and women) to cater to the army’s needs. Both sides would implement formal and informal groups of soldiers to assist in transferring the wounded off the front lines to field hospitals and administering early wound treatment. While many new medical “firsts” can be exhibited during the Civil War in surgery, treatment, and staffing, many of the systems about medical staff went away after the war. Following the war, the army reduced in size, and all volunteer functions disappeared. The peacetime army of the 19th century was chronically under-size, underpaid, and poorly equipped, and the Medical Department faced the brunt of this problem.

A portrait of Charles Woodruff, Fort Mackinac's Assistant Post Surgeon, in 1895. The photo is black and white, and he has a beard and large mustache, and is wearing an overcoat with a large collar.

An 1895 photo of Charles Woodruff, who was the Assistant Post Surgeon at Fort Mackinac from 1887 – 1889.

 In the late 1860s, the army turned its attention west towards the Native Americans of the western plains. For the next 25 years, the army would engage in consistent fighting with several tribes in the final of the “Indian Wars” fought by the United States government against native peoples. This combat required soldiers to be mobile and often to go on campaigns to very remote parts of the country, where supplies for the army were minimal and the hope for help from civilian volunteers extremely slim. Surgeons found themselves to be the sole caretakers for 50-100 soldiers, with the only trained help they might rely on being an enlisted Hospital Steward. Hospital Stewards were specially trained enlisted men, acting more like pharmacists caring for medicine and supplies. This problem also became clear to many commanding officers in combat.

 Surgeons typically distanced themselves from the main line of fighting for their safety in battle. In the early stages, they might be seen closer, prepared to move wounded soldiers to the rear, but once casualties began to build up, the wounded soldiers would have to rely on the help of their fellow soldiers to move them to the rear. Commanding Officers found this to be a problem: now, instead of losing one combat-capable soldier, they were losing one to three capable men who should be fighting. Even having a handful of wounded soldiers could seriously inhibit a company, which was often barely at its capacity of 54 men.

A black and white photo from 1892 showing the undress uniform of the Hospital Corps.

Model of Hospital Corps undress uniform, from The Report of the Surgeon General, 1892

 Various Surgeon Generals in the early 1880s began advocating for an established group of specially trained soldiers to attend to the soldiers in both combat and garrison situations. On August 11th, 1887, Commanding General Philip Sheridan issued General Order 56, establishing a Hospital Corps. This Hospital Corp included Surgeons, Hospital Stewards, and Privates. Privates were a new addition to the Medical Department. Privates serve directly as assistants to the Hospital Stewards and Surgeons in Garrisons and, in battle, would operate an ambulance and provide care to wounded soldiers. General Order 56 also mandated four soldiers in each company to be “company bearers.” These four men were to be trained regularly on wound treatment and litter bearing and, in an emergency, would help the Hospital Corps.

 By November 1887, three privates of the Hospital Corps were stationed at Fort Mackinac, most having transferred directly from the companies already stationed at Fort Mackinac on the recommendation of Assistant Post Surgeon Charles Woodruff. These soldiers would attend division-wide encampments and training, the Corps soon proving themselves to be a valuable and effective part of the army. At Fort Mackinac these men would work regularly in the Post Hospital with sick and injured soldiers and would assist in the training of the company bearers. The Medical Department hoped that by training regular infantry soldiers to be company bearers they could create a consistent recruitment path into the Hospital Corps. Unfortunately, the Hospital Corps was consistently under staffed due to poor pay and negative feelings many soldiers had towards hospital work.

A black and white photo with men in military uniforms posing by three large cannons at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island.

Hospital Corps Privates posing by cannons on the upper gun platform with fellow soldiers at Fort Mackinac, late 1880s or early 1890s.

 While the Hospital Corps only came into being toward the very end of Fort Mackinac’s time as an active military post, it demonstrates another way Fort Mackinac experienced the changing times of the army. The creation of the Hospital Corps marks a leap forward in military medicine, both in the chaos of the battlefield and the comforts of an army fort. Join us this summer at Fort Mackinac for our new “Medicine at Mackinac” Program. There you can learn more about how medicine was changing and the impact on Fort Mackinac.

Memorial Day at Fort Mackinac

  It’s a crisp morning in late May. Members of the 23rd Regiment at Fort Mackinac assemble on the parade ground in their dress uniforms and begin the slow, somber march out of the North Sally Port at Fort Mackinac and head toward the Post Cemetery. They’re joined by civilians for the walk to the ceremony.

  Upon arrival at the Post Cemetery, short remarks are made, the soldiers fire a salute, and “Taps” is played. If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought you’ve stepped back in time to the 1880s, but this exact scenario will play out at Fort Mackinac and the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery this Memorial Day as a way to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers who served at Fort Mackinac. 

  It is a tradition Mackinac State Historic Parks has done for more than 20 years – recreating the Decoration Day, or Memorial Day, ceremony that soldiers had historically done at Fort Mackinac. In 1883, Captain Edwin Sellers suspended duty at Fort Mackinac and held the first Decoration Day ceremony.

Captain Edwin Sellers

  Some additional background on Sellers: he was commissioned second lieutenant, 10th infantry, in October 1861 during the Civil War. He was engaged in multiple battles, including Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, and received three brevet promotions for “gallant and meritorious service” during the war. He took command of Fort Mackinac in 1879, and lived with his wife, Olive, and four sons in the commanding officer’s house west of the fort.

  While he instituted Decoration Day at Fort Mackinac in 1883, it was, unfortunately, the only one he lived to see. One year later he was buried at the Post Cemetery after a brief and sudden bout of pneumonia.

  On this Memorial Day, costumed interpreters will lead attendees from Fort Mackinac to the Post Cemetery and perform a short ceremony and salute, just as the soldiers did in 1883. Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Steve Brisson will speak at the ceremony while interpreters lay a wreath on Sellers’ grave. Afterwards, soldiers will fire a rifle salute followed by “Taps” played by a bugler. Afterwards, the procession will march back to Fort Mackinac.

  The program begins at 8:30 a.m. and will conclude by 9:00 a.m. It’s a free event. Events such as this are sponsored, in part, by Mackinac Associates, friends preserving and sharing Mackinac’s history. More information on the event can be found here.

Agriculture at Mill Creek

Watching the sawmill operate is one of the highlights of a visit to Historic Mill Creek. Seeing the original grist mill stones reunited in the American Millwright’s House is the result of good historical detective work. However, milling was the not the only enterprise at Mill Creek.

   According to the original land claim by Robert Campbell’s heirs, the property was “commonly known by the name of Campbell’s farm.” Among the improvements listed on Private Claim 334 were a house, a grist and sawmill, at least 40 cultivated acres, a large orchard and valuable buildings.

   Michael Dousman purchased the property in 1819. He was a large landowner, with additional property on Mackinac and Bois Blanc islands. He held lucrative contracts to supply Fort Mackinac with beef and hay, which he supplied from these farms. The gristmill closed by 1839, and the sawmill was moved to Cheboygan in the mid-1840s.

Historic Mill Creek Archaeology Map

   After Dousman’s death in 1854, Jacob A.T. Wendell of Mackinac Island bought the property. In 1867 Putman’s Magazine published a story about an unsuccessful trout fishing expedition to Mill Creek. It stated, “there had formerly been a cleared spot of land about the mill, but it was fast growing up again.”

   Also shortly after the Civil War, a man named Young, a tenant of Wendell, built a house at the foot of the Mill Creek bluff and engaged in the manufacture of lime. After two years he moved on to other pursuits. At that point Wendell arranged with Charles Bennett to move into the house and see that no one trespassed on the private claim. In 1916 Angeline Bennett, Charles’s widow, testified in an affidavit that they had “lived upon and occupied said property for upwards of fifty years.” One of their descendants visited Historic Mill Creek in 1993 and remembered a farm on the bluff and apple trees.

   The Wendell family sold the property to the Petoskey Mackinaw Lime Company in about 1902, but apparently the Bennetts continued living there until the house, which Angeline described as “at the foot of the bluff where the quarry is now located,” burned down in 1911. The Petoskey Mackinaw Lime Company mined limestone and clay for road building into the 1920s before letting the land tax revert to the State of Michigan.

Barn Area at Mill Creek.

   Is there any evidence of this agricultural activity visible at Historic Mill Creek today? Old apple trees are still scattered among the reconstructed buildings near the creek. Faint traces of two structures are visible across the path from the sawpit at the foot of the hill. They are most visible in the spring before the foliage comes out and in late fall when everything has died back again. Mapping and limited archaeological testing was carried out in 1988.

   The first foundation is a large rectangle, seventy-one feet long by twenty feet wide, with twenty-foot door gaps in the long north and south walls. This would seem most likely to be a barn. Nineteenth- century artifacts, including red transfer-printed ceramic sherds and a metal plate from an instrument case dated 1873, were found here.

Silo area.

   The second ruin is circular, and so has been interpreted as a silo. It is about thirteen feet in diameter. It did not contain as many artifacts, only some late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century bottles and tin cans. There was evidence for a thin wood floor about two feet below the ground surface.

   Larger scale excavation at both structures in the future may reveal more about this interesting facet of life at Mill Creek.

Fort Mackinac: A Century of Military Service to the Country

Veteran’s Day is the Federal holiday which encourages Americans to take a moment to reflect upon and honor the sacrifices of every generation of Americans that have served the country in the Armed Forces from its inception to the present. The holiday originated as a proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 to commemorate the cease fire which signaled the end of the “war to end all wars,” World War I, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month as Armistice Day. In the words of President Wilson, “the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…” This serves as a powerful  description of what the holiday today known as Veteran’s Day is intended to reflect in commemoration of those who have served the country and it’s ideals in the military not only during WWI but over the course of the nation’s entire history. (more…)

Recent Archaeology on Mackinac Island

Recent Archaeology on Mackinac Island

One of the construction projects Mackinac State Historic Parks is currently undertaking on Mackinac Island is a new public restroom shelter located behind Fort Mackinac across Huron Road from the Scout Barracks. The trenches for the building footing, and electrical, water and sewer services were excavated last fall. Because there were buildings associated with the fort in this area in the mid-nineteenth century, archaeological monitoring of these excavations took place.

Plan of Fort Mackinac in 1890

View of structures east of the fort, from left to right: Coal house and shed, Carpenter shop, Morgue; then rear: Post Hospital; center, left to right: Privies, East Blockhouse; front: Bakery

Fort Mackinac was in a constant state of construction and repair throughout its existence. The military complex included many buildings located outside the fortification walls. Some of these, such as the officers’ quarters, post hospital, and barn are still standing today. Two buildings were in the vicinity of the project area, the carpenter shop, and the coal house and shed, which were one structure. The carpenter shop was constructed around the time of the Civil War. The coal house and shed were constructed around 1879. All were demolished in 1913. (more…)

Grand Army of the Republic, Post No. 289

Grand Army of the Republic, Post No. 289

The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the United States Army, U.S. Navy, Marines and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service who served in the American Civil War. Founded in 1866 it grew to include hundreds of local posts. The G.A.R. served as a political advocacy group for various causes including establishing regular pensions and helping to make Memorial Day a national holiday. Membership peaked in 1890 at more than 490,000. The G.A.R. was dissolved in 1956 at the death of its last member. (more…)

Treasures from the Collection

Treasures from the Collection

Today we begin a new feature highlighting important objects in the museum collection of Mackinac State Historic Parks. The items presented here belonged to the O’Brien’s of Fort Mackinac. The O’Brien collection also includes John and Charlotte’s letters (the basis for our book The Caplain’s Lady), John’s sermons, and letters to John from his son, Lyster, while he served in the Civil War.  (more…)

Mill Creek – What Happened Next?

Mill Creek – What Happened Next?

The earliest known photograph of the Mill Creek site, taken in about 1915. The bridge carries the state highway across the stream and the lake would be to the back of the photographer. The “MC” markings are noting the location of the Michigan Central railroad. The bluff at left center is where today’s overlook is.

Visitors to Historic Mill Creek learn about the Campbell and Dousman families and their employees operating the saw and grist mills and farm at the site. What happened next? (more…)

A Peek Into The Past: The Pratt Photo Album

A Peek Into The Past: The Pratt Photo Album

Companies E and K, 23rd Infantry, at Fort Mackinac, 1886

Mackinac State Historic Parks is fortunate to have an ever-expanding collection of original objects related to the sites we preserve and interpret. These objects help us share the many stories of Mackinac with our visitors. One of the more unique pieces in the collection is an original photo album and scrapbook assembled by Edward Pratt, a U.S. Army officer who served at Fort Mackinac and several other stations around the world at the end of the 19th century. (more…)

Artillery at Fort Mackinac

Artillery at Fort Mackinac

Small bronze mortars, which fired explosive shells in a high arc, also made up part of Fort Mackinac’s early defenses.

Small bronze mortars, which fired explosive shells in a high arc, also made up part of Fort Mackinac’s early defenses.

Artillery pieces always played a vital role at Fort Mackinac. Although their functions changed over time, these weapons were an important feature of the garrison for every soldier who served at the post from 1779 to 1895. (more…)