July 4 at Fort Mackinac

As we get ready to celebrate the 245th anniversary of the date the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress declaring independence from Great Britain, we thought we’d take a look back at some of the ways the historic soldiers and residents celebrated July 4 at Fort Mackinac by taking a peek at some of the various books published by Mackinac State Historic Parks.

Shooting matches were a popular July 4 activity. Here is the Fort Mackinac squad showing off a trophy won.

  From “A Desirable Station: Soldier Life at Fort Mackinac 1867-1895” by Phil Porter:

“The United States army had a special affinity for the Fourth of July. Fort Mackinac soldiers celebrated the holiday with a variety of ceremonial and recreational activities. A hand-picked squad fired the national salute – one round for each state of the Union – from the fort cannons at daybreak. In 1873 Captain Leslie Smith dispensed with the firing “in consequence of a serious illness of a prominent citizen…” but took the opportunity to have the Declaration of Independence read to his men. Soldiers spent the rest of the day playing games, relaxing in the park or joining civilians in village-sponsored activities. In 1886 soldiers ran foot races, squared off against Cheboygan in a rifle match, played baseball against the St. Ignace club and enjoyed a special dinner with desserts of peach and raspberry pie, cherries, strawberries and cream and ginger snaps.”

  The diary of Harold Dunbar Corbusier was published with the permission of the Corbusier family under the title “A Boy at Fort Mackinac.” Dunbar kept a diary of his time on the island as a ten-year old boy in 1883-1884, and again as a teenager when his family returned to Mackinac Island in 1892. He was on the island for July 4, 1883 and July 4, 1892. His diary is presented as he wrote it, including spelling and grammatical errors:

“July 4 (1883): It has been a pleasant day. They fired a sulute of thirty-eight guns at noon as we have had a very nice time today down town they had go-as-you-please races, walking maches, pony hurdle, row boat races, greased pole, tub races. Jumping matches. Mama Mrs. Sellers, Miss Duggan and Mr. Duggan went to the point on the Algomah.”

The Fort Mackinac ballfield in the late 19th century.

  For his entry on July 5, Corbusier notes they set off a great many fireworks the night before, but Claude (his brother) hurt his hand very badly.

“4th. July (1892): They had a few country races & other amussements (?) down in the village today besides these there has been no unusual excitement. The usual salute was fired from the fort & they had a pretty good ball game up there. The Fort Wayne nine played the Fort Mackinac. The score was 3 to 1 in favor of Fort Wayne. There was a hop at the Grand Hotel this evening. I dance twelve dances. I am beginning to waltz a little.”

  From “Reveille Till Taps: Soldier Life at Fort Mackinac 1780-1895” by Keith R. Widder:

“Part of the commemoration of Independence Day in some years included issues of extra whiskey. On such days, fatigue duties and most military activities came to a halt. Generally the cannon fired a salute to the United States in honor of her successful Revolution. In the 1880’s and 90’s, the garrison took part in elaborate ceremonies with people of the village or St. Ignace. Both communities sought the assistance of the garrison in their celebrations because the presence of men in uniform added much glamour.

“…A year earlier (1884) the garrison put together a rifle team of ten men and officers to challenge the Cheboygan Rifle Team. On July 4 most of the garrison went to Cheboygan to watch their team in action. Out of a possible score of 510, the Mackinac marksmen scored 401 to Cheboygan’s 385, thereby winning the silver cup selected as the prize.

“…On the same days that the rifle team beat back challenges of the Cheboygan shooters, Cheboygan’s “Diamond Baseball Club” took the field against the post squad. The fort won the first tame 17-10 and the twenty-five dollar prize.”

  We also know that on July 4, 1879, at the “National Park” on Mackinac Island, there was a “Free to all rowing regatta, one mile and return” as well as a picnic in the park at 11:00 a.m., a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and dancing on the platform at 3:00 p.m.

  This July 4 at Fort Mackinac we will do our best to recreate these Independence Days of old with “A Star Spangled Fourth of July.” The iconic fort Mackinac decked out in patriotic finery with banners, flags and bunting for the program beginning at 7:00 p.m.

  Featured will be a reading of the Declaration of Independence, patriotic toasts, the raising of the colors, and games on the parade ground including sack and foot races, games of catch, hoop and stick, and Jacob’s Ladder. Guests join the party and participate in games on the fort parade ground.

  After the toasts, the ‘fireworks’ begin. We will recreate the 38-gun salute, honoring the 1880s states of the union with rifle firings, followed by the finale of a cannon salute in honor of the holiday. Guests are then welcome to stay at Fort Mackinac, enjoying the buildings, galleries and views, and stick around for the fireworks from the cannon platform, Wood Quarters, or Stone Quarters.

  The Tea Room Restaurant, operated by Grand Hotel, will be open until 9:00 p.m. serving hot dogs and brats, chicken sandwiches, salads, sweets, and beverages, including beer and wine.

  All special programming is included with regular admission to Fort Mackinac ($13.50/adults, $8.00/child (5-12), and free for kids under 5). Guests who visit Fort Mackinac earlier in the day on the fourth are welcome to come back for the special event without having to purchase a new ticket.

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. Soldiers muffle their drums as they would for a funeral, and play a cadence. 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, May 31, 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.

Washington’s Birthday at Fort Mackinac

Washington’s Birthday at Fort Mackinac

Yesterday, February 18, many government offices were closed to celebrate the holiday most people know as Presidents’ Day. Many people believe this extra day off celebrates the birthdays of all presidents. However, while some state governments have designed February 18 as Presidents’ Day, in the eyes of the federal government the holiday remains Washington’s Birthday, a celebration that would have been familiar to the soldiers of Fort Mackinac over 120 years ago. (more…)