Fort Mackinac soldiers clearing a path in front of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s.

Winter for the Soldiers at Fort Mackinac

 Wintering on Mackinac Island has always been a desolate and isolated affair. For much of its history, many well-off merchants, fur traders, and other entrepreneurs would leave the island during the winter months. The soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac though did not have this luxury and found ways to sustain themselves during those harsh months. Soldiers kept busy through various trainings and responsibilities but were often left with the harsh reality of winter in Northern Michigan. Looking at the men of the 23rd United States Infantry, companies E and K, we can see how the soldiers and the army tried to adapt to their Mackinac Island home as winter resources slowly improved.

Fort Mackinac soldiers clearing a path in front of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s.

Soldiers at Fort Mackinac clearing path in Post Garden, 1880s.

 The daily routine of Fort Mackinac changed as the days got colder. In November of 1887, Captain Greenleaf Goodale issued General Order 97, moving the first assembly of the day from 6:00 am to 6:30 am. In this same General Order, less time was allocated towards drill, and more time for fatigue duty for clearing paths, chopping firewood, and general maintenance. The high snow fall on the island could make company and battalion level drill almost impossible, and subsequent orders show a greater focus on smaller scale drills, like signal drill, school instruction, and litter-bearing for the post hospital. The garrison still conducted bi-monthly musters but these were often moved indoors in order to compensate for winter weather. In order to make up for this lack of consistent and high-quality drill, Captain Goodale directed the garrison to conduct regular battalion and company drill as soon as the weather turned warm again. He also assigned recruits to drills created especially for them to make up for lost time in winter.

Plans for a shooting range, gallery and gymnasium from 1889.

Plans for the Shooting Gallery, Drill Room and Gymnasium, which would never be constructed, 1889.

 Throughout the 1880s, the United States Army put a large focus on marksmanship skills. This program required soldiers to visit a rifle range at least twice a week over the four-month training season. Outside of the season soldiers were expected to take indoor practice, called Gallery Practice. Soldiers used 7-10 grains of black powder with modified rounded bullets (much different than the 70 grains of black powder and conical shaped bullets soldiers typically used) and shot at small, metal plates, over 30 to 50 feet. The main purpose of this practice was to improve the soldier’s trigger discipline and aiming skills. Fort Mackinac received a grant from the Army in 1887 to buy targets and lease the island’s ice rink, though it seems the soldiers never used the ice rink and stuck to practicing in the Post Barracks. Gallery Practice seems to have been one of the more effective trainings the soldiers conducted during the wintertime, as is reflected in the high number of Marksman and Sharpshooter designations earned at Fort Mackinac.

 Not only were prescribed drills and trainings inhibited by winter weather, but also the kinds of free time activities the men could enjoy. This became a concern amongst the command staff at Fort Mackinac, as the soldiers not only spent much of their time drinking but also getting out of shape. The snow made it impossible for sports like baseball to be played. The healthiest activities for soldiers to participate in were, as Assistant Surgeon C. E. Woodruff wrote, “those sports requiring expensive apparatus, as snows-shoes and toboggans.” Both Woodruff and Captain William C. Manning recommended building a gymnasium and drill hall on the Fort grounds, but these plans were ultimately denied.

The John Jacob Astor Hotel on Market Street, 1885.

The John Jacob Astor Hotel on Market Street, ca. 1885

 In their loneliness, soldiers drinking downtown risked embarrassing accidents. According to the Cheboygan Democrat, soldiers started their own “social club” in the Astor Hotel in December of 1887. Soldiers could often get a pass to go downtown to one of the saloons, leaving the army vulnerable to embarrassing drunken antics by the men. Luckily, the Army had already been looking to reduce this risk by creating “Post Canteens.” There soldiers could drink and socialize within the walls of their station under the watchful eye of their offices, served by a bartender who had to follow the Army’s regulations. In the winter of 1889, soldiers of Fort Mackinac converted the old wood quarters into a post canteen. This post canteen reduced the public incidents of the soldiers, but it did nothing to relieve the heart of the problem.

 The isolated nature of the island still plagued the men. Soldier’s still lacked activities that kept them active throughout the winter, which not only hurt their personal health but also their skills as soldiers. Unfortunately, due to the nature of Fort Mackinac’s military importance, they did not see the improvements some other stations would during this time. The soldiers of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s  had to do as many of their predecessors had, stay as warm as possible, and wait for the warm and beautiful return of summer on the Straits of Mackinac.

A Fort Mackinac cannon in winter.
Fort Mackinac’s Marksman

Fort Mackinac’s Marksman

By the 1880s, Fort Mackinac had little military value, instead serving primarily as the headquarters of the Mackinac National Park. However, the fort’s garrison still practiced critical military skills such as marksmanship, and the detachment of the 23rd Infantry stationed at Mackinac ultimately produced some of the finest sharpshooters in the entire U.S. Army. (more…)