A black and white photo from 1890 showing the Fort Mackinac rifle range, with soldiers participating in a firing drill.

Army Marksmanship at Fort Mackinac

American history is full of stories and legends of soldiers and civilians skillfully using their muskets and rifles in the heat of battle or some other dramatic event. Tales of David Crocket, Daniel Boone, Annie Oakley, and the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord create an image that many people living on the North American continent in the 1800s would have been skilled with firearms. As far as these stories are true, they do not accurately represent most of the people living at that time. Most people in the United States had little to no experience with any long-range rifle shooting, and even basic skills with firearms were poor. Even amongst the United States Army ranks, very few soldiers participated in any significant target practice.

A black and white photograph of 1880s soldiers standing in a line with muskets and rifles in front of them.

Soldiers of the 23rd U.S. Infantry on the Parade ground at Fort Mackinac in the late 1880s.

 This lack of target practice was not neglectful. The technology and tactics at the time didn’t require soldiers to be skilled in long-range shooting. The army supplied soldiers with a smoothbore musket, which only had an effective range of 80 to 100 yards. As a result, armies had their soldiers lined up in big columns to create mass fire groups. While an individual soldier isn’t accurate, a large group of soldiers firing as a team is a much more effective force. These tactics were common around the world. Even after rifled muskets came into existence, which are more accurate than smoothbore muskets, many armies stuck to traditional battle line tactics. Firearms with “rifling” “have grooves inside the barrel, which make the projectile spin, making it more accurate and able to shoot farther.

 After the Civil War, the United States Army adopted the 1873 Springfield 45/70, often called the “trapdoor rifle.” The 45/70 was the first standard-issue breechloading rifle adopted by the army, meaning that the rifle was loaded from the rear of the rifle rather than from the muzzle. This rifle was far more accurate, allowing people to hit targets beyond 1,000 yards. Given the capabilities of this new weapon and the changing nature of warfare, the army began investigating ways to improve the marksmanship skills of their soldiers. While many officers developed different learning strategies, the army failed to provide any serious enforcement or supplies for training. Soldiers lacked ammunition for target practice, and commanding officers ultimately decided how much practice their soldiers would get. There was little pressure on commanding officers to restructure their soldiers to incorporate target practice.

A black and white photo of the Fort Mackinac rifle team from 1886. The soldiers are posed for the photo, holding rifles, with a trophy between them.

Fort Mackinac rifle team in 1886. Note target shaped collar buttons for marksmanship.

 The army started to improve its marksmanship efforts in 1884 by creating a new award system. Now, soldiers could earn various awards and compete against their fellow soldiers. A soldier who could hit targets 200 and 300 yards away at 80% accuracy and a 600-yard target at 70% would qualify as a marksman. Soldiers who could hit targets 200, 300, and 600 yards at 88% and targets at 800, 900, and 1000 yards at 76% earned the sharpshooter qualification. Aside from these awards, the army also created a special board to investigate ways to instruct soldiers in long-range marksmanship. Captain Stanhope E. Blunt was placed in charge of this board, and in March, Blunt’s “instruction for Rifle and Carbine Firing for the United States Army” would be officially approved and prescribed to the rest of the army.

 Soldiers were now required to conduct target practice at least six months out of the year, with considerations given to climate and operational duties. Post commanders would be held responsible for their practice, and those records would be published regularly in the reports. Each garrison went on the rifle range twice weekly over a four-month practice season. Post commanders could adjust the season better to fit the climate or duties of each post. The army gave more resources and funding to post commanders to improve equipment quality and follow through on plans that needed to be addressed.

A black and white photo from 1890 showing the Fort Mackinac rifle range, with soldiers participating in a firing drill.

Lt. Benjamin Morse (standing, center) supervises soldiers from the 23rd Regiment of Infantry as they practice on one of the Fort Mackinac rifle ranges in 1890.

 Fort Mackinac had a leg up in this new system compared to many other stations nationwide. While they initially lacked the proper ranges and suffered from the same lack of resources as many different stations, Fort Mackinac showed incredible success under the new training manual. This success is primarily attributed to the enthusiasm and skill of the officers stationed at Fort Mackinac. Both Captain George Brady and Captain Greenleaf Goodale qualified as Sharpshooters, as well as many other notable officers. A later addition to Fort Mackinac was Captain William Manning of Company E, who served as a member of the revision board for Blunt’s manual in 1885/4. In addition, Fort Mackinac quickly constructed a 1000-yard range, equipped with telegraph lines, in 1885 to accommodate the new expectations for target practice.

A black and white image of 600-yard rifle with target platform on foreground, looking towards Fort Mackinac.

Image of 600-yard rifle with target platform on foreground, looking towards Fort Mackinac.

 The 23rd Infantry stationed at Fort Mackinac boasted some of the best marksmen in the entire army. Between 1884 and 1889, sixteen soldiers from Fort Mackinac qualified as Sharpshooters. In 1885, 50 men qualified as Marksmen at Fort Mackinac. Innovations like this would help the army transform into an impressive military force. Over the next several decades, and after the many catastrophes during the Spanish-American War, the army would continue to improve and change. When the United States entered World War I, the United States had earned a reputation of being an “army of marksmen.”

Timber for Mission Church, April 1830

Looking up at a large white pine tree.

Huge white pine logs provided ample lumber for construction projects

In October 1796, Major Henry Burbeck, the first American commander of Fort Mackinac, estimated the lumber required for repairing and upgrading the fort’s palisades and buildings. Among the planks, boards, pickets, shingles, and scantling, his estimate included 1,420 logs measuring 20 feet long by 15 inches in diameter. If they were white pine (one of the lighter species), this single portion of his order would have weighed over 1,249,000 pounds, or nearly 625 tons.

 To transport such heavy loads, logs were often stacked on stout sleds and skidded over ice, pulled by oxen or horses. For many years, turning logs into boards at the Straits of Mackinac was either done by hand with a pit (whip) saw or at a water-powered sawmill which operated at Mill Creek from 1790-1839. Originally constructed by Robert Campbell, the mill was purchased in 1819 by Mackinac Island businessman Michael Dousman. Both owners filled lumber contracts for Fort Mackinac and other island projects. The following account recalls events that took place nearly two centuries ago, in early 1830.

The Carpenter-Schoolmaster

A pencil black and white sketch of Mission Church on Mackinac Island.

Sketch of Mission Church, 1835

 Martin Heydenburk came to Michigan in 1824 after accepting a teaching position at the Mission School on Mackinac Island. Also an experienced carpenter, his skills as a craftsman were utilized for construction of the Mission House, completed in 1825. During the winter of 1829-1830, Heydenburk was called upon to lead a crew in felling and cutting timber on the mainland for building a Protestant church for the mission. Today, Mission Church is Michigan’s oldest surviving church building.

A large brown building on stilts in winter in Mackinaw City.

Water-powered sawmill reconstruction at Mill Creek

 In early 1830, solid ice didn’t form in the Straits of Mackinac until the end of January. In February or early March, Heydenburk and his crew spent several cold weeks along the Lake Huron shoreline. He later recalled, “in three weeks’ time we had all the timber hewed, fifty pieces flattened to be made into scantling and joist with the whip-saw, and three hundred saw-logs hauled out of the woods to the shore ready to be moved home or to the saw mill when the ice should prove favourable. A few weeks afterward a heavy rain flooded the snow upon the ice and then froze. Michael Dousman had a saw-mill about two miles from our logs and we soon had them there …”

French Trains to Mackinac Island

 Heavy rain proved to be a mixed blessing for the timber project. After it refroze, the flooded lakeshore offered a smooth surface to haul logs to the sawmill. Rainwater also filled the creek and mill pond, providing an ample supply of water power to cut 300 logs into boards. Once the order was completed, word was sent to Mackinac Island and horse-drawn sledges were sent over the ice to pick up lumber from the sawmill.

A black and white photo of large horses pulling a sleigh of firewood on snow.

Horse-drawn sledges were commonly used to haul firewood to Mackinac from nearby Bois Blanc Island

 Heydenburk continued, “On the eleventh day of April, with the thermometer at zero, and the wind blowing strong from the east, all the horses and French trains on the Island started at daylight for the timber; we crossed safely, loaded up and started for home.” A French train was a narrow, deep box sleigh, pulled by one or two horses, which slipped easily over ice and snow. Dogsleds were also used for winter mail and hauling smaller loads to Mackinac Island. Sleighs and sledges were used well into the 20th century for hauling goods such as hay, groceries, and firewood from the mainland or nearby Bois Blanc Island.

 As they trudged along hauling heavy loads of lumber, news reached the teams that rain had degraded the ice, making the journey unsafe. Heydenburk recalled, “when about half way across the straits we were met by messengers and guides who told us that the ice which was two feet thick had become porous and we could not cross the channel. We left our loads on Round Island, then put rope on the necks of the horses and started across the treacherous channel … We all got home safe.” Thankfully, such dangerous spring journeys are now but distant memories at the Straits of Mackinac.

Marchand De Lignery and the Voyageurs

Artifacts recovered during the archaeological dig at Michilimackinac.

French weapon parts recovered at what is now the South Southwest Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac.

 In the years between 1712 and 1720, France was entangled in a long war with the Meskakie Nation in Wisconsin. The area which would later become Michilimackinac became a jumping off point for the troops who were going to go fight in that war. Those forces were made up of a handful of soldiers, French canoe men or voyageurs, and Native Americans led by Louis de La Porte de La Louvigny and Constant Marchand de Lignery. They were to travel separately to the gathering place before heading further west.

A 1749 map of Michilimackinac, when it was under French control by Michel Chartier de Lotbiniere. Courtesy Public Archives of Canada.

 Lignery had arrived at Michilimackinac by 1714 under orders to “persuade the savages of Michilimackinac” and to make war with them against the Fox. Unfortunately, by the spring of 1715 those plans to go to Wisconsin were still muddy. Louvigny had been delayed and food and other supplies were not as well-stocked as the Commanding Officer would have liked. In addition, close to the end of the year, there were grumblings of discontent and four voyageurs had left Michilimackinac without Lignery’s consent. In response Lignery had them arrested as deserters. The men were sent to prison in Montreal to wait for their sentences.

 On January 13, 1716, Jean-Baptiste Adhémar, royal notary, and Pierre Raimbault, the King’s attorney, began interrogating the four voyageurs. In response to “why he left before the said convoy” and if “he had the commandant’s permission” the twenty-eight-year-old Jean Verge dit Desjardins said that “not being one of the coureurs de bois he did not believe he was absolutely obliged.” Desjardins further argued that he contracted “a sickness in prison” from being wrongfully jailed. LeBoeuf answered to the same question that “he thought he did not do anything wrong in leaving secretly” and that he was “returning from fur trading.” Jean Gautier responded “that he did not hear any king’s order on this topic.” Pierre Monjeau added that he was “obligated by his contract” to obey his master and feared “he would lose his wages.”

An ornamental weapons artifact recovered at Colonial Michilimackinac.

A French weapon part recovered at what is now the South Southwest Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac.

 In the end, despite their perceived desertion by Lignery, the men were acquitted. Adhémar and Raimbault let the men go but they were to return to Michilimackinac and “place themselves under the orders of the commandant.” The deserters were volunteers, after all, and were probably more interested in trade than fighting in a war.

 Once Louvigny arrived at Fort Michilimackinac, Lignery was relieved of his command and criticized for his failure. However, the trouble with the voyageurs still continued under Louvigny. Even when Louvigny went on campaign with his forces, the voyageurs abandoned their post on their return and departure of the Fort.

 Despite its rocky beginning, the presence of those early French voyageurs and soldiers became the start of more than 40 years of successful French military occupation at Michilimackinac. The soldiers during that time never ended up fighting in Wisconsin, but instead built the first version of what we now can see as the reconstructed fort and village.

Inside an exhibit at Colonial Michilimackinac showing a canoe and exhibit panels talking about the French presence at the site.

Inside the France at Mackinac exhibit at Colonial Michilimackinac.

 To learn more about the French military at Colonial Michilimackinac and its other great history or to plan your trip, go to mackinacparks.com.

An “Unlucky Affair” at Michilimackinac: The Stabbing of Lt. James Hamilton

Three buttons discovered at Colonial Michilimackinac. They have 10s on them as they were for the 10th Regiment that were stationed at Fort Michilimackinac.

Uniform buttons lost by soldiers of the 10th Regiment while stationed at Michilimackinac. These buttons were discovered by archaeologists as part of the ongoing excavation of Michilimackinac, which has continued every summer since 1959.

 In the course of otherwise routine historic research, occasionally a previously unknown and unlooked for piece of information comes to light. Such is the case of the stabbing of Lt. James Hamilton of the 10th Regiment at Michilimackinac in the summer of 1773. This previously unknown (to us at Mackinac, at least) incident came to light while reviewing the voluminous correspondence of Frederick Haldimand, who served as governor of Quebec from 1778 to 1786. Within these pages, now held by the British Museum, is the account of the violent incident at Michilimackinac in 1773. Haldimand received the original letters since he was serving at the temporary commander in chief of British forces in North America at the time.

 On July 31, 1773, Capt. John Vattas, the commanding officer of the detachment of the 10th Regiment at Michilimackinac, took depositions from Lt. James Hamilton and several other soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Hamilton, assigned to Vattas’ company, accused a Sergeant Dagg of Captain Robert Dalway’s company of stabbing him with a bayonet and attempting to murder him. In his deposition, Hamilton related that he went to Dagg’s house to confront the sergeant’s wife about a chicken she had supposedly stolen from him. After demanding the bird’s return, Hamilton reported that “Mrs. Dagg made use of provoking language to him, which obliged him to give her one or two kicks, and some strokes.” Mrs. Dagg ran outside “screeching,” so Hamilton started to make his way towards his own home. Once outside, Hamilton “saw Serjeant Dagg running up to him with great violence, with a drawn bayonet in his hand.” The lieutenant claimed that Dagg “made a lunge at the center part of his body,” but Hamilton twisted out of the way and into his own back yard, receiving a 2.5 inch cut near the “bottom of his belly” in the process. Hamilton’s memory was less clear about exactly what he said next, but he cried out “damn your blood, will you stab me?” or words to that effect. Dagg apparently “swore by God he would run any gentleman through that would use his wife so.” Convinced that Dagg intended to strike again and kill him, Hamilton ran inside his house. He waited a short time before reporting the incident to Vattas.

The Post Guardhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. The building is gray, with a wood shingle roof, with pillars in front. The ground in front is gravel and dirt, with a light dusting of snow.

The reconstructed guardhouse at Michilimackinac today. Sergeant Dagg and Corporal Newton may have been sitting on a bench similar to the one near the front door.

 The depositions of the other soldiers added more details about the incident. These men, all likely part of the guard detail, were relaxing in and around the guardhouse when Mrs. Dagg ran outside screaming. Corporal John Newton was sitting on a bench near the guardhouse door with Sergeant Dagg, who was hemming a piece of stamped linen or cotton. Hearing his wife’s scream, Dagg ran towards his house, dropping the fabric on the ground. Cpl. Newton swore he did not see Dagg draw his bayonet, but upon returning to the guardhouse he saw Dagg attempting to put his bayonet back into its scabbard, and the corporal heard him say that “by heavens I have fixed myself.”  John New reported that he was sitting on another bench near the guard room door when he heard a “great noise.” New saw Dagg jump up and run around the corner of Hamilton’s garden, so he followed the sergeant. New watched as both men ran towards the gate leading into Hamilton’s yard. He swore that “Lieut. Hamilton made a smart twist into his own back gate, as if to avoid Sjt. Dagg; and that Sjt. Dagg made a lunge up to the gate after him and turned back immediately with a drawn bayonet in his hand.” New then watched as Dagg attempted to sheath his bayonet while “swearing some desperate oaths,” the exact substance of which he could not remember beyond “saying he had done for himself.”

 While New was the only eyewitness to the actual confrontation outside Hamilton’s yard, several other soldiers testified about what they saw and heard immediately before and after the incident. John Sweet saw Dagg “standing in a very remarkable attitude, with his drawn bayonet in his hand,” and heard him say that “he would run any gentleman through that offered to use his wife in that manner.” Ephraim Staneford was in the guard room and came out to meet Dagg as he returned to the guardhouse, hearing the sergeant say “by heavens he had done it.” Staneford also claimed he heard and saw Dagg laying on the ground crying “murder,” but never observed the sergeant draw or carry his bayonet. Robert Hill, who had been resting on the guard bed, heard Mrs. Dagg’s screams and ran outside, meeting Dagg as he returned to the guardhouse. Hill did not see Dagg’s bayonet drawn, but heard him “swear by God he thought his wife was killed.” Hill also swore that he later saw Lt. Hamilton with “his belly bare,” and watched “blood proceed from a wound that had been lately made into it.”  John Murphy claimed he saw Dagg sitting on the bench sewing before the incident, and noticed the dropped fabric on the ground after the sergeant ran away. Murphy also observed Dagg sheathing his bayonet and swearing that “by God by heaven that he had done for himself.”

 In early October, Lt. Col. Francis Smith, commanding the 10th Regiment from Fort Niagara, passed along the depositions to Haldimand. Smith also provided more information about the case. Dagg had been handcuffed and confined since the incident in July, and Hamilton demanded that he be tried by general court martial. In addition to deposing Hamilton and the witnesses, Vattas also questioned Dagg about “his reasons for so villainous an attempt.” The sergeant claimed that “he was cleaning his bayonet, when the cries of his wife took him from his guard, and that Mr. Hamilton chanced to run upon it.” In other words, the whole thing was an accident, with Hamilton essentially stabbing himself. Given that both Newton and Murphy swore that that had seen Dagg sewing before the incident, as well as noticing the dropped fabric near the bench, Vattas placed little stock in Dagg’s story about cleaning his bayonet, but nonetheless awaited further orders about what to do with the sergeant.

The light infantry and grenadier companies of the 10th Foot took part in the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. This engraving, printed soon after the battle in 1775, shows the opening engagement on Lexington green. Courtesy Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University.

 Dagg’s situation remained unresolved in March 1774. Writing to Captain Thomas Moncrief, a staff officer, Smith noted that he had written to Vattas “in a private way, and wish Mr. Hamilton and him may be able to wipe this affair away in as decent a manner as the nature of it will admit of, without a public hearing.”  Although Hamilton had demanded a general court marital for Dagg, Smith hoped that “perhaps length of time and other circumstances may lead him to alter his opinion.” If not, Smith would be ”under the disagreeable necessity of troubling the general [Haldimand] further about this unlucky affair.” Why Smith hoped to avoid a court martial remains unclear. A general court martial required 13 officers to sit in judgement, a potentially difficult undertaking with garrison spread out across British Canada. The necessity of transporting witnesses to testify posed similar issues. The nature of the incident, in which Hamilton openly admitted to kicking and beating Mrs. Dagg, may have also prompted Smith to suggest that Dagg not be brought to trial.

 Unfortunately, the outcome of Dagg’s case remains unclear at this time. Additional references to the assault in Haldimand’s correspondence have not yet come to light, and Haldimand relinquished his role as commander in chief when General Thomas Gage returned from England later in 1774. Future research may shed more light on this “unlucky affair,” but in the meantime, the depositions from July 1773 remain the only hints of what happened between Sergeant Dagg and Lieutenant Hamilton. Transcripts of the original documents are available online courtesy of the Library and Archives of Canada. The depositions begin on page 150 of Volume B-18, General Orders and Letters relating to the Garrison of Niagara, Add. Mss. 21678, with the additional letters from Smith on pages 160 and 166. Take a look at these fascinating historical documents and see if you can figure out what happened over 250 years ago at Michilimackinac!

The Mystery of the Five Michilimackinac Soldiers

Ongoing historical research and archaeological excavations form the backbone of Mackinac State Historic Parks’ interpretive programs and exhibits. This summer, programs at Colonial Michilimackinac will focus on the year 1781 and the fort community at that time. While researching the experience of British soldiers at the fort, we came across a historical mystery! Two hundred and forty-three years ago, in March 1781, five soldiers from Michilimackinac switched sides from the British to join the “rebel,” or, as we would call them today, American, forces. Why and how did this happen?  

These two 1778 sketches from Philip James de Loutherbourg show the variations of a British grenadier’s uniform. The grenadiers who followed Lieutenant Governor Hamilton into battle would have been dressed similarly. Anne S.K, Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

 To start, we need to meet the soldiers at Michilimackinac. Different groups of British soldiers occupied the fort between 1763 and 1781, when the fort was moved to Mackinac Island. During the years of the American Revolution, the soldiers living and working at Michilimackinac were members of the 8th Regiment of Foot. There were only 70-80 British soldiers from this group at Michilimackinac. The rest of their brethren were spread throughout Fort Niagara, Detroit, and smaller posts in the Great Lakes area. Different types of soldiers from the 8th Regiment were stationed at Michilimackinac. Half of the garrison were regular soldiers who were part of the General’s company, a battalion company. The other half of the garrison were grenadiers, who were supposed to be the fittest, most experienced soldiers and belonged to their own company. In theory, Michilimackinac was the only place where grenadiers from the 8th Regiment were stationed. However, historians have uncovered their presence at other Great Lakes posts. The grenadiers are the key to this mystery.  

Major DePeyster’s military return from March 1781. Look closely at the bottom center to see his notes on the Michilimackinac prisoners of war.

 Historians know where different groups of soldiers within the 8th Regiment were stationed, and even their condition – “present fit for duty,” “sick in quarters,” or even prisoner of war – from records called military returns. Commanding officers of the 8th Regiment, such as Major Arent DePeyster, compiled these documents and sent them to higher officials. It is in one of these documents that we discovered our mystery. In March 1781, DePeyster issued a return that announced the loss of seven 8th Regiment soldiers who were listed as prisoners of war. One soldier had died while prisoner; the other six had switched sides and “inlisted with the Rebels.” Five of the six were from Michilimackinac. This notable detail leads to many questions. Who were these soldiers? How were they captured? Why did they change sides?  

 We can start to unravel this mystery with the help of some background knowledge. In 1778, Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton of Detroit led a group of British, French-Canadian, and Native American forces to modern-day Indiana to confront rebel forces intent on controlling Fort Sackville. The British soldiers in his party were 8th Regiment soldiers from Detroit. After a short battle, Hamilton and his forces were captured by Colonel George Rogers Clark. Some soldiers from the 8th Regiment may have been taken to Virginia for their captivity while others remained as prisoners of war in Indiana; ultimately their full journeys are currently unknown.  

 Though the 8th Regiment soldiers captured with Hamilton came from the garrison at Detroit, his journal mentioned a grenadier within the group. This means it is possible that some soldiers could have come from Michilimackinac, too. The five Michilimackinac prisoners of war could have been five grenadiers taken with the rest of Hamilton’s expedition.  

 And now we reach the big question: why would these British soldiers join with the “rebels” in the war? By 1781, the five Michilimackinac soldiers could have been living as prisoners of war for almost two years in unknown conditions. During the American Revolution, prisoners of war on both sides received harsh treatment which could cause poor health or even death in the worst circumstances. Like other prisoners of war, it is possible that the Michilimackinac soldiers made their choice to change allegiances for the sake of self-preservation.  

An interpreter at Colonial Michilimackinac at present dressed as a grenadier.

 There are still many unknown details in this historical mystery. While facts and probability currently favor that the five prisoners of war from Michilimackinac who joined the “rebels” were grenadiers from Hamilton’s campaign, further research may suggest other theories. Interested in learning more about British soldiers stationed on the Great Lakes? Visit Colonial Michilimackinac this season for programs, demonstrations, and exhibits about these historical figures and others who lived and worked at the Straits of Mackinac.  

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.

The Famous Mackinaw Potato

The best potatoes in the world grow at Mackinac.” – Army and Navy Chronicle, September 1835

 Most people easily recognize two kinds of potatoes. A sweet potato has orange flesh and belongs to the morning glory family. Distantly related, the common potato is large and white-fleshed, being part of the nightshade family. The latter type was domesticated by Native Americans in South America at least 7,000 years ago. Introduced to Europe by the late 16th century, it eventually became a dominant crop, especially in Ireland. Potato plants flourish in a variety of soils, providing more calories per acre than grain. Today, more than 5,000 different varieties are grown across the globe.

A black and white photo of farmland on Mackinac Island, in what is now known as Marquette Park.

Gardens below Fort Mackinac, ca.1890

 Common potatoes weren’t grown in North America until the early 18th century. Brought to New England from Ireland, this variety became known as the “Irish potato.” Potatoes were first planted at the Straits of Mackinac by the British. John Askin grew them near Fort Michilimackinac in the 1770s, keeping meticulous records. As the garrison relocated to Mackinac Island, large gardens were planted below the new fort, near the harbor. When Americans arrived in September 1796, they found a commandant’s garden “filled with vegetables” and an adjacent plot “filled with potatoes.” A government garden provided fresh produce for soldiers for more than 100 years before being transformed into Marquette Park.

 Gardeners at Mackinac discovered these hardy tubers needed little soil to thrive there. In 1820, Henry Schoolcraft noted, “Potatoes have been known to be raised in pure beds of small limestone pebbles, where the seed potatoes have been merely covered in a slight way, to shield them from the sun, until they had taken root.” By this time, several small farms dotted the island where potatoes were a staple crop.

An artist rendering of the Mackinaw Mission in the 1830s, featuring a large white building known as the Mission House surrounded by trees.

View of the Mackinaw Mission, ca. 1830

 Rev. William Ferry operated a Protestant mission on Mackinac Island from 1823–1834. The Mackinaw Mission operated a school and boarding house for Anishinaabek children. Located near the southeast shore, staff and pupils maintained a five-acre garden stocked with potatoes, peas, beans, and other vegetables. In 1826, the mission also purchased the John Dousman farm, along the western shore. There, they grew 10 acres of potatoes and other crops.

 As tourism grew, the reputation of Mackinac potatoes (usually spelled Mackinaw) spread far and wide. In 1835, visitors found a potato patch near Fort Holmes, writing, “There are about eight or ten acres on this summit cleared up, part of them being enclosed as a potato field. The best potatoes in the world grow at Mackinac, and this plat of them looked very flourishing.” They were amazed, observing plants “flourishing among pebbles where there is no more earth than in a stone wall. The Mackinackians do not regard earth as necessary in a garden, and perhaps would dispense with it even in a farm.”

A drawing of a potato plant.

The Potatoe Plant, Its Uses and Properties, 1847

 As tourists departed, some carried seed potatoes to plant at home. In 1837, Solon Robinson experimented with several northern crops in Iowa, including an early variety named Mackinaw blue. By the 1840s, some voiced the opinion that Mackinac Island potatoes rivaled those grown in Ireland. Extolling virtues of the straits, Dr. Daniel Drake wrote, “the potatoes of this region, rivalling those of the banks of the Shannon, and the white-fish and speckled trout of the surrounding waters … render all foreign delicacies almost superfluous.” On July 31, 1847, a correspondent for the Detroit Free Press boldly stated, “The fine potatoes raised on the island are irresistible –all passengers want them, and sailors will have them.” For decades, the Mackinaw potato enjoyed a celebrated status, renowned across the nation.

A historic newspaper ad for Mackinaw Potatoes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 9, 1850

 What made Mackinaw potatoes so special? They grew large, ripened early, and were celebrated for their “mealiness.” A mealy potato is dry, fluffy, high in starch, and low in sugar. These traits make them excellent for baking, mashing, or serving deep fried. The plants themselves were also resistant to potato rot, a disease which decimated crops in Ireland, resulting in widespread famine between 1845-1852. Many Irish immigrant families settled at Mackinac during this period, some fleeing desperate conditions in their homeland.

 By the late 1840s, potato blight had also affected crops in the United States. Disease reduced production by more than one-half, while doubling the price per bushel. Blight resistant varieties, including the Mackinaw, were highly sought after. In 1852, Samuel H. Addington displayed Mackinaw White potatoes at the New York State Fair. Two years later, a report for the U.S. Patent Office noted, “Most of the fine varieties formerly cultivated … have been abandoned, and those less liable to disease substituted, such as the Boston Red, the Carter, and the Mackinaw.”

A drawing of the King of the Earlies, a potato sold for $50.00.

Best’s Potato Book, 1870

 At the same time, hundreds of new varieties were being developed. Fueled by a robust profit motive, “Potato Mania” gripped the farming community. In 1869, George Best wrote, “during the past two years the most intense excitement has prevailed in regard to the Potato, and fabulous prices have been paid for seed of new varieties, which, it was hoped, would more than take the place of old kinds.” An extreme example, King of the Earlies sold in 1868 at the price of $50.00 for a single potato. With such advancements, old varieties, including the Mackinaw, eventually fell out favor. By the 1920s, it had virtually disappeared from the market.

A picture of Mackinaw potatoes ready to be made into chips.

Mackinaw potatoes ready for chipping, Michigan State University photo

 In January 2022, researchers at Michigan State University unveiled several new potato hybrids. One of the most promising lines was named the Mackinaw (MSX540-4). A cross between “Saginaw Chipper” and “Lamoka,” it stores well, and it is highly resistant to several diseases. This attractive variety also performed highly in the Potatoes USA National Chip Processing Trials. With any luck, the new Mackinaw potato may even find its way to your next game-day celebration.

The archaeological pit filled in with a tarp and hay bales.

2023 Archaeology Field Season Wrap-Up

The archaeological pit filled in with a tarp and hay bales.

The site packed for the winter.

The 65th season of archaeological excavation at Michilimackinac wrapped up August 24 and the site is now secured for the winter. This was our 17th season of work on House E of the Southeast Rowhouse.

 The most interesting finds of the second half of the field season were remnants of the house itself. The house was burned when the community relocated to Mackinac Island in 1781. The charred wood of the house was partially preserved in the sandy soil the fort was built on.

The central cellar of House E of the Southwest Rowhouse

The central cellar.

Southeast cellar of House E of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac.

Remnants of the walls and a floorboard in the southeast cellar.

 One of the defining features of this house is its two cellars. Most of the central cellar (except a portion of the northwest corner) is now five and a half feet deep. Remnants of the burned wall posts can be seen along the edges of the gray sand cellar deposit in the center of the image. The eastern half of the central cellar was also better defined. This cellar had plank walls and remnants of the walls and a floorboard were exposed this season.

A trench at the north wall of House E of the Southwest Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac.

Humic stains from the north wall of the house (the dark soil at the top of the image. 

View along the north wall of House E of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac.

View of the north wall with the tree stump at the back. 

 We were able to identify humic stains from the north wall of the house (the dark soil at the top of the image). Unfortunately we also confirmed that the tree stump we have been working around is right in the center of the east end of the wall trench. In the image you can see how the stump is in line with the reconstructed house wall of another unit of the rowhouse and the dark wall trench stain at the bottom of the image. The tree was not there when the house was; it was planted around 1910 shortly after Michilimackinac became Michigan’s second state park. The roots do not seem to have grown around artifacts, rather they displaced artifacts as they grew.

 Stay tuned to the MSHP blog to see what interesting things the archaeologists might discover in the lab this winter as the season’s artifacts are cleaned and better identified.

U.S. Army Forage Cap and Dress Helmet

Inspection at Fort Mackinac with soldiers in dress uniform.

The public interacts with our interpretive staff every day, asking questions about the island, fort, and the way soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac lived when it was active between the years of 1780-1895. One of the main draws, other than the rifle and cannon demonstrations, are the tours, given by interpreters seen in two types of uniforms: the everyday “undress” uniform and the more elaborate “dress” uniform. One of the unique aspects of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s is the balance between its soldiers serving in both military and public facing capacities, which almost perfectly matches the roles of their different uniforms. A big part of how Mackinac State Historic Parks makes sure to best tell the stories of these uniforms, and the soldiers that wore them, is though our collections. Headgear, especially for the uniforms that are worn at the fort, are vital to the overall story that the park tells the public. Two specific items that embody these uniforms are the forage cap and dress helmet.

Forage Cap

 The forage cap, or the wool, leather brimmed cap with unit brass on the front, is an evolution from the forage cap from the Civil War. Mostly worn by officers until 1872, when the whole army adopted them, these vital pieces of a uniform were more commonly seen used during daily duties in and around the fort. For more formal occasions, such as when the public was let in the fort several times a week, they had a different uniform: the dress uniform. This consisted of a frock coat, white gloves, dress collar, and the dress helmet. This helmet had both Prussian and British influences, with a brass eagle plate on the front, and a spike on top.

Dress Helmet

 Both hats are unique in the way they help portray military life in the 1880s, as well as being some of the most recognizable items when the public comes to the fort. Having these items in our collections, furthermore, establishes the importance of public interaction with museums and their objects. Museum collections are often referenced for research, both public and private, and these hats hold significant value for those who want to learn more about the soldiers at Fort Mackinac. Items so easily identifiable and personal, such as these hats, aid in making that connection from the past to the present day, as these are the physical objects used daily by the people who served in the army in the 1880s.

A work party at Fort Mackinac.

 Fort Mackinac, one of our premier sites, benefits from having several items in our collections pertaining to it and the soldiers that were there. Being able to have physical representations from that era, which visitors see daily, is history translated to the present day. They allow the public to get a look at our collections every day, but in the form of a personal aspect, through our interpreters. This makes the park a living representation of its objects, with the interpreters discussing their importance every day, and sharing their legacy with a wider audience. The kepi and dress headgear are vital to the park to tell these stories, as they are an iconic part of the uniform, fort, and overall encompass a crucial period in the islands’ history.

Fix Bayonets!

 Throughout Fort Mackinac’s military history, British and American soldiers were issued bayonets to complement their shoulder arms. Bayonets allowed a firearm to double as a stabbing weapon and a pike. Additionally, soldiers advancing with fixed bayonets could be a powerful psychological weapon, frightening the enemy into fleeing before contact. By the 1880s, however, bayonets had lost much of their tactical usefulness. Nonetheless, American soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac and elsewhere continued carrying these secondary weapons, and the bayonets of the late 19th century reflect an interesting time of transition for the U.S. Army.

 When the army adopted the new Springfield .45-70 rifle in 1873, a new bayonet came with it. Featuring an 18-inch long triangular blade, the Model 1873 bayonet utilized a rotating clasp to lock onto the front sight at the muzzle end of the gun barrel. From 1873 to 1878, bayonets were specifically produced for use with the new rifles. However, officials in the War Department, always eager for ways to reduce costs, realized that the government still had large stocks of surplus Model 1855 bayonets. These older weapons, produced in huge quantities to supply federal troops during the Civil War, were designed to fit .58 caliber rifled muskets. Fortuitously, officers at the Springfield Armory devised a method of cold-swaging the larger sockets of the 1855 bayonets down to fit the .45 caliber barrels of the 1873 rifles. The older bayonets could thus be utilized at little cost to the government, and no new bayonets were produced after 1878. So large was the stock of 1855 bayonets that it took a decade for the armory to finally run out of them.

 When the old bayonets were finally expended in 1888/89, the army officially adopted a ramrod bayonet. A sharpened metal rod carried within the stock just under the barrel (the traditional location for a ramrod on all earlier muzzleloading weapons), the ramrod bayonet could be extended beyond the muzzle and locked in place. This eliminated the need for soldiers to carry a separate bayonet and scabbard, since the bayonet was already integral to the rifle. The army experimented with ramrod bayonets for most of the 1880s, continually tinkering with the design and issuing small numbers of the weapon to soldiers for field testing. In 1886, Co. K of the 23rd Infantry, stationed at Fort Mackinac, received rifles with ramrod bayonets for evaluation.

 As bayonet designs evolved, so too did the scabbards to carry them. Although the ramrod bayonet eliminated the need for a separate scabbard, those weapons were not in general service until the middle of 1890. As a result, most soldiers carried their bayonets in metal scabbards hung from their belts through the 1880s. Initially, scabbards for the 1873 bayonet featured a leather frog, which simply looped over the 1¾-inch wide waist belts issued beginning in 1872. However, as soldiers increasingly preferred to wear wider cartridge belts for field service, these scabbards were no longer compatible. As a result, in 1889 the army finally adopted a new scabbard design featuring a long, thin brass hook in place of the leather loop. The hook could still easily be worn with the narrower 1872 belts, but could also be used with a woven cartridge belt.

 Even as the Army continually refined and experimented with bayonet designs, general officers and regular soldiers alike increasingly questioned the utility of the bayonet in an age when troops were trained for exceptionally long-range marksmanship. Noting that in combat the bayonet functioned only as far as a soldier could reach, Commanding General of the Army William Sherman stated that “my experience teaches me that one side or the other runs away before arm’s length is reached.” Sherman and other officers suggested that the bayonet be declared obsolete and dropped from service, but stopped short of pressing the issue as he believed bayonets might still be useful in highly specific circumstances such as riot control. In the 1870s and 1880s soldiers were deployed to suppress civil unrest, usually linked to strikes and other labor actions, and officers felt that bayonets allowed troops to “safely” disperse crowds without firing on them.

 If you would like to see original bayonets up close, feel free to ask our interpretive staff at Fort Mackinac. They carry original bayonets (to go with the original .45-70 rifles used daily for demonstration) and are happy to answer questions about them, as well as the rest of the unique uniforms and equipment utilized by the U.S. Army during the 1880s. This was a time of change and experimentation for the army. If you would like more information, or an opportunity to buy tickets to Fort Mackinac and our other museums, please visit our website.