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.

Gun Parts from the South Southwest Rowhouse at Michilimackinac

Between 1998 and 2007 Mackinac State Historic Parks excavated the east end unit of the South Southwest Rowhouse, now the site of Hearthside Museum Store in the reconstructed rowhouse. From its construction in the 1730s through the time of the 1763 attack it was lived in by French Canadian fur traders, mostly members of the Desriviere family. When the British returned with more soldiers in 1764, this was one of the houses they rented for foot soldiers to live in before the barracks was built in 1769. It appears to have reverted to a French Canadian trading household in the 1770s, before being moved to Mackinac Island in 1780.

One of the most interesting categories of artifacts excavated at the house was gun parts. In part this was because of the quantity present. A total of sixty-one were recovered, thirty-one (whole or fragmentary) gun worms and thirty other gun parts. By way of comparison, House D of the Southeast Rowhouse, the Bolon-Mitchell house excavated from 1989 to 1997, yielded thirty-five total gun parts, ten of which were gun worms. We have found eleven gun parts, six gun worms and five other parts, in the first thirteen seasons of excavation at House E of the Southeast Rowhouse.

Two-eared gun worm.

Of the sixty-one gun parts from the South Southwest Rowhouse end unit, just over half (thirty-four, twenty-two gun worms and a dozen other parts) came from in and around the cellar, suggesting the parts were stored there.

1st model Long Land buttplate.

Two gun parts from British military weapons came from the cellar. The first was an unusual two-eared gun worm, the only one found during the project. The second was a buttplate from a first model Long Land Service Pattern musket. Both of these could have been used by foot soldiers of the 60th Regiment living in the house in the late 1760s.

Two other parts suggest that one of the traders living in the house was stockpiling gun parts, possibly for sale. The first is an unused wrist escutcheon from a c.1740 Type D fusil fin, a high quality French civilian gun. A wrist escutcheon serves as an anchor for the screw attaching the triggerguard to the stock of the gun. We can tell this one was never used because it was never drilled through. It is currently on display in the Treasures from the Sand exhibit at Colonial Michilimackinac. The second is a buttplate which cannot be further identified because it was deliberately wrapped in birchbark to protect it. It was found near the bottom of the cellar.

Wrist escutcheon from a c.1740.

Buttplate wrapped in birch bark.

Gun parts are just one artifact category that tells us more about what the inhabitants of the South Southwest Rowhouse were doing and where they were doing it. If you are interested in learning more, the final report on the project will be published later in 2021. In the meantime, there is more information on the project in the Archaeology pages of the Explore at Home section of mackinacparks.com.

Michilimackinac’s Artillery

Over the past few years the staff at Mackinac State Historic Parks has diligently been adding reproductions of Michilimackinac’s artillery throughout the site to provide visitors an accurate representation of what the site looked like in the 1770s. Join Curator of History Craig Wilson as he takes us for a tour of Michilimackinac and its artillery.
 

Archaeology Update

Trade ring with what can be interpreted as a “V.”

Halfway through the archaeology season we have found some interesting artifacts, the end of some features, and more questions.

Cufflink, or sleeve button, with an image that could be a classical or religious figure. 

The root cellar in the southeast corner of the house has yielded exciting artifacts for several seasons. This summer began the same way, with a button and part of the bone handle from a knife. Now some horizontal planks are appearing, possibly evidence of a wood floor. We tentatively identified a second root cellar in the center of the house late last season. This still seems to be the case. Several interesting artifacts have come from this area. The first was an intact engraved brass “Jesuit” trade ring.

Iron breech plug from a flintlock muzzleloader. 

The design can be interpreted as the letter “V,” the Roman numeral “V,” or something more abstract. The second part was part of a cufflink, which would have been called a sleeve button by its eighteenth-century owner. It has a glass or rock crystal set with an intaglio bust. The bearded man could be a classical or religious figure. More research will be done on this piece over the winter. The final artifact, so far, was an iron breech plug from a flintlock muzzleloader. It blocked the end of the barrel where it connected to the wood stock. It was discarded because the tang broke off. It is only the fifth gun part found in the house. We are eager to see what else this area has in store for us.

Interior post, located about five feet below the colonial surface. 

For six seasons, we have been excavating around a post in the interior of the house. We have finally reached the bottom, six and a half feet below our datum, probably about five feet below the colonial surface. It is sitting on a flat rock. Located near the southeast root cellar, it could have been a structural support for the rowhouse unit. Given its depth, it could also be a remnant of the first (1715) fort. We are exploring both possibilities. What will the second half of the season hold? Stay tuned to this blog and the MSHP social media channels to find out. If visiting Mackinac is in your plans for the summer, come out and visit the site in person. We are excavating in the middle of Colonial Michilimackinac, and work will continue daily (weather permitting) through August 22.
Special Events at Colonial Michilimackinac

Special Events at Colonial Michilimackinac

Although there aren’t any big anniversaries to celebrate this year, there will be a number of exciting special events throughout the summer at Colonial Michilimackinac. From June to September, two weekends each month will highlight a different aspect of the site’s history with special programs and activities.

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Weapons of Michilimackinac

Weapons of Michilimackinac

Soldier Firing Wall GunAlthough it primarily served as a logistical center for the Great Lakes fur trade, the post of Michilimackinac remained a military establishment from the moment it was constructed by French soldiers in 1715 to the day the last British troops abandoned the fort in 1781. Especially during the period of British control (1761-81), Michilimackinac served as an increasingly important and well-defended military outpost.

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