2014-06-14 / Columnists

A Look at History

Fort Mackinac Award Shows Commitment of Island to History
BY FRANK STRAUS

Fort Mackinac was named “Michigan’s 2014 Star Attraction of the Year” March 10. The honor was awarded at a ceremony at the Grand Traverse Resort in Acme, near Traverse City. The cherry capital, Northern Michigan’s metropolis, has many good things to offer; and some of those present may have been surprised to see this honor go to the Straits of Mackinac.

This year, 2014, marks the bicentennial of the Battle of Mackinac Island and the blockade of our Island’s harbor by the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812, and it’s a high point in our observance and memories of our Island’s heritage. The Fort visitors see today, however, is not the stockade the Americans tried to capture in 1812. Most of the buildings inside the Fort today were built after 1812, and in addition, today’s Fort Mackinac is portrayed by a seasonal, full-time interpretive staff to be as it looked like during its final years in the early 1890s. The Fort and its staff try to help fill a gap in American reenactment and historical interpretation between the Civil War, which is pretty heavily interpreted and even celebrated, and World Wars I and II, which are familiar to many of us Americans because of our own family memories and the newsreel images that survive from these ugly but great wars. The early 1890s were a period just a hairsbreadth before the spread of the earliest “cinematograph” movie cameras, and our visual experience of the U.S. armed forces during these years comes from still photographs. Skilled interpretive work is necessary to bring these scenes to life.

At Fort Mackinac, 15 separate buildings and installations have been preserved from the moment the U.S. Army abandoned the fort in 1895. As a condition of its gift of Fort Mackinac and the Military Reservation surrounding it to the state of Michigan, the federal government expects that the state will use the fort as a public park and keep up the infrastructure as it had been. And this pledge has been kept. Every day a flag flies over Fort Mackinac as it did when it was an active military post. The sound of hourly gunfire, in summer, reminds visitors that the Fort’s re-enactors drill themselves as their distant predecessors did when they served here.

The early 1890s are years that many Americans associate with the Victorian era. I imagine most of us vaguely think this was a time of peace when our national Army was very small. If that is what we think, we are right; the U.S. Army, in the time of President Cleveland’s second administration, was minuscule. The then-Commander-in-Chief was not a warlike man – as a young man in Buffalo, during the time of the Civil War, he had hired a substitute to fight for him – and he did not like to spend money. In fiscal year 1894, which was the last year that Fort Mackinac was fully garrisoned with troops, the entire budget of the War Department was $56,039,009.34. (In nominal dollars, this is as much money as our current Defense Department spends in about one hour.) But to Cleveland, even this amount was too much: in fiscal year 1895 he and Congress cut this sum to $52,429,112.78. This reduction had to come from somewhere. In the fall of 1894 the garrison at Fort Mackinac was reduced to a corporal’s guard of 10 men, and on September 16, 1895, this tiny troop locked up the Fort and marched off to a waiting steamboat.

Fort Mackinac survives. Its barracks, today, contain not only rebuilt bunks for the vanished soldiery, but the chattering telegraph office that transmitted orders from Washington. Upstairs, the barracks’ second floor – accessible by stairs or elevator – has a museum that places Fort Mackinac inside the social history of the Island as a whole. Photographs and memorabilia show the brief period when an active garrison and Grand Hotel shared the Island together.

On the opposite side of the Fort’s mustering green stand two Officers’ Quarters. Although much older than the Barracks – as buildings, they date back to the War of 1812 days – these quarters, too, are interpreted to the Victorian era. In the wooden building a soldiers’ canteen, one of the network of small post shops that is a distant but direct ancestor of our military Post Exchange system, shows soldiers’ life off duty hours; in the stone building a children’s museum reminds visitors of the families that lived here at Fort Mackinac, children of the commissioned officers who were allowed to enjoy the blessings of family life.

Other buildings remind us that even in 1894, an army marched on its stomach. The commissary warehouse, where the food staples were kept, doubles today as a theatre for the Fort’s introductory video; next to the warehouse, more valuable items were guarded in the quartermaster’s storehouse. Even more closely watched was the post headquarters, from which the soldiers’ meager pay was doled out. A guardhouse and the fort’s small hospital quarters complete the quadrangle of buildings around the mustering green as reminders of things going wrong in the life of soldiers. Atop a small hill within the Fort, the U.S. flag waves from a great flagstaff next to the post schoolhouse, where both the officers’ children and some of the younger soldiers could become more advanced in their numbers and letters.

It is 235 years since the summer of 1779, when the redcoated commander of Fort Michilimackinac on the mainland, Patrick Sinclair, inspected Mackinac Island’s harbor and picked out a location on the hill that would be a proper site for a new fort. The British officer could not have foreseen that it would be the flag of the American rebels that would fly over Fort Mackinac for a century of active service, and then for well over a century of active management as a living resource of our national history.

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