Fort Mackinac as a Civil War Prison

This year marks the Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the American Civil War. While the fighting didn’t reach northern Michigan, Mackinac Island and Fort Mackinac played a role as a prison for Confederate sympathizers.

Though recognized today as a vacation destination for travelers to northern

Barrow

Michigan, 150 years ago in the summer of 1862, Fort Mackinac became a prison. Although the fort itself played only a small role in the Civil War, for a few months the post on Mackinac Island housed three Confederate Army prisoners guarded by nearly 100 men.

After Capt. Henry Pratt’s company of the 2nd Artillery left in early 1861, Fort Mackinac was virtually abandoned. Only Ordnance Sergeant William Marshall remained behind as the fort’s sole caretaker. A year later, things began to change at the post. In early 1862, victorious Federal forces recaptured much of Tennessee from the Confederacy. Andrew Johnson (later Lincoln’s Vice President, and ultimately the 17th President) was installed as the military governor of the state, a position he used to quickly arrest several prominent Confederate sympathizers.  On Johnson’s orders, Josephus (or Joseph) Conn Guild, George Washington Barrow, and William Giles Harding were placed under arrest and shipped north. Aware of Johnson’s actions, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton made preparations to exile the three men to Fort Mackinac, where their influence and wealth could not help the Confederate cause. Unfortunately, no Federal troops were immediately available to garrison Mackinac as guards; as a result, the three prisoners were sent temporarily to Detroit, where they were well-received by an inquisitive and sympathetic public.

Guild

Throughout April 1862, Federal officers in Detroit, Washington, and elsewhere scrambled to find a suitable garrison for Fort Mackinac. Eventually, Capt. Grover S. Wormer received orders to raise an independent company in Detroit specifically to guard the Tennesseans on Mackinac. Mustered into service in early May, Wormer’s unit, named the Stanton Guard after the Secretary of War, counted just fewer than 100 men in its ranks. Boarding the steamer Illinois around May 10, the new Stanton Guard and their three prisoners arrived on Mackinac Island shortly after.

Unfortunately for the new garrison of Fort Mackinac, a quick inspection of the nearly abandoned post revealed that it was not ready to accommodate the prisoners. As a result, the three men were lodged at the Mission House Hotel while the Stanton Guard repaired the quarters at the fort. The improvements complete, on May 25 the Tennesseans moved into the fort’s Wood Quarters to begin their incarceration at the post. Despite the repairs carried out by the Stanton Guard, the War Department quickly discarded any thought of housing more prisoners at Fort Mackinac, as the fort would require considerably more work to make it secure.

Harding

Despite their status as prisoners, the three men apparently enjoyed a pleasantly boring summer on Mackinac. They were allowed to explore the island with a small guard detachments, and wrote of Mackinac’s interesting geological formations and rich history. They frequently wrote letters home to Tennessee, and Guild and Barrow both complimented Capt. Wormer for his kindness and dignity. Indeed, the prisoners received such liberal treatment that in early August, Col. William Hoffman, the Commissary-General of Prisoners, reprimanded Wormer for failing to impose harsher restrictions upon the men.

As the summer drew to a close, the War Department reassessed the value of Fort Mackinac as a prison. Col. Hoffman recommended that the Stanton Guard be disbanded, as its men could be better used in the field. On September 10, the troops and prisoners departed Fort Mackinac, bound again for Detroit. The Stanton Guard formally mustered out and disbanded on September 25. Guild and Harding swore allegiance to the U.S. and were released on September 30, 1862, leaving only Barrow in custody. He was transferred to the more established military prison on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, near Sandusky, Ohio. He remained in prison until March 1863 when he was released as part of a prisoner exchange.

With the departure of the Stanton Guard, Fort Mackinac was again virtually abandoned, save for Ordnance Sergeant Marshall. He served alone for the next five years, until the Army garrisoned the post in 1867.

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