Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery
Mackinac State Park
Mackinac Island, Michigan 49757
Size: 1 acre
Number of interments: Approximately 108
Open: Daily from sunrise to sunset
Information: Contact Great Lakes National Cemetery, 4200 Belford Road, Holly, MI 48442. Telephone: (248) 328-0386
Just north of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula lies Mackinac Island, the number one tourist destination in the state. In 1898 the island banned motorized traffic, so the chief modes of transportation continue to be bicycles and horses. Horse-drawn tour carriages lecture about the island’s native history, the time it served as a hub in the fur trade, and the two battles fought on its soil during the War of 1812. Since those exciting days, the island has become a quiet, relaxing retreat where life moves at a slower pace.
The British founded Fort Mackinac on the Island in 1780. (It replaced the earlier, more-vulnerable Fort Michilimackinac on the mainland, which the British had taken from the French.) In 1796, America took over Fort Mackinac, but it was recaptured by the British in July 1812, during the first land engagement of the War of 1812. During a second battle, in 1814, Americans attacked but did not recapture the fort. It was eventually returned to the United States after the war. The fort remained active until 1895, by which time, Mackinac Island had grown from a fur trading outpost into a summer resort.
Behind the old fort, the small Post Cemetery lies in a slight depression, surrounded by a white picket fence. Regulation military headstones stand at attention in straight lines, joined by a variety of other markers.
Interments may have begun in the Post Cemetery in the mid-1820s. Records show that 40 American soldiers died at the fort after 1796, but only a dozen graves remained marked in 1835 when Dr. C. R. Gilman described the picket fence around the Post Cemetery and reported that a former post commander built it at his own expense.
Of the 108 known burials in the Post Cemetery, 76 have headstones labeled unknown. Phil Porter, in his Park Service pamphlet Mackinac Island’s Post Cemetery, blamed post commanders for the number of unknown soldiers. They kept poor records and didn’t maintain the site. Some of the unknowns have since been identified.
A sign outside the cemetery fence lists some of the people known to be interred there. German-born Civil War Private Ignatius Goldhofer came to Mackinaw Island in 1869. In 1872, his wife buried him in the Post Cemetery. Josiah and Mary Cowles buried two children here, leaving them behind when Lieutenant Cowles was stationed elsewhere. Also in the Post Cemetery lies civilian Edward Biddle, who’d served as village president, sheriff, and surveyor.
A lamb sleeps atop the monument for Willam A. and Frank M., sons of William and Matilda Marshall, aged “2 years, 4 months, 9 days” and “2 years, 3 months.” While it’s rare for wives to be allowed burial in military cemeteries, I don’t think I’d ever before seen children buried amidst the soldiers. Their presence testified to the isolation of inhabitants of the island. Their epitaph made me sad: “Short pain, short grief, dear babe’s (sic) were they, now joys, eternal and divine.”
The last military funeral on the island celebrated Private Coon Walters in 1891. Four years later, the U.S. army abandoned Fort Mackinac, leaving behind the military burial ground. The cemetery fell into disrepair until the Mackinac Island State Park Commission began maintenance in 1905.
This didn’t end the cemetery’s troubles. Caretakers in the early 20th century made mistakes on replacement headstones. Unfortunately, as in so many other graveyards, caretakers lined the markers up for ease of mowing. The headstones bear little connection to the bodies beneath the ground.
Still, memory of the soldiers and their families is kept alive by the ever-circling tour carriages. The cemetery is a very peaceful place to explore, once you get away from the bustle of the bike liveries and fudge shops on Mackinac Island’s main street.
Currently both the Park Service and the Bureau of Veteran Affairs oversee the cemetery. It stands with Arlington, Gettysburg, and the Punchbowl as one of four cemeteries in the United States who always fly their flags at half-mast.
Veteran’s Administration site for the Post Cemetery
Mackinac History leaflet on the Post Cemetery
Mackinac Island historical sites
Other military cemeteries on Cemetery Travel: