29 March 1812, Fort Mackinac, Michigan Territory
“Whose shoes did ya piss on, boy? Can’t think of no other reason they’d send you here.”
The newly minted Ensign William Quinn, U.S. Army, turned toward the voice rising up to him from the dock and sneered.
“Piss off yourself, ya fleabag,” Quinn said, tossing his grip and satchel from the deck of the sloop Friends Good Will, nearly hitting the fetid trapper. Quinn, having caught the sloop four days earlier at Fort Detroit, shielded his eyes against the sun while taking the measure of this, his first posting. Not much to see. Fort Mackinac stood high on an isolated three-mile-wide island in the desolate reaches of northern Lake Huron.
Worse than I expected, Quinn thought, as he jumped onto the dock where nearly everyone living in the tiny town nestled below Fort Mackinac had gathered. They always did when any contact arrived from the outside world. But now their thirst for news was heightened as word of a possible war with Britain had reached even this distant outpost. All eyes were on Quinn.
“Hands off that clutch, shitloaf,” Quinn growled as the trapper moved to pick up Quinn’s bags. Although a rookie officer, Quinn didn’t mean to be intimidated by this scrounger. Quinn had witnessed and survived the worst kind of intimidation—the violence the English portioned out on his countrymen back in Ireland.
“Oh, pardon me, your lordship, I guess we ain’t had proper introductions,” the trapper said, touching his hand to his greasy forehead in a feigned salute. “The name’s Flint, and if’n I ain’t out of line, what’s yours? I mean, sir.”
Quinn stepped close to Flint’s face. The old man’s breath was as insulting as his insolence. Quinn wore the uniform of a Regular Army officer--the tall shako hat, dark blue short coat with piping and tassels and the single epaulette signifying his rank as a junior officer. That alone should have commanded some respect, he thought.
“I’ll handle it,” Quinn said, bending to snatch the bags. But Flint, surprisingly agile for a wizened sot, beat him to the satchel. “No, I got it, governor,” Flint said, brushing past Quinn. “Ya can always count on Flint for whatever’s your needs here at Fort Macky.”
The old man’s attitude was galling rather than ingratiating, and Quinn was trying to figure out a way of ridding himself of the coot when another voice boomed out.
“Get outta here, ya ‘possum fucking bag a pigshit.”
It was the sloop’s master, William Lee. Flint dropped the satchel and backed off.
“And if ya know what’s good for ya, weasel, you’ll get off my dock. I got supplies for the garrison, and you’re in the way, you heap a stinking vomit.”
Flint turned and made his escape though the small crowd that was enjoying the unexpected entertainment. Lowering his voice, Lee explained to Quinn: “Don’t let the looks fool ya. That son bitch is as crafty as they get. Been up here trapping and trading for as long as anyone can remember. Surviving that long among the savages and wild cats is a triumph in itself, worthy of admiration.”
“I could have handled him,” Quinn muttered.
Him and anything else his new circumstances could throw at him, Quinn thought. Irish immigrant or not, his character aligned with his young nation’s: too cocky to fear consequences. Perhaps too inexperienced to imagine them. He shared with his adopted nation a deep abhorrence of Europe, especially of its dynasties and sovereigns. Like his country, Quinn was ambitious, and could only imagine the future in broad stokes. Their mutual hunger for freedom and opportunity were as vast as the unexplored wilderness of the Great Lakes, Mississippi River and the incomprehensibly huge Louisiana Purchase.
Like his adventuresome nation, he yearned to explore and discover. He could see himself with Colonel Zebulon Pike, ranging over the Rocky Mountains in search of the Missouri River headwaters. Not stuck in this godforsaken outpost.
Quinn liked to portray a certain amount of grittiness, but self-doubts crept through the façade. Lee had detected as much, but was drawn to the Quinn’s Irish amiability, something that Quinn didn’t recognize in himself.
“Don’t waste your time with Flint; just don’t underestimate him,” Lee said turning to the sloop’s chief mate, with a familiar motion that said, let’s get unloaded. “One thing about Flint, he knows the value of information, and seeing you come ashore in that dandy uniform, he probably figured you might know something of worth.”
Lee already knew that Quinn couldn’t answer the question on everyone’s mind: Is war coming with Great Britain? If war came, Fort Mackinac, which guarded the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, would be most vulnerable. When Quinn had left his family in Baltimore, long weeks ago, war talk was only worthless speculation. Asked everywhere about the rumors, Quinn could only describe the fierce debates underway out East between anti-war Northern Federalists and pro-war Southern Republicans. Even if he had had any solid information, it would have been obsolete by the end of his trip.
“Shame that your first taste of this place had to be Flint. They’re not all like that.” Lee said, nodding toward a knot of civilian locals. “Got no news for ya,” Lee shouted matter-of-factly at them, ignoring their disappointment. “That, by the way is Lieutenant Porter Hancks, the fort commander,” Lee said, directing his gaze toward half-dozen blue uniforms making their way through the crowd on the dock. “Decent fellow; you’ll like him.”
Like him Quinn instantly did. Hancks’ face, although carved by the frontier sun and wind, spoke of a decent and caring man. As Hancks stopped, Quinn snapped to attention and saluted.
“No need for ceremony,” Hancks said, extending his hand. “Welcome to Fort Mackinac. What are your orders?”
Of course, Quinn thought as he reached inside his coat, he doesn’t know I’ve been assigned here. Word could not have gotten here before I did. Hancks did a quick read of the orders and looked up, puzzled.
“You’re reporting for duty? Here? Really? We haven’t had any relief for months. I just assumed they forgot we’re here.”
Quinn couldn’t tell if Hancks was joking. “Yes sir, I mean, no sir. If they had, I guess I wouldn’t be here.” Quinn cringed, sure the lieutenant would think him a dunce. If Hancks did, he gave no sign.
“A good point, Ensign. Let’s go up to the fort and get you settled. I’ll fill you in and perhaps that’ll explain my surprise. Gentlemen and ladies,” Hancks said addressing the crowd, “I’ll let you know if Ensign Quinn here has anything important to relate.”
Quinn was puffing by the time they had climbed up the 200-foot incline to the fort itself. Looking back, he was treated to a dramatic view—water glistening in the bright sun, extending for miles into narrowing straits’ throat.
“The British built this place decades ago to control shipping to the Orient,” Hancks explained. “That’s before they concluded there was no easy Northwest Passage to the Pacific, at least not through here. Please sit, Ensign. Water?”
“Sure, I mean, yes, sir. A bit parched after that climb.”
“Understandable. Still, it’s a good way to stay fit. Not much else to do up here.” Hancks gave Quinn’s orders a second look, shaking his head. “I’ll assign your duties after I’ve had time to think over this pleasant surprise.”
“Relax, Ensign, we’re quite informal up here. I see your first name is William. What do you prefer—Will, Bill, Willie or just straight William.”
“My friends and family call me Will; I think I’ve outgrown Willie.”
“So, Will, tell me something about yourself.”
“Well, sir, my family immigrated from Ireland when I was nine. Lost a little sister in the transit over. Rotten, stinking conditions aboard that transport, if I can say so.”
“Must have been an abomination.”
“Yes sir, it was.” Quinn began relating how his father and his family had found the religious, economic and political freedom they sought in Maryland, a colony founded by Catholics. The Quinns had been in the linen business in Dublin, and now, without the punitive tariffs imposed by the English and aided by an exploding American market for their products, the family business prospered.
“Then why’d you leave Baltimore?” Hancks asked.
Quinn had never really settled that question in his own mind. With three other brothers in the business, felt a little crowded. But there was more. Quinn wanted a taste of America’s freedom and opportunity. He thought a stretch in the Army would let him assay his choices, and it was easy to sign up. With only 5,000 officers and men in the unpopular regular Army, a fit young man was always welcome. Most of those interested in a military career opted to serve in the more highly valued state militias. Americans still mistrusted a standing Army, thanks to their subjugation as British subjects.
Quinn quickly discovered, though, that influence mattered, even in the lowly regular Army. Young officers with political connections secured choice posts in the nation’s new capital city or in one of the nation’s emerging metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, New York or Baltimore. But Quinn had little clout. Thus, his posting to the 57-man garrison so far out of sight that it well might have been above the Arctic Circle.
“My good fortune,” Hancks said. “I don’t need anyone here who got where he is because of his father’s connections.” Apparently, Hancks, too, lacked such connections.
“Thank you, sir. I kind of prefer it that way, too.” Just a little lie, Quinn thought. In truth, if war was coming, Quinn wanted in. He grandly imagined killing some English to avenge his family and all the Irish the British heel. But, he wondered, why would the British want this isolated outpost? The whole war could pass, Quinn feared, without his ever seeing a Brit.
“Now, this’s the situation here,” Hancks began, interrupting Quinn’s thoughts. “The British didn’t give up this fort for years after the end of the war. When they left, the brass figured we had to occupy it, even though we were short on troops.” Hancks glanced at Quinn to make sure that his eyes hadn’t already glazed over. They hadn’t.
“As you could see on the way up, the island is crawling with natives. We keep an uneasy truce. Except for a few incidents, things are fairly peaceful. If the British would just stop stirring them up, we all could go home.”
Again, the damn British, Quinn thought.
“Can’t say for sure how many Indians call this home, but on any day I’d say there are 500 or more stomping around in the woods beyond. Whites, we’ve got a couple a hundred, blacksmiths and the like. I don’t count the trappers who are in and out all the time.”
Quinn understood: Fort Mackinac was alone, in time and place.
“Now, let’s hear what you know about impending war. Being from out East, what you know has to be fresher than what we’ve got.”