Historic Fort Ontario

Furnishing the West Guardhouse 1868-69

By Paul Lear, Historic Site Manager

Completion of the restoration and furnishing of the interior of the West Guardhouse at Fort Ontario State Historic Site in 2004 marks another major milestone reached in the efforts of the Friends of Fort Ontario, Inc. and NYS Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to restore the fort to its 1868 – 1872 appearance. This four year period represents the common age of the forts surviving buildings and a time for which much documentary and graphic material exists. The West Guardhouse is specifically restored and furnished to represent its appearance in October 1868, when it was used by the men of the Guard as their work and sleeping quarters. Prisoners at this time were still kept in the Storehouse and watched over by a member of the guard.

In October 1868 Fort Ontario was garrisoned by approximately 55 – 60 men of Company F, 42nd Infantry, Veteran Reserve Corps, comprised of men wounded or debilitated to various degrees by active service in the Union Army during the Civil War, 1861 – 1865. Typically the Guard detail of a company size post like Fort Ontario was comprised eight to twelve men, including the Corporal of the Guard. The normal rotation for a member of the Guard was two hours on post followed by four hours off. During inclement weather the sentinels could be changed more frequently. Just outside the door of the West Guardhouse stands a wooden sentry box for the soldier detailed to guard the entrance to the fort. All things considered, with approximately forty-five to fifty men of the company available to draw from, duty on the Guard at Fort Ontario could occur every four or five days in 1868.

As the visitor enters the West Guardhouse through the only door they are struck by the brightness of the whitewashed walls and stark furnishings. Physical evidence indicates that the limestone walls and ceiling of the West Guardhouse were covered with fine cement stucco covered with whitewash (lime mixed with water). Woodwork inside the building is painted red, one of few color choices available according to records. A two-tiered wooden bunk, based on an 1868 original at Fort Larned, Kansas, is situated in the corner for members of the guard to rest or sleep on during the four hours between shifts. During the entire twenty-four hour guard shift members of the guard are not allowed to remove their leather accoutrements or shoes so they can respond instantly to an attack or emergency. Guard members must also stay in or very near the guardhouse when not posted.

The Guard is usually the first to give warning of and respond to a fire on post. A shelf with pegs underneath extends along the south wall of the West Guardhouse to accommodate fire axes and fire buckets. Fire axes and buckets are painted red and black, the traditional colors of fire apparatus. Each bucket has a number stenciled in white on the side with the initials of the Quartermaster Department (Q.M.D.). A bugle and drum stand ready to be used to sound the daily calls that dictate the progress of the military day from reveille to taps. The daily schedule ordered by the Post Commandant, Brevet Lt. Colonel Robert L. Kilpatrick, are posted on the wall. If available a musician was normally attached to the guard. During the summer of 1868 Company F 42nd Infantry had only one drummer in its ranks, but, by October new soldier musicians were assigned to the company.

Gun racks to hold up to twelve muskets are attached to the north wall of the West Guardhouse on either side of the window. Company F 42nd Infantry was issued both the old Civil War muzzle-loading rifle-muskets and new breech-loading rifles; a box of 1,000 rounds of ammunition for each type of weapon is locked in the cell or closet behind the bunk. The West Guardhouse is a rallying point in case of attack. Five loopholes to fire through are framed and shuttered on the east wall.

A mantle over an empty fireplace opening dominates the west wall of the West Guardhouse. Although a custom fitted cast iron stove was originally planned for the fireplace opening, a conventional box stove was supplied instead and placed away from the wall. The black stovepipe turns up from the back of the stove and turns again into the original hole in the wall and chimney about 8 feet above the floor. A scuttle full of coal for the stove stands ready in the corner; several trips to the coal shed by the barracks are necessary during each twenty-four hour shift. Twelve thousand pounds of coal per month are allotted to the guard from October to May. This includes a one-third “latitude” increase allowed because of Oswego’s northern geographic location.

A pot of coffee simmers on the stove and the tin cups of the Guard stand ready to receive the hot liquid. The mess plates and eating utensils of the guard are in their haversacks hanging from the bunk and about the room. Meals must be brought to the Guard. Drinking water is contained is a covered bucket with dipper. During the evening light in the West Guardhouse is provided by candles in table lamps or sconces on the wall. A glass walled candle lantern is provided for the Corporal of the Guard when he makes his evening shift changes. Twelve pounds of Adamantine candles are allotted to the Guard each month and must light two buildings. There is no record of kerosene lamps or fuel allowed for the Guard in 1868.

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