In 2003 the Friends of Fort Ontario established a fund to provide materials for restoration and furnishing of the West Guardhouse interior at Fort Ontario State Historic Site. Abandoned and gutted of its interior finish through most of the 20th century, the West Guardhouse was an enigma until 1988 when a report was written describing the buildings’ history and condition. Now, after completion of a furnishing plan, the former cave-like interior of the West Guardhouse has been transformed back to its original freshly plastered and whitewashed vibrant appearance.
Guardhouses to hold soldier prisoners and their soldier guards were necessary on any army post of the nineteenth century. Disciplinary problems and desertion plagued the regular U.S. Army for most of the nineteenth century. Punishments before the Civil War usually involved some sort of physical action against the offending soldier such as flogging, bucking and gagging, hanging up by the thumbs, riding the wooden horse, etc, as well as physical labor and confinement in prison rooms and cells.
On May 11, 1849 two privates of Company F 4th U.S. Infantry at Fort Ontario under the command of Major George Wright endured food deprivation, a grueling day long balancing act for a month, and embarrassment as punishment for drunkenness. The two privates were sentenced by court martial to be confined in the cells on bread and water for one month, and during the days of which to stand on the head of a barrel from reveille to retreat (except half an hour for each meal) with a board round the neck inscribed with word “Drunkard” on it. Desertion was the most serious military offense and in wartime punishable by death. In 1850 three privates at Fort Ontario were found guilty of desertion and sentenced by a general court martial each “to be indelibly marked on the left hip with the letter ‘D’ one and a half inches in length, to receive on the bare back 50 lashes well laid on with rawhide, to have his head shaved and to be drummed out of the service.”
In 1861 Congress abolished flogging and made it clear that no cruel punishments would be allowed in the U.S. Army. However, officers generally ignored the order against cruel punishments into the mid-1870’s. There was no uniformity in punishments meted out by General or Garrison Courts Martial until 1891 when Congress enacted a standardized military penal code. Until the establishment of the military prison at Fort Leavenworth in 1875 those soldiers accused of serious crimes such as murder were tried in civilian courts and incarcerated in civilian prisons.
After the Civil War army surgeons led the fight to improve living conditions for enlisted men in barracks and guardhouses. While officers generally supported the reform movement, many resisted guardhouse improvements because they benefited those soldiers upsetting discipline under their command. Cells and prison rooms were very often poorly vented, dark, smelly, uncomfortable, and like at Fort Ontario, far from the stove. During a typical cold Oswego winter on January 10, 1875, Post Surgeon H.J. Phillips requested straw filled bedsacks for the prisoners sleeping on the cold brick floors of the Fort Ontario prison rooms. Dr. Phillips made the request “In view of the fact that large numbers of General Prisoners confined at the Post,have to be taken upon the Sick Report, suffering from Catarrah and Rheumatism.” Post Commandant H.C. Davies respectfully “disapproved” the request for straw ticks. Two weeks later Dr. Phillips asked that a “Cook be detached for the Post Hospital; the large number of patients making the help of an additional attendant necessary.” The request for an extra cook was “not complied with.”
When the fourth version of Fort Ontario was built between 1839 and 1844 the functions of a guardhouse were contained in a building used for other purposes as well. The first floor of the Storehouse contained the office of the Post Commandant, the guardroom, two prison rooms, and three cells; a second floor contained two rooms for commissary and ordnance stores. It is doubtful that the activities of the Post Commandant could have been carried out as efficiently as possible with the comings and goings of prisoners and guards. By the Civil War (1861-1865) plans were made to move the activities of the guards and prisoners to two new guardhouses flanking the Sally Port or entrance to the fort.
In 1867 construction of the two new guardhouses began. The West Guardhouse was furnished and occupied by October 1868 when a second fire and fuel ration became necessary for the guard. Between January and March 1869 materials were purchased for constructing bunks, gunracks and other furniture needed to complete the interior furnishing of the East Guardhouse. Despite their similarities in outward appearance and the fact that both guardhouses were built nearly simultaneously, there are differences in construction between the two worth noting. For instance, the arched ceiling of the West Guardhouse was built with concrete poured into forms and supported by a steel I-beams, while that of the East Guardhouse was built of brick and supported by steel I-beams. This is a very early instance of I-beam construction. The loopholes to fire muskets through on the East Guardhouse provide a 180 degree arc of fire, while those of the West Guardhouse only point towards the Sally Port.
Despite having been built to accommodate the guard and prisoners, the East and West Guardhouses were used for their originally intended purposes for only a few months. When the headquarters battery of an artillery regiment arrived at Fort Ontario with its colonel in April 1869, more room was needed for officers quarters . Subsequently, the post headquarters and company office were moved out of Officers Quarters 2 and into the East and West Guardhouses. The guard and the prison facilities reverted back to the Storehouse and remained there until April 1901 when the army abandoned the old fort. In 1928 when the army restored and reoccupied the fort interior the old guardhouses were ignored. During the 1950’s most of the cement/stucco interior finish was sandblasted, leaving the guardhouses with damp and bare empty walls.