Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Visit to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor

Last month my wife, kids, and I headed to the Boston area to visit with her parents. This trip is fast becoming an annual ritual, and as part of our vacation, I make sure to squeeze in a visit to local Civil War sites with my father-in-law and fellow buff (aka "the Colonel"). Last year I fashioned a Civil War-themed tour of Lexington and Concord. This summer I made a long-anticipated trip to historic Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

The Colonel and I drove to downtown Boston on the last Saturday in June and took the thirty-minute ferry ride to Georges Island from the Long Wharf in Boston Harbor. Fort Warren occupies most of the 53-acre island. The fortification is part of the Boston Harbor Islands, A National Park Area, which is jointly administered by federal, state, municipal, and nonprofit agencies. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has the main responsibility for Georges Island. The Colonel and I made a stop at the museum in the Visitor Center and then joined a Ranger-guided walking tour of the fort.

The U.S. Government began construction of Fort Warren in 1833 using granite from Quincy and Cape Ann, Massachusetts. The five-sided fortification was designed to protect the main shipping channels into Boston. The Army named the fort after Dr. Joseph Warren, a general of the Massachusetts Militia who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775.

The walls of Fort Warren dominate the wharf at Georges Island. The red brick building, which now houses the Visitor Center, was built in 1906 and served as a mine storage and servicing station in both World Wars. The Visitor Center was opened in 2010 and contains an array of informative exhibits on the history of Fort Warren. A short introductory film is also shown throughout the day. Any visit to Fort Warren should start here.
A wartime view of Fort Warren from the Dec. 7, 1861 edition of Harper's Weekly (courtesy of
Fort Warren was not altogether finished when the Civil War erupted in 1861. The Second Battalion of Massachusetts Infantry, also known as the "Tigers," arrived in April 1861 and began work to prepare the fort for occupancy and use. During the spring and summer months of 1861, the 11th, 12th, and 14th Massachusetts trained at Fort Warren before heading to the front around Washington. The fort was regularly garrisoned by Massachusetts units.

In October 1861, the Union decided to use the fort to hold Confederate military and political prisoners. Around 2,200 prisoners were kept at Fort Warren throughout the war. Most prison stays were relatively short in duration. Conditions at the fort were rather humane compared to other Union prisoner of war camps, and only thirteen prisoners died in captivity. Civilians in Boston even made charitable donations of food, clothing, blankets, medicine, books and other items. Gens. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Richard Ewell, and Isaac Trimble were among the more famous Confederate military prisoners. Confederate diplomats James Mason and John Slidell were sent to Fort Warren following their capture aboard the British mail steamer, Trent, in November 1861. The arrest of the two officials heightened tensions between the United States and Britain. The envoys remained at the fort until the following January, when they were set free on orders from Secretary of State William Seward. One of the fort's most famous prisoners, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, was held there from May to October 1865. Other political prisoners included members of the Maryland Legislature and the police marshal of Baltimore.

The fort continued in military service through the end of World War II. Various artillery improvements were made over the years, including the installation of huge 12-inch guns on disappearing carriages around the turn of the last century. Fort Warren was decommissioned in the early 1950s. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts acquired possession from the U.S. Government in 1958 and opened the fort to the public in 1961. Georges Island, including Fort Warren, became part of the National Park System in 1996.

The guardhouse (left) on the outside of Fort Warren. The arch over the walkway was built right before World War II. The guardhouse served as the fort's security office. Soldiers doing garrison duty were also jailed here as punishment for violating army rules.  

 A dirt coverface was constructed on two of the fort's five sides (Fronts II and III); this demilune was erected on the shore side of the coverface. The demilune was the site of one of the few attempts to escape from Fort Warren. In October 1863, a Maine soldier who was imprisoned at Fort Warren for desertion widened a musket loophole and slipped through. He leaped into the channel, where a passing schooner discovered him. The soldier was returned to the fort. The supposed loophole is the fourth opening in the demilune from the left. A historical marker next to the loophole describes the story of the unsuccessful escape.

A view of the sallyport along the Front III exterior wall. 

A picture of the sallyport along the interior side of the fort's Front III. The date of 1850 indicates the year by which most of the work on the fort was complete. A marker indicating the fort's designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1970 is located to the right of the entrance.
A view from the sallyport across the parade ground to the Front I casemates. The parade ground was used for military drills and reviews, as well as recreational purposes. The Union authorities permitted Confederate prisoners to exercise here. Incidentally, Fort Warren gave birth to the popular war tune, John Brown's Body, which was played on the parade ground by the band of the 12th Massachusetts. Pvt. John Brown was a soldier from the Massachusetts Tiger Battalion who shared a name with the famous abolitionist executed for his role in the raid on Harpers Ferry. While assigned to garrison duty at the fort, Brown's fellow soldiers began to make jokes about his name. For example, when Brown was late to drill, they wondered how it could be Brown because Brown was already dead. A parody was soon set to the tune of a well-known hymn. Upon arriving at Fort Warren in May 1861, the members of the 12th Massachusetts adopted the song as their own and carried it to the front. Later, Julia Ward Howe took John Brown's Body and penned the new lyrics that became The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Front III casemates, which were used to hold captured Confederate officers and political prisoners. Union officers were also quartered here. A door leading to the cell of Confederate commissioners Mason and Slidell is to the right of the historical marker on political prisoners.  The chain link fence detracts somewhat from the authentic Civil War atmosphere!

This room was supposedly part of Mason and Slidell's cell at Fort Warren. The Confederate diplomats enjoyed spacious and relatively comfortable accommodations while held at the fort.
Ovens in the bakery. Food was prepared and stored in this area of the fort. Enlisted men held at Fort Warren ate standard rations, including bread, salt beef, potatoes, and coffee. The Confederate officers and political prisoners often supplemented their diet with purchases from Boston merchants.
The granite platforms for 10-inch Rodman guns that were installed on the Front II Terreplein during the Civil War. The guns could be moved along the traverse arches to the rear of the platforms. Other artillery at Fort Warren include 15-inch Rodmans, 8-inch Columbiads, and 100-pounder Parrotts.

A view across the parade ground to the Front III casemates and sallyport. The Boston skyline is visible in the distance.

Front I casemates, which housed enlisted men, both Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners. Some Confederates complained of overcrowding in this part of the fort. The prisoners would boil beef, soup, and coffee in large kettles placed outside the doors.
A portion of the hospital located in Bastion D. Prisoners suffering from a variety of ailments, including measles, mumps, and typhoid fever, were treated here. A Confederate doctor imprisoned at the fort was given permission to work in the hospital during his time on Georges Island.
The door to the living quarters of Col. Justin Dimick, the commander of Fort Warren from October 1861 to November 1863. Dimick was an old Army Regular known for his compassion towards the Confederate prisoners under his supervision. His son, a Union artillery lieutenant who was later killed at Chancellorsville, was given a letter from Confederate POWs requesting that he be treated humanely in the event of capture.
A memorial outside the fort's walls dedicated to the thirteen Confederate prisoners who died there.  One of the dead, Aquila Glassock, was a member of Mosby's Rangers. The Boston Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected this memorial in 1963.
The visit to Fort Warren reminded me once again that Boston's ties to the Civil War run deep. As Kevin Levin observed in a post the other day, although Boston's Revolutionary War past may have rendered the Civil War and its memory "largely invisible," "[i]t doesn’t take much effort. . . to bring this world back into focus." His words ring true, and Fort Warren is one such example of the Civil War's living presence in Beantown. The next time you get up that way, be sure to take a trip to Georges Island and check out the fort. The site is a true gem with a fascinating story to tell about how the Civil War affected this corner of New England.

For more information about visiting Fort Warren and Georges Island, including transportation options, see here.


Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Fort Warren, Georges Island, Curriculum Packet, Liberty or Treason? The Case of Josiah H. Gordon (2005); Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Georges Island: A Self-Guided Tour of Fort Warren (park brochure available at the Visitor Center); National Park Service, Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area (website); Jay Schmidt, Fort Warren: New England's Most Historic Civil War Site (2003); Jay Schmidt, History of Fort Warren (website containing many vintage photographs of the fort).


Unknown said...

I am a tour guide in Savannah, Ga., and plan on visiting Ft. Warren some day, God Willing. Thanks for all of your hard work in putting this together. John M.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, and I hope you get up there! I've been to Savannah a couple of times. I really liked the city, including the food. I was there for work so did not have time for a ton of site seeing, but I do recall visiting Sherman's HQ.