When you think of historical sites in Boston, Massachusetts, you think of the antebellum United States and the many Revolutionary era locations. With the site of the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the battle of Bunker Hill, and the Freedom Trail, the Revolution pervades everywhere – not to mention a visit to USS Constitution! If you look, there are also Civil War era sites to see such as the Robert G. Shaw 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment memorial in Boston Common, the General Joseph Hooker statue across the street at the Massachusetts State House, and even a Charlestown memorial honoring the U.S. military and naval veterans of the Civil War just blocks from the site of the battle of Bunker Hill. By far the most overlooked, but for me also the most rewarding, Civil War site in Boston would have to be a visit to Fort Warren.
Located on George’s Island in Boston Harbor, Fort Warren is one of two major fortifications you can visit in Boston, the other being Fort Independence. Both are standard post-War of 1812 coastal fortifications, much like the much more famous Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. It may not seem like it but Fort Warren has a significant and rich Civil War history that many are likely partially aware of, even if you do not realize it immediately. In late 1861, it was decided that since the fort was built on an island where escape would be difficult, it would serve as both a fortification guarding the coastal approaches to Boston as well as a prison to hold important Confederate leadership. Even the song John Brown’s Body was penned there!
Among the first prisoners sent to Fort Warren were James Mason and John Slidell, fresh from their capture by Captain Charles Wilkes and USS San Jacinto from RMS Trent. The two did not spend much time in Fort Warren, as once the Trent affair exploded into a major international incident they were released and sent on their way to Europe in early 1862.
Other Confederates soon followed, including Generals Lloyd Tilghman (after surrendering Fort Henry) and Simon B. Buckner (after surrendering Fort Donelson). By 1863 the fort held many Confederate military and naval officers including those from the captured ironclad CSS Atlanta and Lt. Charles Read’s Clarence–Tacony–Archer Summer 1863 raid along the East Coast, as well as General Isaac R. Trimble after he was left at Gettysburg during the Confederate retreat because of wounds received. At the end of the War, General Richard S. Ewell, Confederate Postmaster General John H. Reagan, and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens all spent time there. After the Civil War, the site remained in use as a coastal fortification in the Spanish American War, World War One, and World War Two, before shifting to a historic site.
Being on George’s Island, the only way to access Fort Warren is by boat. Fortunately, there is a ferry that makes runs from Boston’s Long Wharf to the fort. The ferry runs from late May to early October each year, but only operates on a 7-day-a-week daily schedule from mid-June to early September, with multiple round trips each operating day. Purchase of a ferry ticket allows you to return on any of the return trips and besides the ferry ticket, there is no charge to access or see the fort.
Though many visitors go to George’s Island simply for a day out of the city, much of Fort Warren is open for touring including the demi-lune guarding the fort’s sally port, the infirmary area, the bakery area, the fort’s main gun positions, a post-Civil war interior magazine, and post-Civil War lookout towers. A large 15-inch Rodman cannon prominently guards over the sally port. A small visitor’s center provides a history of the fort and handheld maps of the site. It also includes a couple of pretty good interactives such as a display showing the size of different artillery shells from guns emplaced in the fort at one point or another and another display showing how a turn-of-the-century disappearing coastal gun (like the ones installed there in the 1890’s) works. Though many of the positions in the fort are unrestored, visitors can walk openly amongst most of its interior. There is a trail that circles the exterior as well.
Boston is clearly visible from the island, and it makes one think about what Confederate prisoners pondered when they could see the city just a few miles away. There was a small monument dedicated in 1963 by the Massachusetts United Daughters of the Confederacy to honor the thirteen Confederates who died as prisoners of war at the site, but it was removed in 2017 and is currently part of the collections of the Massachusetts State Archives. A photo of that monument in place before its removal is currently available on the fort’s Wikipedia page.
There are some things that visitors should be aware of. Since it requires a boat trip, there are only a finite number of tickets sold for the ferry each day, so be sure to get those secured as early as possible. The island is a carry-on, carry-off site, meaning that all trash and items you bring must be personally removed from the island. There are no food or drinks available on the island except for some water fountains, but there are picnic tables and barbeque pits freely available for use. The small visitors center has bathrooms. Since the site is largely unrestored, some of the interior positions can get dark, even in the middle of a summer day, and I occasionally turned to the flashlight on my cell phone to ensure I saw where I was walking.
Fort Warren has many things to offer for those interested in U.S. coast artillery, Civil War era fortifications, Boston Harbor, the Civil War prisoner of war experience, or postwar confinement of Confederate leadership. As someone who likes exploring the naval side and international/diplomatic side of the conflict, it fits in well for me. If you like studying the Civil War and are in Boston for a couple of days, be sure to spend a few hours taking the ferry out to enjoy Fort Warren.
There are several accounts or letters from those kept prisoner at Fort Warren during the war. Here are a few worth checking out:
- Myrta Lockett Avary, ed. Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens: His Diary Kept when a Prisoner at Fort Warren, Boston Harbour, 1865; Giving Incidents and Recollections of His Prison Life and Some Letters and Reminiscences, (New York: Doubleday, Page, & Company, 1910).
- Donald C. Pfanz, ed., The Letters of General Richard S. Ewell: Stonewall’s Successor, (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2012). Chapter 11 contains about 75 pages of correspondence between Ewell and both family members and government leadership from both sides while imprisoned at Fort Warren in the summer of 1865.
- Pamela Chase Hain, A Confederate Chronicle: The Life of a Civil War Survivor, (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2005). This biography of Confederate sailor Thomas L. Wragg contains a chapter including numerous letters written during his imprisonment at Fort Warren in 1863 and 1864.