ECW Weekender: Fort Warren

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.

The interior of Fort Warren. In the background you can see the fort’s sally port, a 15-inch Rodman cannon above it, and Boston in the distance.

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!

Entrance to where James Mason, John Slidell, Alexander Stephens, and John Reagan were held prisoner.

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 ClarenceTaconyArcher 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.

Ticket booth and embarkation point on Boston’s Long Wharf for the ferry to Fort Warren.

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.

The ferry to George’s Island and Fort Warren.

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.

15-inch Rodman cannon emplaced on the fort’s main parapet above the sally port. A Spanish American War guard tower lies in the distance.

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.

Confederate military and naval officers held as prisoners of war at For Warren, Massachusetts. NH 52793, Naval History and Heritage Command.

There are several accounts or letters from those kept prisoner at Fort Warren during the war. Here are a few worth checking out:

6 Responses to ECW Weekender: Fort Warren

  1. Yeah for Ft Warren!!! And definitely use that flashlight! Hopefully it will keep Ft Warren’s “permanent” resident away…the Lady in Black. Hahaha to be sure she was the product of the imagination of the “Flying Santa” Edward Rowe Snow…or was she??? I was out there last summer and was my usual jumpy self inside the fort. A prior visit was with my Austen bookclub when we read “Gone With The Wind”….although I certainly did not want to read it.

  2. We used to bring the students for our end of the year field trip, maybe a half dozen or more times over the years. Cook some hamburgers and hotdogs, play some volleyball, wander the fort. An administrator had heard a news report about kids smoking weed on the trip. Not our kids, I assured him. We searched them before they got on the bus.

  3. Fort Warren resident Alexander Stephens had a dry sense of humor. When called to testify before the Congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction in April 1866, the first question asked was— “What means have you had since Lee’s surrender to ascertain the sentiments of the people of Georgia with regard to the Union?” Without referencing his imprisonment, Stephens wryly replied that from May 11 until October 25, he had “no means of knowing anything” other than through newspapers and letters.

  4. Are the thirteen Confederate POWs who died there buried at Fort Warren? Was the marker, now removed, a memorial or was it a grave marker?

    1. Hey Michael, it was not a grave marker, simply something to note the names of the Confederates who died there. No prisoners of war (or anyone to my knowledge) is buried on George’s Island.

      1. Thanks for making that clear to me. I can understand the removal of a memorial, though I do not agree with such, but I find the removal of grave markers abhorrent.

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