By Dale Thomas
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the winter of 2002.
I was stationed on Governors Island during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. Lying 500 yards off the southern tip of Manhattan, the 170-acre island was at the time First Army Headquarters. A few years later, the base became a Coast Guard station until being closed down in 1997. After a great deal of government red tape, I was able to tour the closed base in the summer of 1998. The next day my son, Geoffrey, and I looked down on the island from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower. Tragically, the skyline of lower Manhattan again resembles what I remember from my Army days. Governors Island, which had been a U.S. military post since the Revolution, will be turned over next year to New York City and reopened as a park.
The casualties from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 now rival the Battle of Antietam as the single bloodiest day on American soil. Although built well before the Civil War, the old forts on Governors Island are an historic link between those two days in September, separated by one hundred and thirty-nine years. Within these walls, POW’s were confined at a time when another enemy threatened the security of the United States. New York City was the first northern locality to receive Confederate prisoners.
Standing on the northwestern shore of Governors Island, Castle Williams was completed in 1811. Two hundred feet in diameter, the circular fort has walls of red sandstone that are forty feet high and eight feet thick. In a letter to Secretary Stanton, Colonel William Hoffman, Commissary General of Prisoners, said the fort had “two tiers of guns in casemates and one of 15-inch guns in barbettes, the third floor of which consists of arched rooms for the garrison, some 500 prisoners may be accommodated.”
At one time or another from September of 1861 to the end of the war, Castle Williams held as many as 1,500 Confederate enlisted men and U. S. Army deserters. Fewer in number, Confederate officers were billeted in Fort Jay, which had been built in the 1790’s on a knoll in a north-central location on the island. Redbrick and star-shaped, the structure has four bastions that once contained one hundred guns and a drawbridge over a dry moat. Governors Island was also a staging area for Federal troops whose presence maintained security on the base.
While Rebel officers could occasionally walk outside the walls of Fort Jay, Dr. William J. Sloan, Medical Director of the Federal army, reported the prisoners in Castle Williams “are crowded into an ill-ventilated building which has always been an unhealthy one when occupied by large bodies of men. There are no means of heating the lower tier of gun rooms and no privies within the area… There are now upwards of eighty cases of measles among them, a number of cases of typhoid fever, pneumonia, intermittent fever, etc….”
Before the attack on the World Trade Center, the Draft Riot in July of 1863 was the worst violence suffered by New Yorkers. Among others, Rebel agents were blamed for helping to incite the riots that resulted in at least two thousand dead and about eight thousand wounded. More than three hundred buildings were looted and either damaged or destroyed by fire. The police force was overwhelmed by the crazed mob, and Federal troops had to be called in to help restore law and order. Most of the garrison on Governors Island was sent to protect the U.S. Sub-Treasury Building in lower Manhattan. Now under-defended and vulnerable, Governors Island was attacked, but the insurgents were driven back into the water.
Fearing another attempt to free the Confederate prisoners, Federal warships sailed into position between the Battery and Governors Island. While further north, Captain Stephen Sluyter, commanding a gunboat off the foot of Wall Street, was ordered to “open fire on Wall or Pine Street or both, if signaled accordingly” to stop any attempt to loot the U.S. Sub-Treasury building. Fortunately the orders were not necessary, but when the four days of rioting ended, the civilian casualties were the worst in American history until September 11, 2001.
During the last year of the Civil War, Rebel agents again tried to cause havoc in New York City. A number of fires were set that included nineteen hotels, two theaters, Barnum’s museum, several vessels, stores and factories. Since military intelligence had improved, the plot was uncovered in time, and the damage was minimal in comparison to July of 1863. Eight of the Rebel terrorists escaped into Canada, but one was caught in Detroit. He was returned to the city, tried in a military court and hanged at Fort LaFayette on Staten Island.
Three days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Captain William R. Webb became the only Confederate prisoner to escape from Governors Island. Webb later became a Senator from Tennessee, the dramatic story being told in his campaign literature: “He wore a faded Confederate uniform, and found himself enjoying the doubtful freedom of a hostile city clad in this garb and wringing wet. A citizen spoke to him in Battery Park. ‘Who are you?’ he said. ‘How did you come to fall in?’ ‘I swam across from the Island,’ Webb answered. ‘I escaped from the prison stockade…’ The citizen laughed and passed on.” Webb walked about the city for three days telling his story to others, but he remained free to go his own way. Why should anyone care? The war had been won.