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.
Williams, Governors Island, New York
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
At one time or another from
September of 1861 to the end of the war, Castle Williams held as
many as 1500 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....”
Fort Jay, Governors Island, New York
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