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Aerial photo of Georges Island and Fort Warren

Fort Warren is a historic fort on the 28-acre (110,000 m2) Georges Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor. The fort is pentagonal star fort, made with stone and granite, and was constructed from 1833–1861, completed shortly after the beginning of the American Civil War. Fort Warren defended the harbor in Boston, Massachusetts, from 1861 through the end of WWII, and during the Civil War served as a prison for Confederate officers and government officials. The fort remained active through the Spanish-American War and World War I, and was re-activated during World War II. It was permanently decommissioned in 1947 and is now a National Historic Landmark and a tourism site. It was named for Revolutionary war hero Dr. Joseph Warren who sent Paul Revere on his famous ride. Dr. Warren was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill.


Guardhouse (left) and sentry box (right) about 1861

Fort Warren was built from 1833 to 1861 and was completed shortly after the beginning of the American Civil War. The Army engineer in charge during the bulk of the fort's construction was Colonel Sylvanus Thayer best known for his tenure as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. During the Civil War, the island fort served as a prison for captured Confederate army and navy personnel, elected civil officials from the state of Maryland, as well as Northern political prisoners.

James M. Mason and John Slidell, the Confederate diplomats seized in the Trent affair, were among those held at the fort. Military officers held at Fort Warren include Richard S. Ewell, Isaac R. Trimble, John Gregg, Adam "Stovepipe" Johnson, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., and Lloyd Tilghman. High ranking civilians held at Fort Warren include Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, and Confederate Postmaster General John Henninger Reagan. The prison camp had a reputation for humane treatment of its detainees. When the camp commander's son, Lieutenant Justin E. Dimick, left Fort Warren for active duty in the field with the Second U.S. Artillery, he was given a letter from Confederate officers in the camp urging good care should he be captured. (He was later mortally wounded at Chancellorsville in May, 1863.)

The famous Union marching song John Brown was written at the fort using a tune from an old Methodist camp song. The song was carried to the Army of the Potomac by the men of the "Webster Regiment" (12th Massachusetts Infantry) who had mustered in at Fort Warren. Julia Ward Howe heard this song while visiting Washington DC. At the suggestion of her minister, Howe was encouraged to write new words. The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which was initially published as a poem, was later matched with the melody of the "John Brown" song and became one of the best remembered songs of the Civil War era. (See also:List of Civil War POW Prisons and Camps)

After the Civil War

Fort Warren remained active through the Spanish-American War and World War I. The fort was modified in the late 1890s through the beginning of the twentieth century to accommodate the newer rifled ordnance then being developed for coastal defense. During World War II, the fort served as a control center for Boston Harbor's south mine field, a precaution taken in anticipation of potential attacks by Kriegsmarine U-boats. At that time, Fort Warren was staffed by personnel of the 241st Coast Artillery (Harbor Defense), a Massachusetts National Guard unit that was federalized in September, 1940. Fort Warren was permanently decommissioned after 1950.

Decommissioning and opening to the public

The parade ground of Fort Warren. Cannon once were mounted on the granite bases in the foreground.

Fort Warren was owned by the U.S. federal government until 1958, when the state obtained possession from the General Services Administration. In 1961, the fort was reopened to the public after initial restoration efforts.

Today, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation maintains and administers the fort, which is the centerpiece of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. The fort is reachable by ferry from downtown Boston, Hingham, or Hull to Georges Island. Transfers are then available for those who wish to visit some of the other Harbor Islands.

The fort is typically open from early or mid May through Columbus Day weekend. DCR Rangers offer guided tours or you may explore on your own. An information booth just outside the sally port (the main entrance to the fort) posts information about available activities. The island offers a well-stocked snack bar, water fountains, and a large number of composting toilets. There is also a museum located in the old mine storehouse (the red brick building opposite the ferry dock), a number of picnic tables, and a children's play structure. The tops of several of the bastions (the walls) and several of the casemates and magazines beneath them are open to visitors.

See also



  • Howard, Frank Key, "Fourteen Months in American Bastiles," Baltimore: Kelly, Hedian & Piet, 1863.
  • Schmidt, Jay, Fort Warren: New England's Most Historic Civil War Site, Amherst, N.H.: Unified Business Technologies Press, 2003. ISBN 0-9721489-4-9.
  • Hesseltine, William B. (ed) "Civil War Prisons," Kent State University Press, 1962. (This book contains a chapter on Fort Warren's use as p.o.w. depot.)
  • Stephens, Alexander H. "Recollections," His Diary Kept While a Prisoner at Fort Warren.(A reprint edition is available from Louisiana State University Press.)
  • Marshall, John A., "The History of the Illegal Arrests and Imprisonment of American Citizens.." 1874. (A reprint edition is currently listed by a major internet bookseller.)

External links

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