Escape From Fort Warren

Fort Warren is a pentagonal fortress located on Georges Island in Boston Harbor.  Older reference works call the island “George’s Island,” while modern texts have removed the apostrophe; readers can decide for themselves which spelling is more authentic.  The island’s fortress was one of the most solidly constructed and intimidating military installations of nineteenth century America. It is, in fact, more of a dungeon than a fortress. 

Construction began on the island in 1833, and was not finally completed until 1861. Its materials are mostly solid, hewn granite blocks quarried from Quincy and Cape Ann.  As a federal installation it saw service from the Civil War until the end of the Second World War in 1945; it was decommissioned in 1947 and turned over to the administration of the State of Massachusetts as a historic site. 

The fort was the birthplace of the famous Union marching song John Brown’s Body.  There are many variations of the verses in the song, but no one doubts that the song was first composed by members of the 2nd Infantry, or “Tiger Battalion.”  This unit was commanded by Major Ralph Newton and arrived at the fort in late April of 1861.  The man who actually wrote the song was a Scotsman named John Brown.  He was constantly being teased by his comrades over the fact that his name was the same as the man who had led the raid on Harper’s Ferry in Virginia.  He finally decide that he might as well do something about it, and wrote the song with some help from four other friends. 

The parapet of the fort—made of huge blocks of cut granite—rose seventy feet from the water and in places was about eight feet in thickness.  A good part of Fort Warren’s prison was subterranean, a fact that added to the fearsome nature of the place.  The prisonhouse was accessed by first descending down a long flight of granite steps.  After walking about fifty feet and turning left, the visitor was confronted with the cells and various divisions of the holding facility; it could accommodate a thousand prisoners at one time.  Any prisoner walking down the steps to the dungeon would have been in no doubt about the nature of his predicament:  he was entombed in a solid fortress on an island in the middle of  harbor, surrounded by strong currents, high winds, and a hostile population. 

Large rats were a frequent problem at the fort, tormenting prisoners and jailers alike.  Fort Warren was a nineteenth century Yankee Alcatraz, with the difference being that, being a military fortress, it was arguably even more secure than that isolated rock in San Francisco.  I grew up in Massachusetts but regret that I have never visited the place. Someday I intend to make good on my promise to do so.  For Fort Warren was the scene of one of the Civil War’s most incredible tales of endurance and escape.  The source for the following account is Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. [1]

In June 1863 the Confederate ships Tacony and Atlanta were captured by the Union navy.  Their crews were taken into custody and transported to Fort Warren on Georges Island.  Their war, said the camp commandant, was over; they were expected to sit out the remainder of hostilities until they could be repatriated as part of a formal treaty.  But lieutenant Joseph W. Alexander, an officer of the Atlanta, was not interested in sitting out the war playing cards and walking the fort’s parade grounds.  It was his initiative that led to the dramatic prison break that took place on August 19, 1863. 

A group of Confederate prisoners at Fort Warren. Lt. Alexander is the man marked as number 24.

Alexander was one day exploring the pump room, which was located under the cells that housed the prisoners.  As we have noted, the prison is subterranean; as he looked through one of the gunnery loopholes in the pump room to the open air of the fort’s grounds above him, he wondered if it might be possible for a man to slip through it.  It was a very narrow opening, only about seven inches wide.  He was able to fit his head through it, but not his body; he removed his clothing and tried again, and found that he could, with great difficulty, wriggle his way through it.  But Alexander was a small man; only men of similar stature and build would be able to duplicate his feat. 

Alexander conveyed his discovery to a select group of trusted comrades.  It turned out that only three others were able to squeeze through the gunnery loophole:  Capt. Charles W. Reed (the commanding officer of the Tacony), lieutenant James Thurston (an officer of the Atlanta), and a quartermaster named Reid Saunders.  After much discussion, they formed their plans.  They would slip through the opening on a windy night, so that their movements might be concealed by ambient noise.  Once outside of the prison works, they would try to find materials on the shoreline that could be used to float to freedom.  The general plan was to steal a nearby sailboat and pilot it as far north as possible, dodging US naval pursuers until they reached Canadian territory.  Even if they were forced to land in one of the New England states, they might still be able to sneak across the northern border into British territory.  While Britain was officially neutral in the American conflict, there were elements in the government that would likely be willing to tolerate the presence in Canada of escaped Confederate prisoners of war.  It was an extremely risky plan, but they felt they had no choice, and were unwilling to accept indefinite confinement. 

On the night of August 16, 1863, they made their attempt.  The night was a very dark and windy one; after leaving the pump room, the three men slipped across the exposed areas of the fort, careful to avoid the scrutiny of sentries, whose movements and routines they had memorized.  They knew that a large wooden rifle target was near the beach, and they worked their way to it, hoping to use it as a flotation device.  Alexander had learned that a half-mile away on nearby Lovell’s Island there was a beached sailboat that would suit their purposes.  The three men pulled the target into the water and tried to make their way through the waves and darkness of Boston Harbor. 

A view of the exterior of Fort Warren during the Civil War

It turned out to be far more difficult than they had anticipated.  They had no navigational aids; and with the waves, utter darkness, and cold water, they quickly became disoriented.  It soon became clear that their plan was not going to work.  They had the prudence to turn around, head back to Georges Island, and return to their cells.  A different plan would be needed.  The scheme they agreed on was this:  they would find two other men (N.B. Pryde and Thomas Sherman) among the prisoners who were expert swimmers, and these men would paddle to Lovell’s Island, steal the sailboat, and pilot it back to Fort Warren, where they would pick up the other escapees.  It was a complicated scheme, but it appeared to be the only practical one under the circumstances.  The escape was set for the night of August 19th.  At around nine-thirty at night, the men crawled out of the loophole and made for the shoreline.  They were almost caught when Alexander accidentally knocked over a glass bottle that smashed loudly on the stone floor of the casemate, but the sentry on duty failed to investigate the sound.

The plan called for the men to meet at a spot in the fort’s demilune (a fort’s outwork resembling a crescent-shaped gorge).  They then hit on a modified plan, whereby Reed and Saunders would wait near the demilune while the others would head to the shore; the two strong swimmers, Pryde and Sherman, would then swim to Lovell’s Island.  The two brave men entered the cold waters, and were never heard from again.  Their fate is entirely unknown; but the most likely explanation is that they too became disoriented and exhausted by the dark, turbulent waters, and were eventually pulled out to sea by the currents and drowned.  They had underestimated the effects of undertows and hypothermia.    

When the two strong swimmers failed to return with the boat, Reed and Saunders met with Thurston and Alexander and decided on a contingency plan.  Thurston and Alexander would take the target in the water and paddle again for Lovell’s Island, while the other two would remain behind.  By some miracle, the two desperate swimmers made it to Lovell’s Island and with much difficulty freed the sailboat from its moorings.  But by this time, dawn was approaching fast, and it was too late to try to get back to Fort Warren to pick up Reed and Saunders.  Reed and Saunders were nearly discovered when a sentry passing by noticed that the wooden target was missing; he called over another sentry, and the two Confederates overhead them finally agree that the tides and wind had carried it off. 

Here occurred one of those amazing incidents of bravery that only extreme conditions bring out in men.  The two sentries saw a dark, motionless mass in the shadows over the seawall.  This form was actually Reed and Saunders, crouching in the shadows and trying to disguise themselves.  One sentry leaned over and podded the forms with his bayonet; nothing moved, and he concluded it must be a mass of seaweed or driftwood.  The two men maintained their discipline, never flinching or crying out, even when being jabbed at with the sentry’s bayonet.  When the sentries moved away, Saunders and Reed made it back to the casemate.  But they were spotted moving along the wall, captured, and placed in solitary confinement.  A general alarm was sounded now at the fort.

Meanwhile, Alexander and Thurston had successfully stolen the sailboat and were headed for the open ocean.  By the late morning they were near Cape Ann, Massachusetts, and landed briefly to try to secure food and supplies.  Finding no help, they moved on to Rye Beach, New Hampshire, and were able to buy civilian clothing.  By now a general alert had been sounded all over New England, and any contact with locals was extremely risky.  But their luck soon ran out near Portland, Maine, when they were apprehended at sea by what would today be called a coast guard cutter, the Dobbin.  The men were taken ashore and jailed; they were returned to Fort Warren on September 7, 1863.  Thus ended one of the bravest and most daring escapes of the Civil War.  Fort Warren’s commandant, Colonel Dimmick, had been humiliated by the incident.  He had metal bars installed in the loopholes from which the Confederates had escaped to shut off that avenue of opportunity in the future.     

Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy, was imprisoned at Fort Warren

One final word is in order here.  Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, was lodged at Fort Warren after his arrest in 1865.  His journal entries related to his time in the dungeon make for sobering reading, and give an idea of the magnitude of the achievement of escaping from the fort.  Consider the following passages, taken from his Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens:

Lieutenant Woodman brought me immediately inside the Fort; after going through the sally port and descending some steps, he stopped at the first room to the left, saying, “This is your room,” or “These are your quarters,” I forget which.  I asked if I could not see Captain Frailey again.  I asked if I could not see General Dix; I wished very much to see him about sending word to Lincoln and about my diet and conditions of prison life.  He said  “No,” and left.  I surveyed the room.  A coal fire was burning; a table and chair were in the centre; a narrow, iron, bunk-like bedstead with mattress and covering was in a corner.  The floor was stone— large square blocks. The door was locked.  For the first time in my life I had the full realization of being a prisoner.  I was alone…

Sunday – The horrors of imprisonment, close confinement, no one to see or to talk to, with the reflection of being cut off for I know not how long—perhaps forever—from communication with dear ones at home, are beyond description. Words utterly fail to express the soul’s anguish.  This day I wept bitterly.  Nerves and spirit utterly forsook me. O God, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me!  Yet Thy will be done.  Walked out; a northeaster blowing, with mists of rain; felt weak and sick; returned in ten minutes, Lieut. Croak with me.  Sent for the surgeon, Dr. Seaverns.  Was too full to talk much with him without bursting into tears.  He allowed me to have a bottle of ale, which I requested.  My affliction, I know, is more of mind than body. Thoughts of home, my brother, and all the dear ones there, black and white, almost kills, almost crazes me.

There would be two other escapes from Fort Warren after the breakout of August 19, 1863.  But those stories must be told in a future narrative.  The August 1863 escape from the dungeon on Georges Island ranks high in in the annals of daring, nerve, and determination, and deserves to be far more widely known than it is.  

[1] Volume 28, Dec. 1863—May 1864, p. 697-701. 



Read more tales of adventure and daring in Thirty-Seven and Pantheon.