Monday, February 15, 2010

Fort Warren, Boston Harbor

Civil War re-enactors drilling at Fort Warren
During the Civil War, my 2x great grandfather Joseph Gilman Allen spent six months as a guard on George’s Island in Boston Harbor. This was the site of Fort Warren, a prisoner of war camp, and a fort to guard the entrance of Boston’s large harbor. Other members of my family tree, George Washington Lane, George F. Wiggin, and Walter Davis Allen, all served at this large fort, as well as Joseph’s own brother, Hervey Allen.

Fort Warren was built just before the beginning of the Civil War. It served as a prisoner of war camp and jail through the end of World War II. It is now a site for tourists on George’s Island, the central hub for the high speed ferry service to the other Boston Harbor Islands. There is still a yearly Civil War encampment held at Fort Warren by re-enactors. It is open to visitors from mid May through Columbus Day weekend. The view from the walls has a fantastic panorama of the Boston Harbor Islands and the Boston city skyline.

It is thought that the Civil War march “John Brown’s Body” was created at Fort Warren by the 12th Massachusetts Regiment. Later Abraham Lincoln was moved by the song, and he asked Julia Ward Howe to compose a hymn from the tune, so she created “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The original words were considered rather racy, and Howe’s new lyrics were considered to be more socially acceptable.

Historian Edward Rowe Snow often told the ghost story of the “Lady in Black” when giving tours at Fort Warren. It is based on a true event that happened there during the Civil War. A young confederate soldier was imprisoned at Fort Warren, and he wrote to his wife directions on how to reach him. She rowed to the island, dressed in men’s clothing, and with a prearranged signal she was hoisted up to his window. They decided to dig a tunnel to escape, yet were found out by the guards. The wife’s gun went off during the escape, killing her own husband, and she was sentenced to hang from the fort’s wall. Her last request was to be hanged in woman’s clothing. A black robe was found in a theater trunk, and it had to do for her last dress.

The ghost dressed in black robes has been seen all over the island. The tour guides still have fun relating all the different versions of the story, and children still prowl the halls of Fort Warren looking for the “Lady in Black.” It was my daughter’s favorite pastime as a child, to take a friend for a trip out on the ferry out to Fort Warren, and to bravely go into the darker passages without us adults, to look for the ghost. This would usually end up with her running screaming back to find us!

The photo above was taken during our first family outing to Fort Warren. We were lucky enough to be there on the weekend of a civil war encampment. We had lots of great photo opportunities, and it was easier to imagine great great grandfather Allen as a guard. We’ve been back several other times, but have never had as much fun as that first trip.

Family Tree Information:

Joseph Allen, son of Joseph Allen and Judith Burnham, born 31 July 1801, at Chebacco Parish, Ipswich, Massachusetts, died on 2 August 1894 in Beverly, Massachusetts; married on 28 October 1824 in Essex, Massachusetts to Orpha Andrews, daughter of James Andrews and Lucy Presson, born on 3 February 1804, Chebacco Parish, died 20 April 1869 in Peabody, Massachusetts. Joseph worked as a fisherman and as a shipwright at one of the Essex shipyards. They had six children

1. Humphrey Choate Allen, 1825 - 1881
2. Susan Gorton Allen, 1827 - 1873
3. Joseph Gilman Allen, born on 22 May 1830 in Essex, died on 9 April 1908 in Essex; married on 23 May 1863 in Essex to Sarah Burnham Mears, daughter of Samuel Mears (also a Civil War Veteran) and Sarah Ann Burnham, born 30 November 1844 in Essex, died on 4 March 1913 in Essex. On July 1st, 1862 he was enrolled as a private in Company B of the 7th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteers for six months of the Civil War. He served at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor and was discharged on December 31st, 1862. He was granted a military pension of $20 a month on March 2, 1907. After his death his widow received a $12 a month pension. Ten children, including my great grandfather Joseph Elmer Allen, born in 1870.
4. Unknown infant, died 1832
5. Hiram Allen, 1935- 1900
6. Hervey Allen, born 15 April 1841 in Essex, died on 20 Oct 1905 in Beverly; married on 20 April 1873 in Essex to Adeline Jane Andrews, daughter of James Andrews and Lucinda Daniels, born on 28 February 1839 in Moscow, Maine, died 15 February 1886 in Beverly. Hervey Allen enlisted in December 1864 for one year of defense of the forts of Boston during the Civil War.

For more information:

The History of Fort Warren, a book by Jay Schmidt The Boston Harbor Island’s website on George’s Island, with information on getting to the island, and for free tours led by rangers. The Wikipedia article on Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

“The Romance of Boston Bay” by Edward Rowe Snow, 1944

“Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast”, Edward Rowe Snow, 1961 (includes the story of the Lady in Black)

Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Very nice piece. I've never heard of Fort Warren or George's Island, so it was nice to learn a little history. I don't have anybody who fought in the Civil War either. Thank you.

  2. Well, this doesn't really count as "fighting in the Civil War" but I'll bet they came home from their term of service with some good stories. I wish I could hear those stories!