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'Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War'

By Lonnie R. Speer

 1997 by Stackpole Books
5067 Ritter Road
Mechanicsburg, Pa. 17055
contact Lonnie R. Speer

Fort Lafayette -- "that American Bastille."

Fort Lafayette had served as a U.S. military prison since July 15, 1861, [when] Edward D. Townsend, assistant adjutant general, ordered Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to take prisoners captured by General McClellan in West Virginia. Townsend then advised, "A permanent guard will be ordered to the fort in time to receive the prisoners." The first POWs arrived July 22. Prior to this, the fort had served as one of the first Northern coastal fortifications to hold Federal political prisoners.

The fort was built on a small rock island lying in the Narrows between the lower end of Staten Island and Long Island, opposite Fort Hamilton. All POWs en route to Fort Lafayette arrived at Fort Hamilton first, where they were searched, had their names recorded, and were placed on a boat for the quarter-mile trip to the offshore island prison. Erected in 1822 and originally named Fort Diamond, Fort Lafayette was an octagonal structure with the four principal sides much larger than the others, making the building appear somewhat round from the outside and square from the inside.

The fort's walls were 25 to 30 feet high, with batteries commanding a view of the channel in two of its longer and two of its shorter sides. Two tiers of heavy guns were on each of these sides, with lighter barbette guns above them under a temporary wooden roof. The two other principal sides were occupied by two stories of small casemates, ten on each story. The open area within the fort was 120 feet across with a pavement 25 feet wide running around the inside, leaving a patch of ground 70 feet square in the center.

Long before the Civil War this fortress was renamed Fort Lafayette, in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, the young French general who had aided the American cause in the Revolutionary War. By the second year of the Civil War, however, it would be hatefully referred to by many simply as "that American Bastille". . . .

The prisoners were confined in the fort's two principal gun batteries and in four casemates of the lower story that had all been converted into prison rooms by bricking up the open entrances. . . .

The enclosures were lighted by five embrasures measuring, about 2Y2 by 2 feet, which were covered with iron gratings. Five large doorways, 7 or 8 feet high, opened upon the enclosure from within the walls but were covered by solid folding doors. . . .

The four casemates were nothing more than vaulted cells measuring 8 feet at the highest point and 24-by-14 feet wide. Each was lighted by two small loopholes in the outer wall and one on an inner wall. Large wooden doors of the casemates were shut and locked at 9:00 PM. and remained so until daylight. Although these rooms remained dark and damp most of the time, they did have fireplaces, which the batteries lacked. Later, stoves had to be installed in the battery rooms to combat the cold.

Neither location had furniture except for a few beds. . . .

In immediate command over the Fort Lafayette prisoners was Lieutenant Charles 0. Wood, who was described as "brutal" by many of the prisoners. He had been a baggage handler on the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad before the war and had received his commission, it was said, from President Lincoln as a reward for successfully smuggling Lincoln's baggage through Baltimore prior to his inauguration.

When originally converted to a prison, the fort was believed capable of holding up to fifty POWs. From the very beginning, however, twenty were held in each battery while nine to ten were held in each casemate. Before long there were often thirty-five to a battery and up to thirty in a casemate. . . .

When the prisoners arrived at Fort Lafayette, they were escorted to the office of Lieutenant Wood where, again, they were searched and had their names recorded. All their money was confiscated; they were given a receipt and then shown to their quarters.

Some of the first inmates included those who had done nothing more than express sympathy for the South: members of the Maryland legislature; Baltimore's police commissioners; James W Ball, a New Jersey Democrat who was later elected to the U.S. Senate; and Francis K. Howard, editor of a Baltimore newspaper and grandson of Francis Scott Key. In addition, all officers who had resigned commissions in the U.S. Army to accept Confederate commands were, if captured, automatically sent there.

Although the privateers transferred from the Tombs were originally kept in shackles and confined both day and night in the lower casemates of the fort, the regular prisoners of war and political prisoners were allowed to exercise in the open area of the compound two times each day-from six to seven in the morning and from five to six in the evening. The exercise usually consisted of individuals simply walking along the pavement around the inside of the fort several times. As the prison became more crowded, these walks were limited to one half hour twice a day and then, finally, eliminated altogether. At dark the prisoners were confined to their rooms and all candles were extinguished at nine. Later, candles were also eliminated and, according to one prisoner's account, "the night to us now is nearly 15 hours, counting from lock-up time to the opening of the cell in the morning. . . ."

The kitchen facilities were so bad, though, that meals were often served only half-cooked. For those who could afford it, there was also a mess under control of the fort's ordnance sergeant and his family. For these meals, prisoners were charged one dollar per day, credited against what the prisoners had turned over to Lieutenant Wood when they arrived at the fort. They were denied the use of their own funds to make food purchases from a sutler outside the fort or to receive food sent by friends, thereby eliminating all competition with the ordnance sergeant's service.

"Dinners," complained one prisoner, "consisted of fat pork and beans, a cup of thin soup and bread, or of boiled beef, potatoes and bread on alternate days.... The coffee was a muddy liquid in which the taste of coffee was barely perceptible, the predominating flavor being a combination of burnt beans and foul water."

The fort's water was indeed foul. The prisoners often complained that the fluid provided by a cistern, contained dirt and "animalcules." There were also several periods during which prisoners had to go without water altogether.

. . . . the question of health among prisoners in Union hands has remained a matter of controversy. Although official records show that only two deaths occurred at Fort Lafayette during its use as a prison, there was no requirement by the War Department prior to July 7, 1862, to keep records or report such matters. Contemporary sources present a picture different from official records. Newspapers reported that a typhoid fever epidemic at the fort in late 1861 caused prisoners to die so rapidly "as to arouse public attention and produce an outcry of indignation."

New York City became not only the first northern location to receive POWs in the Civil War, but also the last to give them up. There were still forty prisoners at Fort Lafayette as late as October 1865.

By November most of the POWs were released, but a number of political prisoners continued to be held. The last four were released in the ensuing months, one in January 1 866, two the following February, and the last one in March, making this facility the last major Union prison to hold prisoners of war.

Today nothing remains of the fort. After the war, the facility, with its towering walls of stone eight feet thick and thirty feet high, stood idle in the bay for many years. It served as a munitions magazine through both world wars and was leased to the city in 1948. For a while there was talk of making it into a nightclub or saving it as a historic site, but neither plan ever materialized.

Finally, in February 1960, it was torn down so the island could be utilized to support the east tower of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, then under construction. The rubble that was once Fort Lafayette was dumped off the Staten Island shore to help support the west tower of the bridge .

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