The Civil War prison in New York Harbor

New York isn’t exactly known as a center for Civil War history. But just a half-mile from Battery Park lies the remains of a POW camp that once housed hundreds of Confederate soldiers.

CastlewilliamsmathewbradyIt’s called Castle Williams (left, in a 1860s photo by Mathew Brady), on Governors Island. Built in 1811 as a fort to guard the harbor, the castle welcomed its first group of POWs on September 4, 1861. 

High-ranking officers were taken to Fort Jay, on the island’s other end, where they enjoyed more comfortable quarters.

Regular troops, however, went to Castle Williams—nicknamed the “Cheesebox” because of its circular design. Confined to small casemates, Southern soldiers passed the time playing games and reading secondhand newspapers and bibles, according to Governors Island: The Jewel of New York Harbor, by Ann Buttenwieser.

Castlewilliamspostcard

Castle Williams in an early 1900s postcard

Conditions weren’t good. Within weeks, all three tiers of the castle were packed with more than 700 men, whose meager provisions included little more than a dirty blanket and one set of clothes. A measles outbreak killed at least 12 of them, Buttenwieser writes.

As prisoners left Governors Island—shipped off to other Union prisons—new captured soldiers arrived. Over the course of the war, 47 men died in Castle Williams. Eleven were buried on Governors Island.

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13 Responses to “The Civil War prison in New York Harbor”

  1. Margaret Blanco Says:

    Were there other prisons in NYC? Oral tradition in our family cites two great great uncles (Bodle) serving with the Union forces, guarding prisoners in NYC. Some tale about shooting rats for the prisoners. The uncles weren’t in for very long, as I recall. Would have to refer to their discharge papers. Any references or resources? Thanks! Margaret

  2. Lee Fahley Says:

    I just read the story about the Confederate POW’s on Governor’s Island. However, that is only half of the story. I would like to emai you the story about the first POW’s that were stationed at Fort Wood on Bedloe’s (Liberty) Island. Please forward your email address.
    Lee Fahley
    Ranger
    Statue of Liberty

  3. Joe Cross Says:

    Is there any way to obtain a record of one of the prisoners? I have read that confederate prisoners from the battle at Hanover Court House near Ashland, Va were taken to Ft. Columbus, NY Harbor in May 1862. Is this Castle Williams or are they two different prisons?

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    They are two different prisons. Fort Columbus is also known as Fort Jay, which like Castle Williams is on Governor’s Island. I have no idea about records of prisoners but this could be a starting point in your search: http://www.govisland.com

    • Lee Fahley Ranger Statue of Liberty Says:

      Fort Wood on Liberty Island was also a home for Confederate POW’s in 1861 and 1863. In 1861, there was over 650 men on the island until Oct 1861 when they were transferred to Boston, Ma.

  5. Tom ilcox Says:

    The Fold 3 database has digitized Civil War records for anyone who is curious. Most public libraries like mine subscribe to it.

  6. Joseph zJennings Says:

    For what its worth through written family history my great grandfather served with the 28th N.C. Infantry was wounded and captured at the Battle of Hanover Courthouse his name was Swafford William Jennings he was captured May 27th 1862 and died of his wounds 3 months later. I finally found a written record on http://www.lost souls genealogy.com he is listed as S.W.( Jennins )? Died as a POW Governors Island N.Y.
    To Joe Cross go to the above website

  7. Joseph M Jennings Says:

    For what its worth my Great Grandfather Swafford William Jennings was wounded and captured at the Battle of Hanover Courthouse on May 27th, 1862 he was sent to Governors Island where he died of his wounds in August this was verified on http://www.lost souls genealogy. Com

  8. Timothy Govreau Smith Says:

    My relative, Bartlett Smith, a CSA POW captured from the siege of Fort Pulaski near Savannah, GA, was one of the 47 men who died in Castle Williams. He died on May 30, 1862. 11 of the 47 men who died there are buried on Governor’s Island. Does anyone know whether Bartlett Smith is one of the 11 men buried on Governor’s Island?

  9. Gerald Carter Says:

    Are there any confederate soldiers buried at Cypress hills national cemetery in Brooklyn?

  10. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, more than 400 POWs: http://www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/cypresshills.asp

  11. Debbie Grafton Says:

    Civil war records show my G-G-grandfather being wounded and captured at Gettysburg. Says he was at Davids Island, New York Harbor. Would that be this “Castle Williams” ? He was later in a prisoner exchange and returned to the south. Would there be any hospital records that the Union Army kept for the prisoners?

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