Posts Tagged ‘Castle Williams’

The Civil War prison in New York Harbor

September 21, 2009

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.


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.