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Castle Williams and the Civil War

Castle Williams during the Civil War as photographed by Matthew Brady

Castle Williams during the Civil War

Matthew Brady

Castle Williams and the Civil War

The Civil War is one of the defining moments in the span of American history. The United States, for four bloody years, was torn apart sectionally and ideologically in a conflict that would ultimately cost over 600,000 American lives and over 1 million more men wounded. The legacy of the Civil War still lives on in the symbols and rhetoric of the United States, now even 150 years after the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, a Union-held fortress in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Governors Island, with its own fortress thousands of miles away, played a major role throughout the entirety of the war, from the first shots to the final Union victory over the Confederacy.

The war raged for four years and millions of men joined the armies of the North and South. In the North, the ranks of the Union Army were filled often with immigrants, either newly arrived or having only been in the country for a generation. Major port cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York were all major centers for this massive European immigration, primarily from Ireland and Germany.These immigrants swelled the ranks of the Union Army, supplementing the numbers of recruits and draftees from the United States itself.

Castle Williams, its defensive usefulness at an end, was called into service, first as a barracks for these new immigrant soldiers. Many would live in the casements alongside the obsolete artillery there while they trained on Governors Island, which was itself a major recruit depot. The troops that were trained and equipped on Governors Island would go on to fight in major battles throughout the Civil War, from Manassas to Appomattox Courthouse.

The leaders of the Union and the Confederacy never believed that the Civil War would last as long as it did, expecting a ninety day war settled by a single decisive battle. Unfortunately, the war dragged on for four years which led to a problem for both sides – what ought to be done with prisoners of war? Castle Williams, its soldiers fighting in the field, was empty and was pressed into service as a prisoner of war camp for Confederate enlisted prisoners. The numbers fluctuated radically in prison, with a packed maximum of nearly seven hundred men, creating cramped, filthy conditions for the Confederate prisoners. Disease became a major issue for the prisoners, with typhoid fever, measles, and cholera all taking a toll on the Confederates, eventually killing nearly fifty of the prisoners.

In 1865, Castle Williams was also the scene of an execution of a bounty jumper, James Devlin. Bounty jumpers were men who took advantage of the generous enlistment bonuses offered by the US Army late in the Civil War to entice men to volunteer for service. A bounty jumper would join up with a regiment, collect his bounty, and desert promptly to enlist under another name with another regiment. Devlin was making a career of bounty jumping, having enlisted in three regiments before his capture. Bounty jumpers were not only guilty of fraud; they were guilty of desertion in a time of war, a capital crime.

After his arrest, Devlin was detained and faced a court martial in Fort Columbus, the name used for Fort Jay during the Civil War. Convicted, he faced a sentence of death by firing squad. The place chosen for the execution was on the beach below Castle Williams. All the federal troops on the island were in attendance, as was customary. Punishments in the Army were public so they would act as deterrent to the rest of the men. Kneeling in front of his own coffin, Devlin calmly waited for the officer to order the firing party to do their grim duty. Minutes before his scheduled execution at two in the afternoon, he was given a blindfold as he waited.

At precisely two, the commander of the detail, a Captain Ryer of the 20th New York Volunteer Artillery gave the orders. “Ready,” and the muskets of the twelve man detail were raised. “Aim,” and all shifted their weapons to face the bounty jumper. “Fire,” and twelve musket balls struck the unfortunate Devlin, killing him instantly. His body was given to his wife for burial and the recruit depot returned to its duties, this episode’s excitement over.

With the war ending in 1865, the Confederates were sent home and Castle Williams was once again without a true purpose. As the nation changed after the devastation of the Civil War, so too did Governors Island, reinventing itself and remaining relevant to the needs of New York City and the nation. Castle Williams’ story is far from over.

Check back soon for information about this next stage!

For more reading about the Civil War, see our Civil War 150th anniversary pages.

Also, don't forget to follow Governors Island on both Twitter and Flickr.

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