Rainsford Island: A Resting Place for Civil War Veterans

In 1872, the City of Boston purchased Rainsford Island from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for $40,000 dollars. The city converted the existing facilities into an almshouse and hospital for Civil War veterans. The facility served primarily Black and Irish veterans, including members of the first all-Black G.A.R. post in the country, the Robert A. Bell Post, 134.

At Rainsford, veterans faced overcrowded conditions, and inadequate, outdated, treatment. The opening of a new veteran's home in Chelsea led to the closure of the Rainsford Island facility only ten years later in 1882.[1] All remaining veterans on the island relocated to Chelsea.

At least 79 of those who died on the island were interned there. One of those veterans, Stephen Ennis, a musician in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, died of tuberculosis on August 12, 1882. Records show that Ennis had been discharged from the military upon the expiration of his term in 1865.[2]

Black and white scan of a military dependent card
Military Dependent Card listing Stephen Ennis of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, his widow, and minor.

Courtesy of Bill McEvoy

Although the Rainsford facilities shut down, decreasing access to the island, local Black veterans continued to remember their fallen comrades. Primarily composed of soldiers from the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiments, the Robert A. Bell Post, 134 of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), created lasting traditions in visiting Rainsford Island.[3]

Between 1882 and 1933, the Bell Post G.A.R. participated in Memorial Day commemoration events, in which members traveled out to Rainsford Island to lay flowers on the graves of their comrades. Members of the Women’s Relief Corps—a division of the G.A.R.—also attended the ceremony, tossing flowers into the harbor to honor unknown soldiers. In some years, other veterans' groups and organizations, such as the Shaw Veteran’s Guards and the William H. Carney Camp, 82, Sons of Veterans, joined the Bell Post G.A.R. in their Memorial Day ceremonies. Records say they lay wreaths on anywhere from 75 to 150 graves. The commemorations held by Black veterans emphasized their camaraderie and community, while also challenging ongoing racist ideologies in the United States.[4]

In 1912, a movement began to erect a monument honoring the veterans on the island. However, it never gained significant traction. By 1933, the Bell Post’s numbers had dwindled significantly, and they canceled their annual trips to the island. The conditions of the cemetery continued to decline, and by 1946 George W. Kimball of the Sons of Union Veterans blamed the City of Boston for the inability to tell the graves from the beach. Six months later, the city announced their intentions to reinter those buried on Rainsford Island on Long Island.

In 1948, the City of Boston unveiled a plaque in memory of 79 Civil War veterans at Long Island Cemetery. However, inconsistencies exist between the names on the plaque and names of soldiers known to have been buried on Rainsford Island. This suggests that the almshouse had been taking in people from the public in addition to veterans. Furthermore, the City of Boston’s records do not indicate any funding dedicated to the excavation and reinterment of veteran graves at this time. It is possible that the veterans, as well as countless others, remain buried on Rainsford Island.5


[1] Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, Cultural Landscape Report: Boston Harbor Islands National & State Park, Volume 2: Existing Conditions, (Boston: National Park Service, 2017) 117, 210; Moses Foster Sweetser, King’s Handbook of Boston Harbor (Cambridge, MA: Moses King, 1883), 182; William McEvoy and Robin Hazard Ray, Rainsford Island: A Boston Case Study in Public Neglect and Private Activism (Independently Published, 2019), 36-39, Rainsford Island.

[2] McEvoy and Ray, Rainsford Island: A Boston Case Study in Public Neglect and Private Activism,107-110.

[3] "Robert A. Bell Post, 134. G.A.R (U.S National Park Service)," National Park Service, last modified December 10, 2020, Robert A. Bell Post, 134, GAR.

[4] McEvoy and Ray, 98-102; Katherine Grover, To Heal the Wounded Nation’s Life: African Americans and Robert Gould Shaw/ 54th Regiment Memorial: Special History Study Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park, (Cornish: National Park Service, 2021), 40, 138, 142-143, 269, 330, To Heal the Wounded Nation's Life - African Americans and the Robert Gould Shaw / 54th Regiment Memorial.

[5] McEvoy and Ray, 102, 108; Grover, To Heal the Wounded Nation’s Life, 40, 138, 142-143, 269 330.

Boston African American National Historic Site, Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area

Last updated: January 22, 2024