Monday, October 31, 2011

The Lady in Black and Tales of Confederate POWs at Fort Warren

Happy Halloween, everyone.

Salem hogs all the limelight when it comes to haunted happenings, but there are plenty of ghostly tales in Boston as well, including out on Georges Island. And this October 31 marks the 150th anniversary of a particularly noteworthy date in the history of Fort Warren, that granite garrison out on Georges Island.

It was on October 31, 1861, that the first Confederate prisoners of war arrived at Georges Island. Colonel Justin Dimick, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican-American War, was told to ready the fort for the arrival of 150 prisoners, so he was understandably shocked when the steamer docked at the island with more than 800 political and military prisoners. Fort Warren was overrun and ill-prepared, which resulted in food rations and prisoners sleeping on floors. A newspaper account from November 1861 reported that when the prisoners arrived at Fort Warren “pity rather than the hatred of the visitors was excited by the sad spectacle.”

What’s remarkable is how Bostonians responded to the plight of the enemy. They donated food, beds, and other supplies to assist the Confederate prisoners, hoping that proper treatment of the prisoners might inspire equal compassion toward Union prisoners of war. The story of Boston’s response to the crisis at Fort Warren and Dimick’s role in ensuring the prisoners were treated humanely is a remarkable one, and you can read more about it in an article I wrote for The New York Times Disunion blog.

While Dimick’s story is little known, if you were to ask anyone familiar with Georges Island what its most enduring story is, they would respond by telling you about “The Lady in Black.” Popularized by historian Edward Rowe Snow, this tale is now an essential part of the island’s fabric. According to the legend, the wife of a Confederate prisoner, dressed as a man and brandishing a pistol, snuck into the fort in an attempt to free her newlywed husband. She succeeded in reaching her husband’s cell, but as they tried to escape the dungeon, Union troops discovered their scheme and notified Colonel Dimick. When the colonel came upon the pair, the wife fired at Dimick, but her gun exploded and killed her husband instead.

 To make a bad day even worse, Dimick had no choice but to order the woman to hang as a spy. Before her execution, she requested that she be properly dressed in women’s clothing. She was given black robes and hanged from the gallows.

Now we never like to have history get in the way of a good ghost story, but there are no recorded instances of Confederate soldiers or Confederate sympathizers being executed at Fort Warren. However, from the Civil War through the Second World War, many a soldier stationed on the parapets claimed to see the frightening ghost of the Lady in Black, who is said to prowl through the fort’s many passageways to this day. As far back as January 1862, the Gloucester Telegraph reported that sentinels keeping midnight rounds saw a spiritual phenomena near some of the rebel graves. The soldiers reported spying the image of an old woman “vindictively frisking about the ruins of an old building from which she was ejected some time previous to her death.”

I’ve yet to have the pleasure of meeting the Lady in Black. But if any of you have seen her, let me know!

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