Page 1 -- This current page includes below an opening overview and sections entitled "van Twiller, John Jay & Jonathan Williams" and "School of Practice for Field Musicians." Page 2 -- Includes "The Execution of John Yates Beall, C.S.N." and "Saboteur's Gallows Song in Governors Island Drum Major's Music Book." Page 3 -- Includes "Chaplain to POWs at Governors Island and Andersonville " and "Governors Island Prisoners Included Chiricahua Apaches." Page 4 -- Includes "Castle Williams Prison Life 1st Decade of 20th Century" and "Chapels on Governors Island." Page 5 -- Includes "East Coast 'Alcatraz' " and "1966, a West Point chapel, 'Taps' & [late 1930s NYC Correction Commissioner] 'Michael Stone' ." Page 6 -- Includes Non-Commercial Use Permission, Bibliography, and Source Credits.
B&Ws originals of Castle Williams images immediately above from Library of Congress American Memory site.

Include Governors Island in the New York City litany of isles that served the Union during the Civil War as prison camps for captured Confederates. Its Castle Williams and Fort Jay (aka Fort Columbus) housed rebel POWs -- troops and commissioned officers, respectively -- often for relatively brief periods of time prior to shipment elsewhere either for continued captivity or for prisoner exchange.

Also held there were Union deserters and political prisoners. The island's other Civil War roles included: a base for recruiters and a rendezvous point for recruits, a garrison, a court for military trials, a place of execution, and a School of Practice for U.S.A. Field Musicians.

Harper's Weekly May 4, 1861 featured on page 285 two Governors Island illustrations: recruits drilling and troops parading before embarkation.

Harper's Weekly July 4, 1863 page 1 featured a sketch of ex-Governors Island prisoner William Orton Williams (aka Lawrence Orton) and a cousin Walter Gibson Peter hanged as spies by the Union Army in Tennessee.

Illustrations are by courtesy of the
"Son of the South Civil War" site.

The May 4, 1861 issue of Harper's Weekly reported:

Every day from 25 to 50 men arrive at Governor's Island from the various recruiting offices in New York and elsewhere, and are immediately drilled in squads, until they are fit to be formed into companies and drafted into regiments. Every afternoon the troops are marched out upon the grassy slope to the rear of the southeastern battery, and are drilled in every conceivable movement for the space of about one hour. . . A staff of officers usually occupy the rising ground.

Before the departure of the late expedition for Charleston not less than seven or eight hundred men, with arms and knapsacks complete, were rallied in line behind the grove of trees ornamenting the southeastern battery. After going through various evolutions, part of the troops were separated and marched past the officers' houses to the water's edge.. . .

The weekly's July 4, 1863, issue featured a front page illustrated report about the execution of two Confederates as spies but the story of one of them tracks back to Governors Island more than two years earlier. William Orton Williams (aka Lawrence Orton) had been a close aide to General Winfield Scott. When the rebellion of the Southern states began, the junior officer -- a cousin of Gen. Robert E. Lee's wife -- made clear his sympathies with the Confederate cause. Since Orton had detailed knowledge of Gen. Scott's various military contingency plans, he was confined to Governors Island for some months until that "insider information" no longer had strategic or tactical relevance.

Released, Orton enlisted on the secessionists' side and eventually took on -- with his cousin Walter Gibson Peter -- an intelligence gathering mission behind enemy lines. Indeed, it put them inside the enemy's camp at Franklin, Tenn. masquerading as Union officers. When their disguise was detected June 8, 1863, they were arrested, tried by "drumhead court-martial," and executed early the next morning.

"The Minstrel Boy" (drum-like)

- Double click music ear icon to play midi file sequenced by Barry Taylor.

According to the 1939 Federal Writers' Project Guide to 1930s New York:

During the Civil War, 1,500 Rebel prisoners were held in Castle Williams, and a great number of troops were stationed on the island -- the records mentioning seven regiments as being on duty at one time. In 1863 draft-rioters unsuccessfully tried to storm the island while the troops were guarding the Subtreasury in Wall Street . . . .

Governors Island's civilians -- standing armed, ready and resolute with clubs, axes and some rifles that had not been taken by troops to deal with the draft rioters in Lower Manhattan -- were chiefly responsible for causing boats loaded with rioters intent of raiding the arsenal to turn around and call off the "invasion."

Earlier in 1863 even the island's prisoners saw war action of sorts. Longshoremen whose wages had been cut drastically despite wartime inflation struck the docks. The federal government attempted to mediate a settlement between strikers and shipowners but was unsuccessful.

With shipment of ammunitions and other supplies needed at the battlefronts being held up by the work stoppage, 150 Governors Island inmates -- mostly Army deserters -- and 65 walking wounded who had been convalescing on Bedloe's Island were pressed into service loading the Army transports as a detachment of Army regulars stood guard with fixed bayonets and hundreds of Metropolitan Police patrolled the docks.

Castle Williams and Fort Jay are part of the National Monument (park) section of Governors Island that the island Preservation and Education Corporation and the National Park Service have scheduled to open to the public for Saturday visits starting June 11, 2005. The visits will include the Governors Island National Historic Landmark District and the western esplanade.

Governors Island, about 90 acres when Dutch settlers acquired it from locals in 1637 for ax heads, beads and nails, was increased to 172 acres between 1901 and 1908 by landfill from the city's first subway construction.

The National Monument encompasses 22 acres of those 172.

Both its 19th Century fortifications, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, have separate listings on the National Register of Historic Places.

"The Minstrel Boy" (fife)

- Double click music ear icon.

King's Handbook of New York City: 1892 provides a detailed word picture of what the island looked like near the end of 19th Century:

At the northern end are piles of cannon-balls, large guns and other ordnance. Near the center of the island is Fort Columbus, with its tar-shaped embankments. Within it are barracks and magazines of stone ansi brick, and guns are mounted on the ramparts.

On the land side, the fort is entered across a moat, with a draw-bridge, and through an archway of stone, above which is a relief group of military insignia a bundle of fasces and a liberty- cap, a mortar, a cannon, shells, an eagle and a flag.

Conspicuous on the north point of the island is Castle Williams, a stone fort with three tiers of casemates and an abundant armament. At the opposite end of the island is the small triangular South Battery, two magazines, and munitions of war.

The center of the island is elevated thirty feet above high-water mark and laid out as a parade-ground and a handsome park, with band-stand, brick walks, trees, flowers and shrubbery. A score or more of pretty houses, the residences of the officers, surround this park; and hereabouts and elsewhere on the island are the offices, a chapel, library, billiard-room, laundries, work-shops, store, the rooms of the Military Service Institution, and a museum, in which are battle flags, mementoes of Washington. Sheridan and others; and many Indian trophies.

The image of 78th United States Colored Troops Regiment's Unknown Drummer Boy appears on many web sites about African - Americans in the Union Army and Navy during the Civil War. The logo of the USCT Institute for Local History and Family Research at Hartwick College, Oneonta, N.Y., features his portrait. The Institute's executive director, Associate Dean Harry Bradshaw Matthews, helped our webmaster authoring the Rikers and Hart Island USCT (20th, 26th, & 31st regiments) page that first appeared on the NYC municipal site in the late 1990s and now is on our site. Click image for the institute web page.

van Twiller, Jay & Williams
Governors Island's name dates back to well before the American colonies declared independence. Only a half a mile away from the southern tip of Manhattan in New York Harbor, the island's merits as a convenient place for a quick getaway from the cares of municipal governance were recognized quite early by the colony's immigrant rulers.

Some historians trace the island's title to the 1780s when New York was a British colony and the colonial assembly reserved the island for the exclusive use of New York’s royal governors. But the 1780 action of the colonial assembly may have simply confirmed and conferred legality on what had been frequent practice previously.

A still earlier possible name link connects to Governor Wouter van Twiller who was dismissed by the Dutch West Indies Company for, among other things, deeding himself vast amounts of company land, including all of Governor's Island.

Star-shaped Fort Jay dominates the national monument (park) section of the island. First completed in 1798, it was named after John Jay who, among his many offices during a long and distinguished career, served as U.S. Secretary of State. Jay was one of the Founding Fathers, the 1778 Continental Congress President, the first Chief Justice, and a New York State Governor.

The fort was rebuilt during the first decade of the 19th Century. Completed in 1808, it was renamed Fort Columbus. The change in name has been attributed to public dissatisfaction a treaty Jay had negotiated with England in the last decade of the 18th Century. The original name, Fort Jay, was restored in 1904.

By any name, it remains among the best preserved dry-moat and earthen- covered wall fortifications in the country. Inside those walls are barracks forming an quadrangle that served as a parade ground where activities in subsequent years included the field musicians school drills.

Castle Williams, under construction from 1807 to 1811, was named in honor of its designer and chief construction engineer Jonathan Williams. But his command appointment there after its completion drew such open opposition from Artillery Corps officers, apparently horrified at the idea an engineer would be in charge of their guns, that it is cited as causing Williams to resign his commission in the Army.

Differences with then Secretary of War William Eustis are also cited, perhaps including the Castle command issue. But Eustis himself was later forced to resign because of charges of incompetence in dealing with the problems of the War of 1812.

Lt. Col. Williams was the son of Jonathan Williams, a Revolutionary patriot, and Grace (Harris) Williams, daughter of Benjamin Franklin's sister Anne. The colonel had been West Point's first superintendent and, as the army's chief engineer, planned and supervised the building of most of the inner forts in New York Harbor. After he resigned from the U.S. Army post, Williams became brevet brigadier-general of the New York State Militia.

Castle Williams' walls are made of red sandstone eight feet thick and rise to a height of 40 feet. Twenty-seven 35-pounder cannons lined the lower tier; thirty-nine 20-pounders, the second tier.

Drummer boy stands a silent sentry at Woodlawn Cemetery mausoleum of Julius Langbein who joined the 9th NY Infantry (Hawkins' Zouaves) at 14 May 4, 1861. Mustered in on Rikers May 15, they shipped out June 5th. At Camden, N.C. the lad earned the Medal of Honor for his braving heavy fire April 19, 1862 to help save a wounded officer's life. Langbein later became a lawyer, a lawmaker and judge. Click image for Maine Antique Digest page on how retired DOC officer James Foster, driving a cab, spotted and helped recover the drummer boy statue stolen from the cemetery. Its photo appeared with that morning's news story about the theft.

School of Practice for Field Musicians

Given Governors Island's long and varied history, its chronicles include scores of stories that stir imagination and evoke a sense of bygone times somehow lingering on in spirit.

None fit that description more than the island's use before and during the Civil War as a "School of Practice for U.S.A. Field Musicians."

"Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!"
aka "Prisoner's Hope."

- Double click music ear icon to play midi file sequenced by Barry Taylor.

Mustering a fifer and a drummer with each U.S. military company began with the War for Independence and continued through the Civil War. The daily routine and not-so-routine of Confederate and Union soldiers -- waking, going to meal, marching, going to bed or to battle were done to the sounds of fifes and drums sounds that may not have been always music to their ears and hearts.

Field musicians were uniformed military personnel performing an important function. Since the sounds that they produced signaled the commanding officers' orders to the troops, they became as much prime targets for sharpshooters as the officers themselves. For that reason some field musicians discarded frills identifying their role in favor of plainer uniforms.

While targets of choice for enemy marksmen, field musicians were disdained by regimental band members who "looked down on" their presumed limited musical skills. Even the troops who had to respond the field commands their notes and beats signaled call them "straw blowers" and "sheepskin fiddlers."

In Antebellum America, the regular U.S. Army practice had been to recruit hundreds of 12-15 years old boys and train them Fort Columbus, Governor's Island, or at Newport Barracks, Kentucky. But making a boy into a reliable field musician under fire took years so that when finally assigned to combat ready units, a "graduate" might no longer be a boy but a young man, or at least an older adolescent.

But the war forced speeding up the process. Additionally, volunteer units organized in the states gave their fife and drum boys little or no preparation; theirs was mostly on-the-job training -- in camp, on marches, and under fire.

Regular Army field musicians who trained on Governors Island found their school was no elite private music academy. Augustus Meyers was enrolled in the Governors Island field musicians school at age 12 and included in his diary extensive descriptions of his life there before the war.

For beds, he and about 50 other boys, ages 12-15, had small bunks with straw mattresses and their folded coats for pillows. Gear was stored on an above-bunk shelf. Hooks affixed under the shelves were where garments were hung. Tin basins filled with cold water were provided in the hallway for wash-ups.

Julius Langbein was 14 when he joined the Hawkins' Zouaves on May 4, 1861. Eleven days later they mustered in on Rikers and about 20 days after that they shipped out. Little more than 9 months he saved the life of a wounded officers under heavy fire, thus earning the Medal of Honor.

After reveille and drills practiced on the parade ground, their breakfast consisted of cold salt pork, coffee in a bowl, and pork fat- buttered bread. After mounting of the guard and cleaning up the area, they underwent music instruction -- the rudiments of music and knowledge of their instruments -- for two hours.

A bowl of rice and vegetables or bean soup, perhaps boiled salt pork or bacon, bread, occasionally a potato or two would constitute dinner. Two more hours of music instruction and another two of parade ground drill would fill the afternoon. After retreat, supper consisted of steamed dried apples, coffee and bread. The school's students did get weekends off and were paid $7 dollars a month, regulation pay for army musicians.

Often a volunteer unit mustered by the states or community included a field musician or two, selected by virtue of being too small to carry a heavy rifle but big enough to carry a fife or drum. Based on research of records and on awareness that many lied about their ages in order to enlist, informed estimates of the proportion of underage youths in the ranks range from 10 to 20 percent.

When in early May 1861 Julius Langbein insisted upon joining the 9th NY Infantry (Hawkins' Zouaves) at age 14, the regiment's adjutant Thomas Bartholomew, a friend of the family, promised the drummer’s mother that he would look out for little Julius. Indeed, the boy was so little that some soldiers teased the lad by calling him "Jennie."

But little more than 9 months after they shipped out from Rikers Island (where they had mustered in), the little drummer boy demonstrated man-size courage by saving, under heavy fire, the life of the officer who had promised to look out for him.

"When Johnny Comes Marching Home"

- Double click music ear icon to play midi file sequenced by Barry Taylor.

On April 19, 1862, during the Battle of South Mills, at the Culpepper Locks in the Great Dismal Swamp of Camden County, North Carolina. an enemy shell struck Ensign/Adjutant Bartholomew, 21, in the neck. The wounded and dazed office stumbled about and into enemy lines.

Little Julius saw his friend and "protector" staggering directly into heavy enemy fire. Despite the danger, the drummer boy ran to the officer's side, guided him off the battlefield, tended his wounds, and helped carry him to medical aid that saved Bartholomew's life.

Thus the boy some had teased as "Jennie" earned the Medal of Honor. Surviving the war, he went on to become a lawyer, legislator and judge.

Click red-letter page number in top frame above or here below to access that page:
    Page 1 -- This current page includes above an opening overview and sections entitled "van Twiller, John Jay & Jonathan Williams" and "School of Practice for Field Musicians."
  • Page 2 -- Includes "The Execution of John Yates Beall, C.S.N." and "Saboteur's Gallows Song in Governors Island Drum Major's Music Book."
  • Page 3 -- Includes "Chaplain to POWs at Governors Island and Andersonville " and "Governors Island Prisoners Included Chiricahua Apaches."
  • Page 4 -- Includes "Castle Williams Prison Life 1st Decade of 20th Century" and "Chapels on Governors Island."
  • Page 5 -- Includes "East Coast 'Alcatraz' " and "1966, a West Point chapel, 'Taps' & [late 1930s NYC Correction Commissioner] 'Michael Stone' ."
  • Page 6 -- Includes Non-Commercial Use Permission, Bibliography, and Source Credits.

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Associate Professor Jannelle Warren-Findley of the Department of History of Arizona State University is researching Governors Island's history for a National Park Service project. Information sent to webmaster@correctionhistory.org that might be helpful to her research will be forwarded to her. Or send the information directly to the e-mail address listed on her Arizona State University Dept. of History faculty page.

See Page 6 for listing and links of the scores of on-line sources of Governors Island information and images used in this presentation.

--- Tom McCarthy
NYCHS webmaster