In Boston Harbor, at the entrance to the city, lies Georges Island, home of Fort Warren. Purchased in 1825 by the city of Boston and given to the U.S. government, Fort Warren would be an important part of American history.
With a mission to protect Boston from enemies by sea, construction on the Fort began in 1833, under the supervision of Colonel Sylvanus Thayer. Taking nearly two decades to complete, the Fort didn’t fulfill its mission until the Civil War.
During the Civil War, Fort Warren served as a primary line of defense against the Confederate Navy, as well as a training facility for Union soldiers and a prisoner of war camp for valuable and well known Confederate soldiers.
In 1958, Fort Warren was named a National Historic Site. Now part of the Boston Islands Harbor National park, the Fort and the island on which it sits are popular tourist stops. Fort Warren, occupies nearly half of the 52 acres, that make up George’s Island. Not all visitors are there to experience the history of the Civil War, for many the pull is the darker, haunted history.
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The Tales of Fort Warren
Beginning in 1861, Fort Warren served as a prisoner of war camp throughout the Civil War. Some of the more well-known prisoners included the governor of Kentucky, the Mayor of Baltimore, and the Vice President of the Confederacy.
Fort Warren was one of the more humane prisoner-of-war camps, without a single shot fired in anger or offense, though with a thousand prisoners, and countless Union soldiers, Fort Warren had its share of deaths. With those deaths, come stories of guilt and vengeance and restless spirits.
Today visitors will share stories of mysterious lights and sounds, misty figures in the shadows, and the smell of old perfume wafting through the air. It is said if one listens, a harmonica, playing an old, sad, and familiar tune can be heard in the distance. Footprints in the snow, the smell of a fired canon, a walk around Fort Warren may bring history to life in a terrifying way.
As expected, most ghostly figures on the island are appropriately attired in uniforms for either side of the battle. There is one, though, that is not, and may just be Fort Warren’s most popular ghost. Clothed in flowing black, she walks the island at night. For generations, she has been seen, by soldiers and tourists alike, Melanie Lanier, the Lady in Black.
The Lady in Black
The story of Melanie Lanier, begins in 1862 when the young newlywed got word that her husband, a Confederate officer had been taken prisoner. A woman of action and courage, Melanie, secured passage to Boston Harbor to rescue her husband.
Earning the sympathy of some Union soldiers, Melanie was able to alert her husband to her plan. In the dark of the night, dressed as a man, she rowed alone, across a mile of water, armed with a pistol and pickaxe.
Hearing the words of an old southern song, the signal that her husband was ready, Melanie rushed quietly to the dungeon, Melanie found her husband, and together they began to enact their plan to escape Fort Warren. The young couple was successful in leaving the dungeon, running out of the cell towards freedom.
Shortly before the pair made it to Melanie’s rowboat, they were discovered by Union soldiers. In the ensuing scuffle, the pistol went off. Perhaps Melanie’s aim was poor, or the pistol misfired, when the smoke cleared, her husband was dead by her own hand.
Melanie was consumed with guilt for killing her husband, apprehended by the Union soldiers, Melanie was charged as a spy and sentenced to death by hanging. As her last request, not wanting the indignity of dying in men’s clothes, Melanie asked for something else to wear. The best the Union soldiers could offer were black robes used for theatricals.
Melanie was hanged for her crimes at Fort Warren, in the makeshift dress made from costume robes. The tragic death was not the last of Melaine Lanier. The guilt from killing her husband would not allow her to rest in peace. Sorrowful and lonely, Melanie continues to walk the grounds of Fort Warren. In the many years since her death, she has returned, again and again, as the Lady in Black.
Beginning shortly after her death, and continuing to this day, the Lady in Black has appeared. First to soldiers, reportedly leaving their posts in fear, or shooting at the apparition. After Fort Warren became a Historical site, Melanie appeared to historians and researchers, and more recently to police officers, Army personnel, and most often to visitors and tourists to George’s Island.
The ghost of Melanie Lanier has been seen drifting around Fort Warren, screeching unfortunate tourists that dare enter the dungeon where her dear husband was imprisoned and wandering the woods at night with a lantern. Perhaps one of the more troubling encounters was that of a sentinel, claimed to be choked by the spirit.
Still riddled with guilt, enraged at those that took her life, eternally alone, Melanie Lanier walks Fort Warren, looking for her lost love and their escape from Fort Warren.
Haunted Happenings at Fort Warren
Civil War encampments are well known for their ghost stories. Fort Warren, though removed from many of the horrors of wartime, is no exception. Experiencing only 13 prison deaths out of a thousand prisoners, one may assume, that the hauntings at Fort Warren would be limited.
That is not the case. For nearly two hundred years, soldiers and civilians alike have shared stories of mysterious and supernatural happenings at Fort Warren. The story of Melanie Lanier may be the most well known, repeated for generations to Boston natives, but it is far from the only one.
Perhaps, even more haunting then Melanie’s harrowing tale, are the countless reports of nameless spirits. Dressed in the uniforms of the Union or the Confederacy, spotted through the trees on a misty evening, voices carried by the breeze, these spirits have been seen by many visiting Fort Warren. The stories of these unknown men are left untold.
Maybe one has died lonely and ill, another unjustly, charged with a crime he didn’t commit. They may wander the grounds looking for a lost love, looking for vengeance, or continuing to protect the waterways to Boston, their watch eternal; perhaps one is the late husband of Melanie Lanier still waiting to escape with his bride while she still searches for him.
When walking the grounds of Fort Warren, touring the buildings and the dungeons, the sights, and sounds of history are everywhere. When it is still, in the distance, the shouts of troops, the sound of canons, ring through the air. You can smell the gunpowder and the woodsmoke.
In the woods, there is the sound of a woman weeping, mourning loss, and a rescue attempt, so brave at inception, taking a deadly turn.
An impressive structure, painstakingly built and utilized by the U.S. military for nearly one hundred years, there is much history behind the walls of Fort Warren. As an imprisonment camp, the fort saw only the most valuable prisoners and as such has a fascinating history, with a great deal less violence than most other Forts at that time.
The simple and verified history of Fort Warren is admirable. The haunted history, is palpable, in the words of the guides, the touch of the stone, and the sound of the harmonica in the wind. You can feel the history and the presence of those who have come before. If you find yourself on George’s island, visit Fort Warren, have a picnic, soak in the history, and keep an eye on the shadows in the woods.