Despite the beauty of Governors Island, Civil War imprisonment at Castle Williams was grim. Dysentery, pneumonia and typhoid were rampant. A sign in one of the exhibits quotes Confederate officer Thomas Sparrow, who noted on Sept. 30, 1861 that of 615 men imprisoned in Castle Williams, more than a hundred were ill. Almost every day, someone died.
By the 1890s, the Army began to use Castle Williams as a military prison, one of 12 located in various parts of the country. Eventually, all Army prisoners were dispatched to one of three places — Alcatraz in San Francisco, Fort Leavenworth in Kansas or Castle Williams.
“In 1947, the Army gutted the entire building, took out the old, oak floors from 1812 and poured in reinforced concrete floors and put in the jail cells that you see,” Shaver said, as he led a tour of the second and third tiers of the three-story structure. The solitary confinement cells had walls of solid metal. There are protrusions in the metal from the prisoners banging on the walls.
The tour leads via a spiral sandstone and brick stairway to the roof, where a Civil War Rodman cannon, once capable of shooting three miles, is positioned facing Manhattan. The panoramic view also includes New Jersey and Brooklyn. “You can see how strategically this fort was positioned,” said Shaver as he looked over a parapet.
The U.S. Army left Governors Island in 1966 and it was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard, which departed in 1997. During the Coast Guard’s tenure, Castle Williams was sometimes used as a community center and sometimes as a grounds-keeping shop. The roof deteriorated and water seeped into the walls. Federal money was used to remove lead paint, asbestos and other hazardous materials, to replace the electrical wiring and the windows and to repair the stonework and the bricks. It also financed exhibits in the courtyard and on the first floor that tell the history of Castle Williams culminating with a Presidential Proclamation in January 2001 that created the Governors Island National Monument. The entire island was turned over to New York State for public use in 2003, and subsequently, in 2010, to New York City.
Most of Governors Island is a park dotted with buildings formerly used by the U.S. Army and the U.S. Coast Guard. Former officers’ quarters, barracks and recreational and administrative buildings are arranged around lawns shaded by century-old trees and expansive parade grounds that now are used for art exhibits, concerts, festivals and picnicking. The Admiral’s House, the site of a historic meeting in 1988 between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, is open to visitors.
Bicycle rentals make it easy to get around the island, and for those who don’t ride bicycles, a free tram runs every 10 minutes between Pier 101 on the east side of the island and Picnic Point on its breezy southwestern shore.
Governors Island embodies the vision expressed in the Bible: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” In a place once dedicated to warfare, now peace and tranquility reign.