Protesting Union Civil War Policies
by Q. David Bowers
The Political Prisoners: A Day at Fort Lafayette
Fort Lafayette, named by some the American Bastille, is not a Bastille at all, in fact the fort is more like a hotel than anything else, where the proprietor is rather strict and has a wholesome dread of fire, insisting upon all lights being out at 9 o'clock. Beyond that, the fare is excellent, and the view of the ocean extensive. Lately there has been quite a number of prisoners released; they, in secret, have told their friends, who, in turn, told our reporter in secret, consequently he is thus enabled to tell the readers of the Times what the prisoners in Fort Lafayette eat, drink, and do.
Upon the arrest of the prisoner, he is delivered to Lieut. Col. Burke, commanding Fort Hamilton, and after examining the order of commitment, he is placed in charge of a file of soldiers, with the o cer of the day, and carried, by means of a boat, to Fort Lafayette, formerly Fort Diamond, directly opposite Fort Hamilton, and at the distance of one quarter of a mile.
On his arrival at Fort Lafayette; he is delivered to the charge of Lieut. Wood, commanding that post. All the money from his person is taken by the commanding officer, and a receipt given for the same. He is then introduced to his quarters, which are situated on the ground floor, in one or other of the casemates, in which the prisoners sleep. If he has means to procure the delicacies of the market, the Ordnance-Sergeant attached to the port is allowed to purchase all that he desires upon a requisition made by the prisoner upon the Commander for the money.
There is a mess under the control of the Ordnance Sergeant and his family in which some twenty-eight or thirty prisoners take their meals, paying $1 per day for the privilege. The table is well provided, in fact much better than any second-class hotel at our fashionable watering places. The recent rapid introduction of prisoners has forced them to establish more than one mess, and they are now making themselves very comfortable through the indulgence of the commanding o cer. Previous to Mr. Thurlow Weed’s visit some two or three weeks ago, the prisoners were not treated so well, but since then they have had more comforts and greater liberty, for which they are greatly thankful.1
The prisoners without means or friends live upon the rations which are distributed to the common soldier, viz.; pork, beef, potatoes, rice, and coffee twice a day; this constitutes the ordinary fare. The facilities for cooking are, however, very bad, and it is not infrequent that the food is only partially cooked when served upon the table. The men taken from the privateer vessels are still in shackles, and are con ned during the day and night under strict guard. They share the same food as the soldiers of the fort. Their situation has been made comparatively comfortable by the kind liberality of Mrs. Gilsey, of Fort Hamilton, who furnished them with clothing, aided by the prisoners of the fort, who are in better circumstances.
Two hours each day is allotted for exercise in the open area of the fort. One hour, from six to seven, and one from five to six. The prisoners retire to their rooms at dark, the lights are all extinguished at nine o'clock, and the strictest military regulations are enforced a er that hour. The doors are unlocked at daylight. Shortly a er the morning papers arrive, and a free and uninterrupted discussion of the news of the day is canvassed. They amuse themselves during the day by exchanging visits from casemate to casemate, smoking cigars, playing whist, chess, back-gammon, &c., but no gambling. A few of the prisoners are permitted to see their wives and families, and every comfort consistent with the regulations and safety of the prisoners, is always promptly and cheerfully rendered by the commanding officer.
1. Weed, an influential newspaper publisher, was a close friend of Edwin Stanton and Abraham Lincoln. He protested certain actions and conditions at the fort.
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