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A plan of Fort Independence

A plan of Fort Independence Ink and watercolor on paper
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Lieutenant Lewis Peckham drew this manuscript map of Fort Independence in Boston Harbor in December of 1809, while serving there in the Fourth Regiment, United States Infantry.

The oldest fortified military site in British North America

Located in the main shipping channel of Boston Harbor about two and one half miles from the city waterfront, Castle Island is the oldest fortified military site in British North America. The origin of the name, Castle Island, is unknown, but it was referred to in this manner before the first fort was built on the site in 1643. The present pentagonal fort (built between 1834 and 1851) is the eighth generation of forts or "castles" built and garrisoned on the strategically located island. Castle Island now is connected to the mainland by a concrete causeway opened in 1928. Both Fort Independence and Castle Island are listed on the state and national registers of historic places, and the Fort is a National Historic Landmark.

When the British evacuated Boston in 1776 they destroyed their fort on Castle Island, leaving behind only a pile of rubble. General George Washington appointed Colonel Richard Gridley, his chief engineer, to refortify Castle Island and Colonel Paul Revere commanded the forces stationed there. After the Revolution, Massachusetts state forces garrisoned Castle Island, and in 1785, the Commonwealth also used the island as a state prison. In 1798, the federal government took control of the fort, and three years later the War Department began reconstructing the fortifications. Once complete, Castle Island was renamed Fort Independence. Beginning in 1834, the reconstruction of the fort was performed under the direction of Colonel Sylvanus Thayer. Using over 172,687 linear feet of hammered granite, Colonel Thayer completed the construction of the current Fort Independence in 1851.

Fort Independence in fact and legend

Only once in nearly 375 years, were the guns mounted at Castle Island fired in anger. On 20 March 1776, near the end of the Siege of Boston, the British garrison opened fire on a Rebel work party on Dorchester Point. Unfortunately, the Americans were out of range and one British cannon exploded, wounding seven of their own soldiers.

In 1827, a young soldier named Edgar Allan Perry served for about five months at Fort Independence. Perry -- later known as Edgar Allan Poe -- probably heard lurid stories about the Fort's previous use as a prison, and may have based his short story, "The Cask of Amontillado," on a tale about a duel between two officers at the Fort.

Lewis Peckham: soldier and scoundrel?

Lewis Peckham, the officer who drew this map, was born 19 September 1788 in Newport, Rhode Island, the son of Thomas and Hannah (Weaver) Peckham. He entered the army as an ensign in December of 1808. He was promoted to second lieutenant in 1809, and to captain in 1814. Peckham resigned his commission on 1 March 1815.

During the course of his service, Peckham married a woman named Selinda. Apparently, their union was not a happy one, for in March of 1815, Selinda inserted the following advertisement in Spooner's Vermont Journal and the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Advertiser:

Beware of a Monster. Whereas Lewis PECKHAM, late a Capt. In the 4th Reg. US Infantry, in the service of the US, my lawful wedded husband, without any just cause or reason, has deserted my bed and board - although painful to me, I do denounce him a Liar and a Villain, and a person not to be trusted by either sex. He is a robber of innocence, I have been told - but, alas! Not until too late. He is despised by his comrades, and pitied by his acquaintance. For his unfeeling conduct towards me, I have to caution all young females as well as old women, to beware of this monster, wherever he may go. I married him without knowing him, in consequence of his standing in the army. I took him for a gentleman, but alas! I was deceived. I married him to make him happy; but his vial and treacherous disposition would not admit of it; I therefore think it a duty incumbent on me to caution all female society to have no connection whatever with this monster! He is a destroyer of happiness, but I trust in God he will in some future day receive a full compensation for his villainous conduct towards me...

We do not know whether Selinda's advertisement had its intended effect, but the records of Knox County, Indiana show that the Peckhams were divorced in 1818. Lewis Peckham died 8 September 1822 in Vincennes, Indiana, having married an "Indian Princess" named Mary Dague (or Dagenet) and fathered two children.

Visiting Castle Island

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation has custody of Fort Independence and Castle Island as a historical site and park that is open to the public year-round. The Castle Island Association conducts tours of the Fort during the summer months. For more information, consult the website of the Department of Conservation and Recreation

Suggestions for further reading

Castle Island Association, Castle Island Fort Independence. South Boston: Castle Island Association, 1984.

Charles G. Hilgenhurst Associates. A Report on Fort Independence, Castle Island, Boston Harbor. Boston: Hilgenhurst, 1975.

Reid, William J., Castle Island and Fort Independence. Boston: Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1995.

Snow, Edward Rowe, Castle Island, Its 300 Years of History and Romance. Andover, Mass: Andover Press, 1935.


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