On a site that brings light, and darkness, to a contested past.
No matter what you’re looking for in a summer daytrip, the twelve islands and various boat excursions included in the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area probably offer it: secluded beaches and picnic areas, hiking and camping trails, kayaking, lighthouse tours, whale watching and sunset cruises, and, yes, American history. Embodying the latter is Fort Warren, the National Historic Landmark located on Georges Island; the Fort’s history dates to the early 19th century and includes 20th century service during both World War I and World War II, before it was decommissioned and turned into a historic site in the late 1940s; but it is most famous and interesting for its role as both a Union Army training camp and a prison for captured Confederates during the Civil War.
I have visited Fort Warren before, many years back, but when I took my sons on a trip out to Georges Island and the Fort a couple months ago I noticed something particularly impressive about its presentation of that Civil War history. Many historic sites feel the understandable need to guide a visitor’s experiences, to present numerous exhibits and placards, paths to follow and interpretations with which to engage; since this here blog seeks (among other goals) to add histories into our collective conversations of which (I believe) many Americans are not aware, I can’t fault the sites for their own delineation of salient histories. But in so doing, they run the risk of turning the site’s once-living history into a lesson, of not allowing visitors to connect to what’s there. Whereas at Fort Warren, where (outside of the visitor’s center, which is separate from the historic site) there are very few placards or interpretations of any kind, the visitor is asked to make his or her own way through the site and its histories.
I saw first-hand how much my boys were able to connect to the Fort through that open and un-guided (in the best sense) nature, and how much more it spoke to them than any dry lesson could. Ironically, but tellingly, I felt that most strongly in the places they were most hesitant to go—the Fort’s dark inner tunnels, which even at noon on a summer day receive no sunlight and are not artificially lit in any way. Even a step or two into those tunnels was enough for my boys to hold back, recognizing perhaps one of the few places they have yet encountered that is truly unknown, where anything might happen. Certainly that feeling might approximate some part of the experience of being a prisoner, at the Fort or anywhere. And just as certainly, it parallels the true nature of historical investigation—where the more we connect to the past, the more we realize how much we have to feel our way through, bringing whatever light we can with us but open to where the tunnel leads. All lessons Fort Warren can teach us, young and old.
Next daytrip tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this site? Other daytrips you’d highlight?
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