By Jim Miles
A romantic, if stupid story, no matter which version you prefer.
The Ludicrous Story
Andrew (or Samuel) Lanier joined the Confederate army soon after the war started in 1861. Serving his new country was important, but even more urgent was his young lady, Sadie (or Melanie). Obtaining a short leave, he rode frantically for Crawfordville (or somewhere in South Carolina), where he asked Sadie for her hand. She agreed, and the wedding occurred on June 28, 1861. After a 48 hour honeymoon, he rejoined his unit.
Lanier’s company was dispatched to protect the Carolina coast against a Union invasion threat. During a battle several months later (perhaps Roanoke Island, where Confederates surrendered February 8, 1862), Lanier, wounded in combat, was captured. He was soon imprisoned within the forbidding walls of Fort Warren, a granite, pentagonal facility on Georges Island in Boston harbor.
The Sweetheart Reaches Fort Warren
Sadie was relived to receive a letter from Andrew, but was horrified by its contents. The prisoners were malnourished, the lack of sustenance combined with the cold, damp environment creating rampant disease, which steadily killed off the prisoners. Of course, Andrew missed her, their brief time together the pinnacle of his life.
Sadie immediately determined to save her love. In town she stole men’s clothing and a pepperbox gun, cut her hair, and boarded a blockade runner. The swift ship landed her on Cape Cod one night, and she sought shelter that night with a Southern sympathizer in Hull.
Sadie studied Fort Warren through a telescope and memorized the facilities. On the night of January 15, 1862, during a fierce storm, Sadie was rowed in a dory one mile to Georges Island. Sheltered behind a sea wall, she observed the pattern of patrolling guards. Spotting a gap, she raced to the wall and quickly scaled it, dropping within the prison.
Faithful Wife Slips into Fort Warren
At the first barred window in the prison barracks she softly whistled a tune, “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”, which was special to Andrew and herself. She grew apprehensive when there was no response, but persisted and was thrilled at the sound of an answering whistle. A rope fashioned from a sheet was thrown down and she climbed to the window, where her slim body barely slipped between the bars. She soon rested in her husband’s embrace.
The prisoners were excited when Melanie showed them the short handled pickax she had brought with her. Her arrival was a godsend to the prisoners, who had plotted for months to dig a tunnel under the wall to the shore, where a ship would be waiting to transfer all 600 prisoners held in the deadly prison to freedom, or to tunnel to the arsenal to arm themselves, take control of the fort, and threaten Boston with Warren’s powerful guns.
Weeks of frantic, clandestine tunneling followed Melanie’s arrival. When the excavation was nearly completed, there was a mishap. Either the tunnel was too close to a wall, resulting in a cave-in, or the pickax striking stone alerted sentries. The alarm was sounded throughout the fort and the prisoners were assembled for a quick count. A dozen Confederates were missing, and a thorough search for them revealed the tunnel.
Escape Attempt Discovered, Faithful Wife Dies Nobly
The diggers emerged one at a time, ending with Lanier, and fort commander Colonel Justin Dimick thought everyone was accounted for. Suddenly, Melanie emerged from the depths of the tunnel and placed her antique pepperbox pistol against a soldier’s head, demanding their freedom. Dimick slowly advanced toward Melanie, attempting to talk reason to her. Suddenly he lunged for the firearm, which exploded, killing Andrew.
Declared a spy, Melanie was sentenced to death, either by hanging or firing squad. As her execution date approached, she asked for a dress, as she was tired of looking like a man. A long, flowing black gown used in theatrical productions was located. Melanie wore the garment on February 2, 1862, as she died, and was buried beside her husband in the fort’s cemetery.
Ghost Stories Start
Reports of a ghostly lady clad in a long flowing black gown were reported atop the windswept ramparts and on the desolate shore of the island. Legend says soldiers were court martialed for firing their rifles at the apparition, for abandoning their posts, and by refusing to accept lonely duty positions around the fort. One man maintained that the ghostly woman chased him off the walls.
In 1891 officers out for a stroll found a set of five small footprints in newly fallen snow, “coming from nowhere and going nowhere.”
A decade before World War II, a sergeant was climbing a ladder near the Corridor of Dungeons when he heard a female voice command, “Don’t come in here!” He didn’t.
For many years fort personnel congregated in the old ordnance storeroom at night for a poker game. At least, until the night when all the players watched silently as a single stone rolled the length of the room without explanation. When the phenomenon recurred at the next game, men refused to return to the ordnance room and the game was relocated.
On October 17, 1941, the Milwaukee Journal, in an article titled “Ghost of Lady in Black Still Haunts Fort Warren Troops,” reported that “the black widow” had recently caused a soldier to desert his post.
In the Milwaukee Journal of April 1, 1948, an article titled “Lady in Black Still Haunting Fort Warren,” Captain Charles Norris, then retired commander of Fort Warren, did not believe in the “Lady in Black,” but was forced to admit that a “strange experience” occurred one night. While reading in his quarters at the fort, he felt a cold but light touch on one shoulder, then dozed off. Awakened by the phone, he answered to find no one there. He rang the operator, who confirmed there had been a call, but “your wife took it.” His wife had been in the city. Norris shrugged it off.
In the 1970s a curator reported that as he replaced a window in an observation tower one evening, he heard footsteps behind him. He was alone on the walls, and there were only two others on the island, his wife and daughter.
Some have heard the haunting melody of “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” sang or whistled around the fort.
The Reality of this Story
I love history too much to be a good storyteller. I always have to point out the fatal flaws in a story. In this case, a blockade runner did not sail up the Atlantic coast to deposit one woman on a personal mission at Cape Cod. Said woman also did not scale the walls of Fort Warren, and there was no plan to dig under the walls to a ship waiting to transport 600 POWs 600 miles or further to freedom. Nor was there a plan that those same 600 POWs were going to emerge in the parade ground, seize the fort, and bombard the city of Boston with 248 cannon. There were no executions at the fort, and a woman’s execution would have been particularly notable. The real life Colonel Dimick was a model warden, losing only twelve of the 1,000 Confederate prisoners in his charge. He bravely requested an infantry command and was killed at Chancellorsville in May 1863.
The fort, deactivated after World War II, is a National Historic Landmark and can be toured.
Jim Miles is the author of two Weird Georgia books, seven books about Georgia ghosts and eight books about the Civil War. To see all of his books go to the Jim Miles Author Page on Amazon. Order autographed books or contact Jim directly at email@example.com