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Fort Delaware State Park
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October 11, 2008 - 01:28 AM UTC
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Fort Delaware State Park (
Fort Delaware sits on a patch of land known as Pea Patch Island, which legends says received its name after a ship hauling peas ran aground and spilled its contents in the mud bank below. The peas took root and started forming the beginnings of the island. It was used as a private hunting ground until 1813 when the state legislature seized the property, following the recommendation from Pierre Charles L'Enfant to use it as a defense site for the American military. An early incarnation of a military fort was launched in 1819, but a fire heavily damaged the structure in 1831 and the rest was completely scrapped two years later. The construction on the current incarnation of the fort began in 1848 and was completed in 1859 for the estimated cost of three million, making Fort Delaware the largest fort in the country at the time.
The Civil War
When the Battle of Fort Sumter ushered in the American Civil War in April 1861, the Commonwealth Artillery of Pennsylvania moved into the fort to defend against potential Confederate incursions. Soon after, Confederate prisoners and sympathizers started to arrive and Fort Delaware began its new life as a military prison camp. Though originally designed to keep the enemy out, the fact that it was surrounded by water made it an ideal place to also keep the enemy in.
During its initial year, the camp held around 250 prisoners total, but that number essentially doubled with the arrival of 248 Confederate prisoners of war that were captured during the first Battle of Kernstown. Along with the new arrivals, the fort also received its first death in the form of Captain Lewis Holloway on April 9, 1862. Holloway, who had been captured in the battle, was believed to have come down with pneumonia and arrived at the fort in a grave state. When enquiries came down to fort Captain Augustus Gibson of how many more prisoners the fort could hold, he simply replied that they were already full. Orders were then quickly issued to begin construction on wooden barracks to hold up to 2,000 prisoners.
Unruly prisoners could face solitary confinement or be "bucked and gagged," which involved placing a long pole between the two elbows and putting a stick in the prisoner's mouth that was secured by a leather thong. Those that were "bucked and gagged" at Fort Delaware were then hauled up by rope until they were suspended from the ceiling, where they remained for the duration of their punishment. Deserters might be branded with the letter "D", and thieves would have their heads shaved and then made to march in the parade ground with a sign identifying their crime. However, these were fairly typical military punishments during this era.
Captain Augustus Gibson
By most accounts, Captain Gibson was relatively lenient on the prisoners under his ward and did his best to provide good living conditions for both his soldiers and the prisoners. His basic approach was to treat the prisoners the way he should be treated if the roles were reversed. However, his approach caused local residents in the area to openly question his loyalty and his sympathy for the Confederate cause. To make matters worse, over three thousand more prisoners arrived by July 1862 and another 20 prisoners had died during their stay. With the numbers quickly growing, Gibson was having a harder time maintaining control.
The fatal error came when General Lorenzo Thomas visited the camp and suggested bringing in a gunboat to patrol the island and be on the lookout for escape attempts. Confident in his troops, Gibson turned down the offer. However, only a couple weeks later on July 16, 1862, he would be proven wrong when 19 prisoners managed to board a makeshift raft and paddled it to the Delaware side where local residents aided in their escape. Combined with growing suspicion of his allegiance, the escape proved to be Gibson's downfall and he was removed. A rotating cast of successors would follow him until the arrival of Brigadier General Albin E. Schoepf on April 13, 1863. He would remain at the post for the duration of the war.
Brigadier General Schoepf took a much different approach to his command over the prison than Gibson did. While most historians note that Schoepf was never directly linked to individual cases of prisoner abuse, almost all suggest that he did nothing to stop his men from dishing out their own punishment. Typical punishment reported was beatings, constant raids on the prisoner's barracks looking for contraband, prisoners hung by their thumbs, and even the occasional unprovoked murder. It did not take long for the prisoners inside Fort Delaware to give Schoepf the nickname of "General Terror".
Ahl's Heavy Artillery Company
Another despised Union official came in the form of Captain George W. Ahl. Aside from his reported distaste for the Confederate prisoners, Ahl allegedly oversaw and/or instigated some of the abuse himself. Even worse was the unusual battery that Ahl commanded. The 1st Delaware Heavy Artillery was a battery in the Union army that was composed primarily of former Confederate prisoners of war. Those soldiers that could prove they were conscripted to serve in the Confederate army and were willing to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States were allowed to join. Over 175 men took the offer and joined the battery. They were assigned garrison and guard duty at Fort Delaware during their entire period of service. Men that had been prisoners of war just days earlier were now tasked with overseeing their former companions. Needless to say, they were met with bitter contempt from the Confederate prisoners, but were also completely mistrusted by their new allies in the form of fellow Union soldiers. However, the men did ultimately receive better treatment and rations than their former inmates.
...But this place is spoken of by all who have been confined
there as a perfect hell on Earth.
- Decimus Barziza
The Fort Delaware Death Pen
By the time Schoef took control of Fort Delaware, the inmate population had swelled to 8,000 prisoners. Following the arrivals of soldiers captured during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the population grew to 12,500. With the prison population swelling, conditions began to deteriorate. Aside from the reported abuse, disease also began to take its toll on both the prisoners and guards alike. While the island location of the fort made it ideal to keep escapes to a minimum, it also exasperated the conditions. During the summer months, the island conditions were overly hot and muggy and proved to be a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which helped spread disease. The wooden barracks also did little to keep the men who were given little clothing and generally undernourished already warm in the winter months.
The water supply had been a problem for Fort Delaware from the beginning, but the problem grew worse as more and more prisoners arrived. Before long, overflowing excrement from the the camp itself (prisoners had to be escorted to the latrines by understaffed guards at night due to escape attempts - see Escape Attempts below) eventually contaminated the water source. While food had been adequately rationed in its early days, that too soon became a limited quantity and the prisoners were grossly underfed. What food they could get was described as slimy, rotten, and sometimes infested with maggots.
The inmates soon dubbed the fort the "Fort Delaware Death Pen" or even "that lowermost Hell of human hells" and it quickly became the most feared Union prison in the south. Some have described the conditions and rations as the Union's retaliation to the conditions faced by their soldiers at the Confederate prison of
in Georgia. There is even an account of nearby concerned citizens attempting to hold a picnic to raise money to buy vegetables for the inmates, only to be arrested by Union soldiers for their efforts. Meanwhile, others have suggested that it was simply the case of limited supplies in the midst of a war mixed with the fact that the prison was understaffed and unprepared for the overpopulation of inmates. Whatever the case, diseases such as small pox, dysentery, and scurvy took their toll on the population. Of the over 32,000 men that passed through Fort Delaware, around 2,500 of them died. 2,436 of their numbers were buried in mass graves nearby in New Jersey in what is today known as Finn's Point National Cemetery.
Today, Fort Delaware is often hit with the label of being the "Andersonville of the North." Interestingly, several other former-prison camps of the North are also given this distinction, including Rock Island Prison in Illinois, Elmira Prison Camp in New York, and Camp Douglas in Illinois. Of these, Elmira comes the closest with a death rate of 24 percent versus the 33 percent registered at
. In comparison, Fort Delaware's death rate was close to 7.6 percent.
The Immortal Six Hundred
As bad as conditions were at Fort Delaware, they paled in comparison to what several of its own inmates would later encounter. While their fellow prisoners despised the former-Confederate troops that joined Ahl's Heavy Artillery Company, a select group of their population would become revered for their loyalty and become known throughout the south as the "Immortal Six Hundred."
In June 1864, the city of Charleston, South Carolina was under constant bombardment by Union forces. It was then that Confederate General Sam Jones sent a wire to his Union counterpart, General J.G. Foster, to inform him that there were fifty captured Union soldiers that were made up of general and field officers inside the city limits. While some argue that the intent of the note was to assure their protection, it was not taken that way. Foster took the wire as a threat that the men were being used as human shields and fired off a request to President Lincoln for the Union to respond in kind. Immediately, fifty Confederate officers at Fort Delaware were assembled for this very purpose. However, by the time they reached Charleston, negotiations had started for a possible prisoner exchange. The men were made to wait aboard the ship for several days until an agreement had been reached and the men suddenly moved from being potential human shields to free men again, serving the Confederate army.
Within days of the exchange however, the Confederate army transported six hundred more men to Charleston in hopes of a similar deal. Word reached Fort Delaware that another troop swap might me in the works, so when six hundred of them were called forth, the men were completely exhilarated. On August 10, 1864, the men were loaded on a steamboat and set sail for Charleston. However, the prisoner-exchange request reached as far as then-Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, who immediately rejected the idea. So instead, during their voyage Federal Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, issued orders that the men were to be transported to Morris Island instead and used as human shields from Confederate gunners at Fort Sumter, in retaliation of the Union officers held in Charleston.
Once on the island, the men were placed in open stockades under the guard of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, who had recently gained notoriety for their assault on Fort Wagner, which took the life of their commanding officer Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (the events of which were portrayed in the movie
). Aside from the constant fire coming from their fellow Confederate forces, the men were issued limited rations in retaliation for the conditions at
. During this time, three of the men died from the horrid conditions, but none by friendly fire.
After a yellow fever epidemic struck Charleston in October, the men were then transported to Fort Pulaski in Georgia. Upon their arrival, the men were initially issued extra rations and the promise of more blankets and clothing. However, the offer never came to fruition and the men soon continued to exist on measly rations - again precipitated by retaliation for
. By the time the men were returned to Fort Delaware on March 12, 1865, thirteen men had passed away at Fort Pulaski and another five died at Hilton Head, South Carolina - most from dysentery.
The remaining men arrived back at Fort Delaware and were greeted by their fellow inmates, who were shocked at the men's emaciated condition. It would prove to be too late for another 25 of the men, who would later die at Fort Delaware. Word of the men's valor and refusal to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, despite being placed in horrific conditions, quickly spread. They became known as the "Immortal Six Hundred" and were universally honored and respected throughout the Confederate States.
Based on the conditions and reputation of the prison camp at Fort Delaware, it should come as no surprise that escape attempts were a regular occurrence. The outhouses were actually positioned on piers over the Delaware River itself, due to the fact that the island had no other facilities. While it was an unsuccessful attempt to maintain sanitary conditions inside the prison, it also provided an attractive avenue for escape. To counter this, Union officials stationed guards near the latrines and prevented inmates from loitering on the walkways leading to them, to avoid a potential distraction that some used for escape.
The positioning of the latrines and strict orders to prevent loitering ultimately led to a fatal shooting on the night of July 7, 1864. At the time, Confederate Colonel Edward Pope Jones was returning from a trip to the latrines when he came across a group of fellow inmates that were congregating on the walkway. Union Private William G. Douglass became concerned about the congregation and ordered the men to disperse. The crowd immediately broke up, but Jones was hobbled by a bad foot and couldn't move fast enough. The private later stated that he issued three such orders to move along and that Jones did not comply for whatever reason. The inmates report that no such orders were issued. However, the end result was the same and Douglass's shot penetrated Jones chest and knocked him down the embankment. He would die two days later and Douglass would be exonerated of any charges.
For the most part, inmates attempted to use the flow of the river to make their escape by fashioning together flotation devices from such items as wood and canteens. Others would get their hands on Federal uniforms and attempt to simply board a boat to escape. Following the shooting of Jones, the fort officials started to crackdown on potential escape attempts and conducted various raids, confiscating canteens and any Federal clothing.
Officially, there were 52 escape attempts (involving multiple men) from Fort Delaware though the number is probably much, much higher. Once inmates reached the water, they faced the dangers of being discovered by patrol boats, drowning in the swift current, and even the presence of sharks in the water. It is unclear about how many men escaped from Fort Delaware and even less clear of how many of that number survived the three dangers listed. Union estimates place the successful escapees (those that did not return to the island) around 273, while Confederate estimates range from 500-1000. The escapes are now recreated yearly in the annual Escape from Fort Delaware Triathlon (see Fort Delaware Today below).
There are boundless tales of the supernatural and paranormal activity surrounding Fort Delaware to this day. The stories have even drawn the attention of the likes of
, who have investigated the claims. Reports have included everything from cold spots to strange photographic anomalies, including transparent apparitions. The specters of Confederate troops have also allegedly been spotted under the ramparts and the parade grounds, possibly still trying to flee the prison camp to this day. Interestingly, the apparitions of women have also been reported inside the former officer's kitchen and other rooms inside the fort. However, the primary claims center around both Union and Confederate spirits throughout the former-camp. In a couple cases, there are theories as to the actual identities.
The Drummer Boy
Interestingly, one of the popular accounts of a ghost at Fort Delaware concerns the legend of a botched escape attempt of a 9-year old Confederate drummer boy. According to the stories, the boy decided his best chance of escape was to fake his own death and be transported across the river in a coffin. Either sympathetic Union troops or fellow inmates were in on his plan and agreed to free him when he reached the other side. However, a shift change swapped the personnel in charge of his burial and the boy was buried alive. While the story is rather sensational, it is only mentioned in books and Web sites dedicated to the ghost stories and does not appear to have any historical basis.
Brigadier General James Archer
James Jay Archer was a Confederate Brigadier General that was captured during the Battle of Gettysburg and transported to Fort Delaware, after a stay at Johnson's Island on
. It was a policy of Brigadier General Schoepf that Confederate officers were given nicer quarters and more of a free reign of the prison camp, as long as they gave their word that they would not attempt to escape. Archer apparently agreed to these terms, but secretly hatched a plan for a prisoner uprising. Unfortunately for him, the plan was found out before it could be put into action and Archer was thrown into solitary confinement in the powder magazine that then served as a makeshift dungeon. Reportedly Archer was already very ill upon his capture and this was exasperated during his stay in the dank, dark cell.
Archer turned out to be among the fifty men chosen to serve as human shields in Charleston, only to find themselves freed in a prisoner exchange. He was ordered back into active duty, but the effects of his illness and imprisonment took their toll. He died only months later on October 24, 1864.
Though Archer had been freed from Fort Delaware, many insist that his spirit returned in death. According to some, a figure is seen moving around the former-powder magazine/dungeon that housed Brigadier General Archer many years before. Witnesses that have spotted the apparition have described him as a bearded man wearing a gray uniform, which is eerily similar to existing photographs of Archer. While there is no doubt that Archer was housed at Fort Delaware, there is contradicting evidence that suggests his "escape plan" was actually hatched and exposed during his time prior to Johnson's Island.
Another tale concerns an Italian immigrant with the last name of Stefano that joined the Union army and served at Fort Delaware. As the story goes, Private Stefano was inside one of the buildings and slipped down the staircase and broke his neck. There have been various reports of the sound of footsteps descending the stairs and most attributed them to Private Stefano. However, details of the private are vague and a quick glance through historical records was unable to locate anyone with the name of Stefano being stationed at Fort Delaware.
Fort Delaware Today
Following the Civil War, Fort Delaware had been rendered obsolete by rifled naval artillery and soon many of the buildings were torn down and sold as scrap. Small improvements were made from time to time and the Fort did house some troops during World War II, but it was ultimately declared surplus property and sat unused. In 1947, ownership was transferred over to the State Parks Commission of Delaware and the Fort Delaware Society was formed to restore the old fort. Their hard work paid off and in 1951 it was established as a State Park - the first state park in Delaware.
Today, the fort is accessible by ferries that transport guests across the river from Delaware City. Guests can tour the history of the facility, which is highlighted by costumed actors that play out such roles as Ahl's Heavy Artillery Company and occasional Civil War recreations. During the second week of June, the park hosts the annual Escape from Fort Delaware Triathlon, where participants swim across the Delaware River to Delaware City, where they then bike for 25 more miles and wrap up with 6.25 mile run. The event began in 2000 and attracts nearly 400 athletes a year.
In the months of June through October, the State Park plays hosts to a series of candlelight ghost tours that take guests into the most haunted areas of the park, while recounting all the stories. Starting in 2008, Fort Delaware played host to several nights of "
Spirits of Fort Delaware: A Night of Haunted Tales
" in October, which mixes the fact with fiction for a terrifying Halloween experience. For more information on these and many more events, please visit the site below.
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Fort Delaware State Park
The Delaware State Parks's site for the reportedly haunted Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island, Delaware.
Nashville Ghost Tours
Joliet Haunted Historic Locations & Gangster Tour
See Also on TheCabinet.com
Blog: The Ghostly History of Fort Delaware (10/31/08)
Blog: The Return of the Immortal Six Hundred (03/12/09)
Blog: Escape from Fort Delaware (07/16/09)
Available from Amazon.com
Unlikely Allies: Fort Delaware's Prison Community In The Civil War
The Union Prison at Fort Delaware: A Perfect Hell on Earth
A Fort Delaware Journal: The Diary of a Yankee Private
Confederate prisoners of war at Fort Delaware
Civil War GHOSTS at Fort Delaware
Haunted Jersey Shore: Ghosts And Strange Phenomena of the Garden State Coast (Haunted)
Ghostly Tales from America's Jails
Coast To Coast Ghosts: True Stories of Hauntings Across America
Encyclopedia of Haunted Places: Ghostly Locales from Around the World
Haunted Places: The National Directory: Ghostly Abodes, Sacred Sites, UFO Landings and Other Supernatural Locations
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