By any measure, it would have seemed to have been an unlikely place to build a fort. Most of the Pea Patch Island was an intertidal mud flat, with an average of a little more than three feet above sea level. Its highest point rose to nine feet. During spring high tides (full moon and new moon phases) and/or storm activity, the entire property could be inundated.
Located just offshore of Delaware City, it lies about 42 miles below Philadelphia and 7 miles from Wilmington Harbor (DE). Legend describes how, prior to the American Revolution, a Dutch ship laden with peas went aground and broke up on the island’s shores. Eventually, its soil was covered with a huge crop of peas, giving it the name “Pea Patch Island.”
During the Revolutionary War, British troops took possession of Philadelphia. In 1812, at war again with the British, their navy blockaded the entrance to Delaware Bay and raided some coastal communities. During that time, it was determined that, for the “protection of the river Delaware and adjacent country,” a star-shaped fort and batteries and fortifications should be constructed on Pea Patch Island.
Work on the fort began in December of 1814. But by the time construction was underway, the war with Britain was almost over (February 18, 1815). Though urgency for its completion had faded, the work went on. In February, 1831, a fire broke out in the garrison, destroying “all wooden works quartermaster stores and ordnance on the island.” It would not be until 1860 that the present -day fort was completed. However, some of the structures and mounting of its guns would not take place until the end of the American Civil War. With the introduction of iron-clad vessels, Fort Delaware was clearly “out of date.” It would never fire a single round at a hostile target. Instead, it was destined to serve as a POW camp for captured Confederate soldiers, Federal soldiers that had deserted their unit, privateers and a few political prisoners.
With its completion, Fort Delaware quickly became a popular travel destination. Sightseers arrived from neighboring state to explore the attractive, Medieval-like structure with its moat and drawbridge. In mid-summer of 1861, five Confederates, captured at Shenandoah, were housed at the fort. They were the first. The prisoners were held in casemates, small rooms which had housed powder magazines. The POWs however, made Fort Delaware even more attractive. Though any outsider had to be accompanied by a Pea Patch resident, it was said that visitors were usually very anxious to check out the “fearsome, fire-eating Southerners.”
A year after the initial arrival of Confederate POWs, their population had grown to over 3,000. By the end of the war, some 33,000 had been held at Pea Patch. But during that entire period, many of them were exchanged for Union troops.
On Pea Patch, Rebels sometimes complained that the barracks were infested with lice and bedbugs. Summers were incredibly hot and winters intolerably cold. Disease (mainly smallpox, lung illness and dysentery) ultimately took the lives of about 2,400 POWs. In addition, a large number of personnel stationed there (guards and construction workers) were also lost to disease, including the wife of the fort’s commandant.
Union soldiers fared no better at Andersonville, Georgia’s Confederate POW camp. Opened in 1864, it operated for just 14 months. Initially, as many as 400 captured soldiers arrived there every day. Built to accommodate 10,000 prisoners, within four months its population had swelled to 26,000 men. More than 45,000 were eventually held there. Of these, approximately 13,000 died from overcrowding, malnutrition, poor sanitation and/or disease.
In 1863, at least two New York Times articles reported good conditions at Fort Delaware. The fort had a hospital, chapel and separate barracks for officers and enlisted men. But for many of the prisoners, it was described it as a “descent into Hell.” Whether it was confinement, heat, cold, rations or disease, conditions there may have prompted a number of the prisoners to attempt escape.
During the summer of 1862, prisoners secretly gathered scraps of lumber from a prison construction project and hid them in the tall vegetation lining the edge of the river. With a raft completed, the Rebels crept out of their barracks, avoided the guards and made it to the river’s reed shelter. Under a moonless sky and fairly calm waters, nineteen men boarded the raft and made their way to shore. Once there, they managed to contact Confederate sympathizers who were willing to aid them. They were never recaptured.
In July of 1863, an attempted escape ended in tragedy. A former Rebel prisoner wrote in his diary that “one of our men was killed last night attempting to escape by swimming. How hard it is to die in such a place! There is sickness and death every day.” Most of the prisoners did not know how to swim. A few got away by using empty canteens as floats to make it to shore. Some escaped by dressing and impersonating a Union soldier, but the “coup de grace” was the prisoner that removed a body from a coffin, hid it and then crawled into the casket. As was ordinary, the dead were transported to New Jersey’s Finn’s Point National Cemetery for burial. Upon arrival, the escapee bolted to the shelter of trees and later made his way to southern Delaware. He then met up with folks still aligned with the south. During the entire war, an estimated 64 to 103 prisoners succeeded in escaping Pea Patch Island.
The War between the States ended on April 9, 1865. The last prisoner to leave Fort Delaware was Burton Harrison who had acted as a private secretary to the president of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis.
The half-mile run aboard the Delaware City Ferry to Fort Delaware, is an opportunity to revisit an important era in the history of our Nation. The service is generally available Wednesday through Sunday (10AM to 3PM), throughout the summer. The ticket office is located at 45 Clinton Street, Delaware City, DE. Ferry reservations can be made by calling (302) 834-7941 or via the web, by entering Fort Delaware Tours in a search engine.