“When every man is needed at the front, soldiers must be detailed to guard the captives. By constantly threatening to escape, the prisoner of war continues to be an operative factor in the war.”
AN ISLAND OF HORRORS
Today, you take a smooth ferry ride over to Pea Patch Island in Delaware City, Delaware (except for when they dock the ferry, then you are thrown around like a rag doll!). When you arrive it’s peaceful (half the island is a bird sanctuary now), there are only a few buildings to see and it can be difficult to remember that the island has seen some atrocious times, especially because as Northern victors of the war we generally focus more on the Confederate prisoner of war camps. Mostly we focus on the most notorious one of them all: Andersonville. This is the story of a different camp, in the North, but it is no less disturbing.
Originally Pea Patch Island was deemed the perfect location for Fort Delaware. A strategic spot to protect Wilmington and Philadelphia. But during the U.S. Civil War the South never made it there and it was quickly reevaluated to become a prisoner of war camp, from April 1862 until January 1866 precisely. Both sides of the War were capturing and collecting prisoners much faster than anyone had anticipated. Makeshift prisons were swiftly fashioned out of existing government buildings.
Fort Delaware was inspected and found to be extremely suitable, mostly because much like Alcatraz’s island location supposedly discouraging escapes, Pea Patch Island held the same allure.
Between those years over 32,000 Confederate prisoners spent some time living on Pea Patch Island; complete with a paltry diet, in feebly constructed shacks and with poor if not fatal medical care. Death was rampant. Like many Northern prisoner of war camps its name “chilled the hearts of Confederate soldiers.”
The uninsulated shacks provided little protection from the icy Delaware River winds for the first arriving 12,500 prisoners. In the summer the buildings were stuffy with poor ventilation. Lice in any season was inescapable. Death around every corner. A position near the only fire in each barrack became another little war to fight.
To prevent uprisings and organized escaped attempts the Fort strictly separated the officers from the enlisted men. It almost goes without saying that officers lived better than the rest of the soldiers, sometimes even more luxuriously than when they were in the bloody, muddy fields. Because the barracks looked easier to escape from than the fort some newly arrived officers did attempt to pass themselves off as privates, forgoing some “luxuries” in hopes of freedom.
The prisoner population at Fort Delaware rose and fell drastically throughout the war; swelling after a major Union victory like Gettysburg and reducing after large prisoner exchanges.
Virtually every Southern account of the Fort, no matter how brief, grumbles about the food. Daily rations were served in two meals, always: meat, bread, soup and coffee (but probably forget about cream or sugar).
Prisoner Randolph Shotwell (he’s quite interesting, you can read more about him here) wrote about his mealtimes: “The bacon was rusty and very slimy, the soup was a slop and filled with white worms a half inch long.” He joked that the soup was too weak to drown the rice worms and pea bugs, instead they would die from starvation too. Better than to risk eating the revolting soup.
Food was always a source of conflict among the eternally hungry prisoners, especially for those with Northern relatives or friends who could bring them additional clothing, food and money. These items though came with their own set of restrictions. Prisoners could not receive anything blue or sturdy in quality. To do so would be considered outfitting the enemy’s army and supplying them with methods for an escape.
A new order was given that donations could be made only by close relations. The sudden discovery of long-lost “sisters” and “aunts” exploded but the guards accepted the relations as valid for the most part. For those without money or connection, cooking rats became a fine art and catfish could sometimes be caught near the toilets.
For Southerners transported to Fort Delaware during the winter the combination of breezy shelters, the inadequate food available on the island and their unpreparedness for Northern temperatures was often fatal. (Though Union guards could freeze to death just as easily, especially while outside on duty).
But really, any season on the island was a bad time for a prisoner. Monthly reports after June 1863 until the end of the war show 200-700 men on the sick list each month. This is of course only some of the reported sick, many would have preferred to stay in the barracks rather than take a chance at the hospital. There you might contract a more serious or contagious disease. Going to the doctor was still often more dangerous than the illness itself.
Scurvy also became a prominent disease and a rampant killer at the Fort despite its prevention being known by the Civil War. The right food was surely available for only three Union soldiers stationed there suffered from scurvy. Malaria and all the other usual killers were also prevalent. In the fall of 1863 a smallpox epidemic swept through the prison and killed 177.
The Southern diarists at Fort Delaware unanimously agreed that the cruelest guards were those who had never been in action. Military prisons and supply depots were well-known to be the dumping grounds for incompetent or green officers and soldiers.
Also used as guards were Union convicts and “galvanized Yankees” (defectors from the Confederacy). Although the government had deliberately campaigned to win these Confederates to their side, once a Southerner had defected they had little respect or trust in him.
Lieutenant George Ahl is mentioned often in the diaries of the men he guarded, and almost always with a choice word or two. He commanded a company made up of former Confederates who had defected. A Southerner from Georgia himself, he and his men were all stationed at Fort Delaware as guards for their entire service.
He was surely the most unpopular guard there, a severe Southerner working for the Yanks; though he screened all complaints (particularly those against him) and made sure these never made it to the Commandant’s office. The Commandant was General Albin Schoepf who had been deafened at the Battle of Perryville before resigning his post. Six months later he was pushed back into service commanding a fort of Southern prisoners, a cause which his wife was reportedly openly sympathetic too.
Schoepf permitted his subordinates free rein over prisoner treatment. Perhaps he had simply given up on achieving any order, he was always short on supplies and had uncooperative garrisons amongst a long list of other chronic problems after all. Whatever the reason, mistreatment of prisoners was common, expected, accepted.
The runner-up for worst guard was surely the soldier they nicknamed “Hike Out,” a Union sergeant named Jim O’Neil. He was originally a prisoner on the island himself for deserting at the battle of Bull Run and his real name was Adams. His new name didn’t throw many soldiers off the trail, they knew his real identity and they despised it.
When the Confederate population grew rapidly, the prisoner “Hike Out” was given the job of guarding the Confederates. Despite a military tribunal finding that the island was not suitable for a large number of prisoners they were still being sent in sizable numbers to the overcrowded fort; more guards were desperately needed. In descriptions written about him at the time O’Neil is labelled as an ugly, greasy, repulsive man (and probably psychotic) spending most of his time patrolling with a wooden club or a rawhide whip, yelling obscenities at the soldiers and torturing them with mind games.
Non-sanctioned punishments and activities were rampant at the fort. Men were hung by their thumbs until the joint was dislocated or had to be amputated. They were forced into labor which was officially prohibited. In one instance a man threw a cup of water from the window. The guard outside turned and shot him instantly without question, killing him. Another guard killed a prisoner for not returning from the bathroom fast enough. The prisoner was slow because a war wound had left him lame in one leg. The soldier was not punished but promoted to sergeant soon after.
THE IMMORTAL SIX HUNDRED
In the summer of 1864 the Confederates used 50 captured Northern soldiers as human shields in South Carolina. U.S. Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton ordered the same number of Southern generals to be taken from Fort Delaware to be brought to South Carolina too. An eye for an eye.
Pressing for a large prisoner exchange 600 were gathered up and brought down South instead. That was until General Ulysses S. Grant put a stop to all prisoner of war exchanges. Some argue it was because of Confederate mistreatment of U.S. colored troops captured. Southerners believed they were ex-slaves and treated them as such. But Grant knew the South was desperate for prisoner exchanges because they were running low on manpower. This was also an opportunity to gain the upper-hand.
After being fired upon none of the human shields were killed and only a few suffered superficial injuries on either side. It was decided that the prisoners needed to be moved. The Union shuffled them to several prisoner of war camps and lost many of them along the way. Some to disease, some to starvation and some to gunshot wounds from their guards. A few managed to escape. Eventually the rest were brought back to the Fort, an embarrassing debacle for both sides.
Escape from the Fort were not a hopeless dream. Delaware was aligned with the Union but had divided sympathies as a Border State. Existing with the more famous Underground Railroad for slaves was an underground railroad for returning escaped prisoners back to the South. The distance escapees had to travel to reach friendly lines was never more than 250 miles away.
Still, being on an island curtailed many escape attempts.They say sharks frequented the water and of course the guard boats patrolling were also deterrents. Non-swimmers were almost immediately counted out of any escape plans and during the winter ice piled up between the island and the mainland making it nearly impassable. Even today the island is closed after October with only one caretaker living there, totally alone.
Particularly infuriating to the Confederates’ escape plans were the Union spies. More than once details of a planned escape became known to authorities as did a time when gold pieces were smuggled in the stuffing of a Thanksgiving turkey!
An exceedingly unpleasant but popular way of leaving was through the privy holes or the “sinks” (the toilets) which extended over the Delaware River. Yet another gruesome method was to take the place of one of the corpses in the coffins on its way to burial in New Jersey.
Wanting to keep the official figure of escapes low it is difficult to determine their accuracy. In July of 1864 the official record says ten men but personal diaries put it higher. The Union reported a total of 54 escapes but new research says it was more likely between 64-100 men (and that’s just the successful ones).
THE WAR ENDS
The exact number of deaths is impossible to determine too. Officially, over 2,400 prisoners (more Confederates than were killed in the Battle of Antietam) were buried at the closest cemetery, which was Finn’s Point Cemetery on the New Jersey shore. The total number certainly exceeds this as some were buried on the island itself and others were sent South for burial.
By the close of the war those at Fort Delaware didn’t seem to want to release their remaining prisoners. On April 10, 1865 they fired the fort’s 131 guns in celebration of Lee’s surrender but by the next month they still held 8,000 captives. The last prisoners to leave included political prisoners and Jefferson Davis’ private secretary.
The fort was used again in WWI and II for small garrisons but in the middle of WWII the guns were all removed for scrap metal which was desperately needed. In 1944 the fort was closed, later to be turned into a museum which you can visit today.
For a place with so much suffering and hardship you can imagine there are quite a number of ghost stories to tell. But Halloween is over and this post is long enough 😉 so if you’re interested you can read about them here. I’ve never noticed anything myself the several times I’ve visited but have heard about it from many of the staff. Of course there are ghost tour tickets to be sold…but who knows!!