Delaware January 20, 2017
The Deadly History Of This Delaware Prison Is Terrifying But True
When Fort Delaware was built in 1859, it was intended to be a harbor defense stronghold on the Delaware River, protecting the ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia. At the time, it was the largest fort in the United States and it was a true architectural marvel. Much like it does today, it sat on Pea Patch Island, a boat ride away from any other land.
When the nation erupted into the Civil War just a few years later, Fort Delaware quickly became a prison for Confederate captives. The size, location and modernity of the fort were all given as reasons why Fort Delaware should be the place to host these prisoners of war. As the war raged on, more and more young soldiers were sentenced to time at Fort Delaware, and the stories that have survived this dark time will give you chills.
Fort Delaware was commanded by a man nicknamed "General Terror" - General Albin F. Schoepf.
Early in the war, prisoners kept at Fort Delaware were housed in barracks, which was actually considered a huge step above other Civil War prisons. However, this all changed in July of 1863, when thousands upon thousands of soldiers were captured at Gettysburg. The most brutal battle of the war turned the tide on life at Fort Delaware, and with 13,000 prisoners now being kept on the 6 acre complex, conditions deteriorated rapidly.
With the increased prison population, food became scarce.
One of the prisoners, Captain John S. Swann, journaled about his experience:
"We formed in line and marched to the mess hall... each prisoner took one ration. The bread was made of rye and wheat flour, well cooked, but the piece very small, about half enough for a well man. The meat a small chunk of beef... mostly bone. It was cut up very carelessly and very small, not half a ration. Some days the bread was substituted with crackers, and these were hard days on us."
If you can stomach it, more of
Captain Swann's journals can be found here
Some notable Civil War soldiers were imprisoned at Fort Delaware, including Jefferson Davis's personal secretary Burton H. Harrison and esteemed Confederate General James F. Archer.
In present times, there are rules for how captured POWs must be treated, and it is expected that nations uphold themselves to these standards. However, in the 1860s, no such precedents existed, and death at Fort Delaware was just a commonplace part of the day. Smallpox and measles spread like wildfire through the overcrowded island, which was holding over 12,000 soldiers - more than triple the capacity of the fort. Poor nutrition and a lack of water lead to scurvy, dysentery, and diarrhea. Of course, lice were rampant. Thousands were ill, dozens were dying every day, and according to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, in July of 1863, he observed "the living having more life on them than in them."
Not surprisingly, escapee attempts weren't unheard of.
Only upwards of 300 prisoners escaped the island, and most were never seen or heard from again. A few impersonated Union soldiers and snuck out. Others floated away on life preservers made of pilfered material, and one snuck away on a coal boat. Bribing the guards was common, too - but risky, as you could not count on them to hold their word.
Famously, one soldier removed a body from a coffin, snuck over to New Jersey where the dead were buried, and bolted once he arrived. Another, from Florida, claimed to never have seen snow or ice, and convinced the Union guards to allow the prisoners to attempt to skate on the frozen river. While the guards laughed at the Floridian's attempts to stay on his own feet, he fell, fumbled and slid further from the fort. Once he was out of gunshot range, "
he set off down the river like a professional skater and was never seen again
The horrific conditions led to an astonishing amount of death at Fort Delaware, and the deceased were buried at Fort Mott, just over the Delaware River.
Turns out, burying bodies in remote areas of New Jersey is an idea as old as the country itself. Almost 3,000 soldiers perished at Fort Delaware and were buried across the river in New Jersey.
Now, the historic Fort has been converted into a State Park and Museum, but the soldiers who perished here do not let anyone forget about their struggles.
The fort is said to be one of the most haunted places in the world - and in October,
are open to the public.
Did you know about the terrifying history of Fort Delaware? I find it absolutely fascinating, and heartbreaking. No wonder these soldiers still haunt the fort to this day! If you want to read about another famous Delaware haunting, check out the story of the
partying ghosts of Woodburn – at the very least, it might cheer you up.