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The Civil War Comes to the Delaware
Pea Patch Island and Fort Delaware
By Lynn Whitney
Your journey down the Delaware is underway. You’ve passed all the Philadelphia sights and are headed for the Delaware Bay. Mid channel of the Delaware, near its entrance to the Bay, is Pea Patch Island. Situated on the 1 mile long island is Fort Delaware, an imposing brick and concrete structure. Once a strategic harbor defense facility, it is currently a State Park.
According to legend, a ship carrying a cargo of peas foundered and broke apart on a mud shoal in 1770, dumping the peas into the water. Eventually the peas sprouted and over time an island formed. As the island grew in size, it was recognized by military officials as an ideal location for a defense system to protect the upriver cities of New Castle and Philadelphia. Originally designed as a star fort, construction began in 1817. A star fort is a fortification style first developed in mid- 15th century Italy to deflect damage from cannon fire. It was a flat structure composed of many triangular shaped bastions, designed to cover each other. The original fort was replaced by a Pentagonal fort in 1859.
During the Civil War, Fort Delaware was used by the Union to house Confederate prisoners of war, including most of the Confederates captured at the Battle of Gettysburg. By the war’s end the fort held 33,000 men. While the living conditions were nowhere near as dire as those at Andersonville or Elmira, the rations were scant and diseases such as smallpox and typhoid were rampant taking the lives of almost 2,500 prisoners. With the combination of stifling heat in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, it is not surprising that some prisoners risked their lives in the treacherous currents of the Delaware, hoping to reach the shore and travel the “reverse underground railroad” south to home. The number of escapes is believed to be somewhere between 64 and 103, with stories that are varied and often ingenious. Some prisoners impersonated Union Officers, some fashioned life preservers from canteens and floated to shore, some used privies and sewers as escape routes. One notable escape involved a prisoner removing a body from a coffin, hiding inside it, then jumping out at the cemetery, much to the surprise of the astonished mourners. He next stole a boat, rowed across the Delaware and vanished into the stuff of legend. In another remarkable story, a prisoner skated to freedom. In the winter of 1863, the Delaware froze solid. Many of the Confederate soldiers had never seen ice or snow and were fascinated by it. Some of the Union guards were taking advantage this small break in the harshness of their situation, and were skating on the river. Several of the curious inmates asked to try this new sport. The guards strapped skates on them and then watched with uproarious hilarity as the prisoners slipped and fell. One prisoner took advantage of the situation and skated off down the river, never to be seen again.
In 1947, the federal government declared the fort a surplus site. The state of Delaware acquired it and created Fort Delaware State Park. Visitors can take a ½ mile ferry ride from Delaware City to Pea Patch Island. There they will be met by costumed re-enactors who will fill their day with living, hands-on history. The park hosts an annual “Escape From Ft. Delaware” triathlon, which follows the imagined path of the Confederate escapees. It also hosts at least one game of the Diamond State Baseball Club, a vintage baseball team. For intrepid ghost hunters, there are walking paranormal tours available. Who are these ghosts you might meet? Well, one is Private Stefano, an Italian immigrant who was a Union guard. It is said that he tripped on the slippery stairs near the fort’s entrance, fell, broke his neck and died. Banging noises have been heard on the stairs and sometimes a figure can be seen at the landing. A ghost cleaner has been seen walking through the Officer’s Mess hall, where it stays to clean the mantelpiece, then walks through a door. Perhaps the most interesting phantom is the Kitchen Ghost. She has been seen wandering through the Officer’s Kitchen checking on cooking equipment. During one re-enactment, a kitchen worker was preparing soup. The ghost stopped to check the soup, stirred it, smiled then walked through a wall. I guess she approved!
But don’t worry. According to folklore, ghosts can’t cross running water, so no one will follow you home!