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More life on them, than in them

Fort Delaware June 1863 sepia / Harper's Weekly 1863-06-27: Vol 7 Iss 339

Above: Fort Delaware, June 1863 / Harper’s Weekly 1863-06-27: Vol 7 Iss 339

The fact is, Fort Delaware was never designed to be used as a prison. That, and the amount of space it occupied on tiny Pea Patch Island in the Delaware Bay, meant it was destined to become a chamber of horrors when pressed into prison duty during the Civil War.

Prior to the April 1861 attack on Fort Sumter that brought the Civil War flaring to life, Fort Delaware was occupied by one company of the Commonwealth Artillery of Pennsylvania, a routine outpost to protect Philadelphia. After the battle of Kernstown in 1862, 250 men of Stonewall Jackson’s army were brought to the island, the first Confederate prisoners of war.

Confederate prisoners were housed in wooden barracks on Pea Patch, not inside the fort itself. The barracks space was soon overcrowded by the constant flow of new prisoners. By June of 1863 there were 8,000 prisoners on the island; the barracks were expanded to house 10,000.

That new space was completely overwhelmed by the bloodiest battle of the war less than a month later: Gettysburg. Most of the prisoners captured at that engagement, from General James J. Archer, down to the last private, were squeezed into Fort Delaware.

Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a contract army surgeon for the Union Army during the war, wrote to his wife Elizabeth on July 26:

“Tomorrow I go to Fort Delaware to inspect that inferno of detained rebels. A thousand ill; twelve thousand on an island which should hold four; the general level 3 feet below low water mark, twenty deaths a day of dysentery and the living having more life on them than in them. Occasional lack of water, and thus a Christian (!) nation treats the captives of its sword.”

The island population had ballooned to 12,500 prisoners by August.

Top: Cross section of the fort. Middle: Top down view of Prisoner's barracks, showing division between Officers' Prison (l) and Privates' Prison (r). Bottom: Guardhouse within Prisoner's barracks. Sketches by Private William I. Fletcher, Company H, 6th Massachusetts Volunteers Regiment.
Top: Cross section of the fort. Middle: Top down view of Prisoner’s barracks, showing division between Officers’ Prison (l) and Privates’ Prison (r). Bottom: Guardhouse within Prisoner’s barracks. Sketches by Private William I. Fletcher, Company H, 6th Massachusetts Volunteers Regiment.

T. Sumpter Belvin, Company A, 11th Georgia infantry, writes to his mother on March 1, 1864 that the ‘sick are receiving better care than they did in Dixie.’ His mother weeps while reading the letter and says ‘that was his way of getting a letter through the lines; I know the Yankees made him say that!” Blevin died at the fort. He was buried in a grave with 5 others.

And on March 23, Missourian Edwin S. Johnson writes to his sister: “I have written about all that I am permitted to write.” It was wartime. Letters were screened.

Regarding food rations, Captain James Bosang, Company C, 4th Virginia Infantry, related his experience as a prisoner in the 2nd half of 1864:

“I was hungry for five months, day and night; our rations consisted of a slice of baker’s bread about 1-¼” thick or two or three crackers with a small slice of pickled pork, a cup of weak coffee and at dinner time about the same amount of bread and a cup of soup or greasy water, in which occasionally a bean or two would be found, but mostly seasoned with flies.”

Contrast Bosang’s comments with the official report of the United States Sanitary Commission’s Commission of Inquiry, May 1864 (3 members from Philadelphia, 3 from NYC) charged with touring the fort and reporting to the public: “The rations issued to the prisoners were the subject of an attentive examination. We tasted the bread, which is made of four parts of flour and one of Indian meal, and found it of superior quality, sweet and palatable; better indeed than is met with at hotels or places of resort in the country; quite as good as may be found in any well-ordered family. The diet is judiciously varied, potatoes and fresh vegetables being furnished in large quantities, wherever the health of the men appears to require it.”

In July 1864 “the commandant of the fort himself issued a plea [to local Delawareans] for vegetables and other anti-scorbutics for the scurvy-ridden Confederate prisoners, which was read in many churches.”

Cruelty towards prisoners by their guards was routine. “The murder of Colonel Jones is the meanest, and most inexcusable affair that has occurred in the officers’ quarters,” noted Reverend I. W. K. Handy, a Virginia prisoner, in his diary on July 3, 1864.

Sketches by Private William I. Fletcher, Company H, 6th Massachusetts Volunteers Regiment.
Left: Top down view of Union Soldier’s Barracks. Right: Fort Delaware’s Methodist Chapel. Sketches by Private William I. Fletcher, Company H, 6th Massachusetts Volunteers Regiment.

”Although he was standing within ten steps of the man that killed him, he heard no challenge, nor any order to move on. The first intimation he had of the sentinel’s displeasure was the discharge of the musket, and the simultaneous exclamation of the Colonel—”Oh, God! Oh, God! My God, what did you shoot me for? Why didn’t you tell me to go on? I never heard you say anything to me!”—and with a few such exclamations, he sank upon the ground; and then fell down the embankment.”

“Reward was given for crime,” observed First Lieutenant Decimus et Ultimus Barziza (yes, real name!) of the ‘Robertson Five-Shooters,’ 4th Texas Infantry, Hood’s Brigade. “It was understood that any sentinel who shot a prisoner, ‘consistently with orders,’ should be awarded by promotion or money.”

Fort Delaware has been called ‘The Andersonville of the North’ for its degradation of prisoners. Was it? Was Brigadier General Albin A. Schoepf, in charge of the facility, just ‘doing his job,’ hamstrung by the army bureaucracy he had to report to? Could he have done better? About 2,700 prisoners had died while incarcerated on his watch. 

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