Monday, August 12, 2013

Fort Delaware Prison and the 157th Regiment OVI in the Civil War

Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island
Fort Delaware was (and still is) located on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River.  During the Civil War the fort became a prison for captured Confederate soldiers, convicted Union soldiers, and political prisoners.   It also became the site of my second great-grandfather Ellis Bickerstaff's Civil War service in the 157th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

The fort was octagonal in shape and was guarded at four different levels:  around the edge of the island, around the area surrounding the barracks outside the walls of the fort, around the enclosure, and inside the prison.1  During the course of the War, different regiments guarded the prison at different times.  As one might expect, experiences of guards were vastly different than experiences of prisoners.

One guard wrote,
We are located on an island in the Delaware River, about 10 miles above the bay, which contains 92 acres, in the center of which is built the Fort, built of granite.  The fort mounts 180 guns, which is manned by three artillery companies of 150 men each....  There is one hotel, a sutler store, an ice cream saloon and some private residences, our little town.

We occupy very nice quarters, white frame houses built close by the Fort, and have everything we could expect or wish.  The water we use is brought every morning from the Brandywine river, about 12 miles off, which is good and fresh.  In addition to this we have as much ice issued to us every day as we can use.  Our rations consists of fresh beef, pork, bread, coffee, sugar, molasses, rice, potatoes, beans, etc.  So you can see there is no danger of us starving....

The regiment enjoys very good health....  The sea breeze makes it cool and pleasant here of evenings, and we all sleep sound till the tap of the drum:  some to guard, some to reading and writing, and others to fishing.  We can sit on the bank and view Delaware City, one and a half miles from here, the nearest point of land, to us; and also see steam and sail vessels, ironclads, etc., and be fishing, catching catfish, perch, eels, etc., at the same time.  All the boys are well and in good cheer, except an occasional one who is homesick, or would not be satisfied in any place or situation in life, and therefore should have no account taken of him.2
This description was written in mid-June, 1864, when the soldier had been there just over a month.  Was this exactly accurate or was this a letter written home to comfort loved ones and give the impression of security and well-being, the actual situation improved upon by imagination?

Other descriptions of Fort Delaware tell of its loamy surface which was below sea level, surrounded by a dike to keep the river at bay.  After heavy rains the surface became a quagmire.  Canals traversed the island and supplied the only fresh water to prisoners for some years.  Eventually wooden barrels were placed to collect rain from the roof.  If rains were frequent, the water was fairly fresh; if infrequent, it became putrid and bug-infested.  Barracks were built of rough pine and offered little protection from summer's insects and winter's cold.  Other aspects of the prison gave rise to the following description: 
No other northern prison was as dreaded by the South [as Fort Delaware].  By 1863 Fort Delaware had gained a reputation among Confederate soldiers as a place of cruelty.  It was often referred to as "that 'lowermost Hell' of human hells" and, because it engendered one of the highest mortality rates of any Civil War prison, its inmates called it "The Fort Delaware Death Pen."  The news of being sent there often caused "faces to grow white" and "hands to clench" in fear.3
Details of cruelty at Fort Delaware can be found throughout Lonnie R. Speer's Portals to Hell, where the author cites remembrances of inmates there.  For me, the worst sentence in the book is, "The [157th] Ohio regiment became the most hated by the prisoners."4

Every descendant of a Civil War soldier wishes to read details of honor and heroism, if not of the individual, at least of the regiment in which the ancestor served.  To read that my great-great-grandfather served in the most hated Union prison in the most hated regiment makes my heart hurt.

1.  Speer, Lonnie R., Portals to Hell:  Military Prisons of the Civil War, (Mechanicsburg,
     PA, Stackpole Books, 1997), 44.
2.  Leeke, Jim, ed, A Hundred Days to Richmond:  Ohio's "Hundred Days" Men in the
     Civil War, (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1999), 63-64.
3.  Portals to Hell, 193.
4.  Ibid., 144.
Other posts in this series
The Hundred-Days Men of the Civil War
Ellis and the 157th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Coming to Terms with History - Musings on Ellis's Service in the Civil War



  1. Oh dear. I totally get how you feel. Do you have any information on why they were considered the worst? He was your "hundred days man" right? So in 1864 things were stressed. There weren't enough soldiers, food, etc. and I suppose the prison would be its fullest and the water would have fouled, overall conditions would be horrible, etc. I can see that while that regiment may not have been any more cruel that previous ones, the exigent circumstances could have made it seem worse. Also you don't really know what the "command climate" was like. You get into the whole crowd mentality and having a few strong, cruel leaders could inspire the whole group to act when the individuals wouldn't consider actions like that. I suppose it isn't much consolation, though. I think it would be worse to have a Nazi in the family or even a slave owner.

    1. Yes, this was my Hundred Days man.

      Lonnie Speer's book, Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, tells some of the incidents of torture and brutality that occurred. I'm sure it's not the worst that's ever been done to prisoners but that doesn't make it any easier to read about. I just couldn't bring myself to post details. Speer's research seems to be very detailed. I can only assume it's accurate, too.

      The commander of the Fort at the time was Brigadier General Albin Schoepf. From the research I've done, he allowed the guards unrestrained control over the prisoners and Fort Delaware eventually became one of the most brutal prisons. Besides the purposeful brutality, it was over-crowded, fresh food and water were limited to the point of being almost non-existent. There were up to 80 deaths each month.

      I doubt there's any way to know of Ellis's participation and actions. It's possible he was quietly guarding without actively brutalizing. That's the thought I'm holding on to until I learn otherwise.

      Yes, I agree, I believe it would be worse to have a Nazi among my ancestors.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, JoAnne. I appreciate it.

      You can read an excerpt about Fort Delaware at (Sorry, I don't know how to make it a link in a blog post but you can highlight the url then copy and paste it.)

  2. Interesting read, Nancy. I had two ancestors inprisoned there. I also wonder what made the 157th so despised?

    1. Oh, Heather, I'm so very, very sorry for your two ancestors. I included a link to Portals to Hell in the comment to JoAnne. You can read for yourself. The online version gives only a part of what Speer wrote about Fort Delaware. I can only hope that my Ellis quietly did his duty without being actively involved with the other guards. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

  3. Very interesting Nancy. I don't read much about the Civil War, but because this was by you and you use a great font, it was easy reading (thanks for that). Do you have any idea how long your 2nd great-grandfather served there?

  4. My great great grandfather, James Alexander Meek, was a CSA soldier at Ft. Delaware. He was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg on 8 Jul 1863, and sent to the POW camp shortly thereafter. I blogged about it here:

    Given what happened in James' marriage to my great great grandmother shortly afterward - the exact events I'll never know - and the ripple it had in the family fabric even three generations afterward, I have to wonder if it wasn't the effects of war and his POW experience that were the cause of the tear in the family.


    1. Dee, I'm so sorry for your James and his family. He and many others suffered in POW camps during the Civil War. I'm sorry that my g-g-grandfather was a guard in the prison where James served.

  5. With respect, I doubt the 157th Ohio were the "worst prison guards" and there's no question Camp Delaware was not the worst prison for captured Confederates; in fact, it doesn't even come close.

    You're correct that the 157th was a 100-day regiment, recruited specifically for the purpose of rear-guard duties, suchas being guards at prison camps. But of the 2000 men who died at Delaware, half of them died before the 157th even got there and most of thatwas from a smallpox outbreak in 1863. Did the 157th really kill 1000 men from June to August in 1864?

    As far as worst camps, Elmira in New York state had over three times the death rate of Delaware.

  6. Correction- the 157th was only at Camp Delaware from May 15th to June 30th. Still, I doubt they were the worst POW guards of captured rebels of the war.


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