|Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island|
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.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?
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
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.3Details 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.
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