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"As the long procession of prisoners staggered out upon the wharf at Fort Delaware, the universal thought was one of Despondency, as if each had been warned like the lost spirits of Dante's Hell, 'Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here!' The reputation of the place for cruelty was already familiar to all of us and it needed no more than a glance at the massive fort with its hundred guns, the broad moat, the green slime dykes and the scores of sentrys [sic] pacing to and fro in all directions to quench every lingering hope of escape."
So wrote 2nd Lieutenant Randolph Abbot Shotwell, a Confederate veteran from North Carolina, about Fort Delaware, a mosquito-infested prison camp on a marshy piece of ground called Pea Patch Island in the middle of the river separating Delaware from New Jersey.
Now known as Fort Delaware State Park, the fort not only still exists, it is very much as it was when it held thousands of Confederates, Federal, and civilian political prisoners. Its dark and damp corridors still echo to the sounds of prisoners and guards as military and civilian living historians re-live the life and pathos of this famous island prison. We cordially invite you to come and experience first-hand what the men of the North and South alike endured.
The Fort Delaware Society presents this website to educate the public about Fort Delaware and to invite you to come and visit. We also extend an invitation to you to join the Society and help us preserve and properly interpret this historic national Civil War landmark.
Prisons, Paroles, and POWS
Fort Delaware "Bent on Exacting Revenge"
Fort Delaware, the prisoner-of-war camp on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, was a pesthole and death camp for the Confederate inmates. Eating rats to supplement their starvation diets, they desperately clung to life in spite of the policies of the U.S. government and prison officials who seemed bent on exacting revenge on helpless men whose only crime had been to fight and be captured in the service of their country, U.S. prison inspector reports of inadequate medical facilities, deplorable living conditions, and overcrowding were ignored by the Commissary General of Prisoners Col. William Hoffman and Commandant Gen. Albin F. Schoepf.
Though prisoner rations in Fort Delaware were supposed to be the same as those of the guards, medical reports from November 1863 to February 1864 reveal 365 cases of scurvy among the prison population of 2,747, with only three cases of scurvy reported among the 1,068 guards. By further cutting the meager rations of the prisoners, Schoepf had amassed $23,000 in a prison fund. The medical director recommended that some of the money be used to purchase fresh vegetables, which would quickly cure the inmates' scurvy, but Schoepf refused.
Prisoner diaries are full of blistering diatributes about Schoepf, whom they called "General Terror", and others among the guards who made prison life even more miserable than it naturally was. On orders from Schoepf's adjutant, Capt. George Ahl, a lame prisoner was shot and killed while returning from the privies because he moved too slowly. Ahl's assistant, Lt. George Wolfe, was as sadistic as his superiours and delighted in eating fresh fruit in front of the prisoners, and watching them scramble for the peels he would throw into the mud. For trivial offenses these prison officials would have inmates hung by their thumbs for an entire day.
Across the river from the prison on the New Jersey shore lie the mass graves of 2.436 Confederate soldierss who died during their incarceration at Fort Delaware.
Fascinating Fact: As the last inmates were leaving Fort Delaware in July 1865, high-ranking Confederates captured after the end of hostilities were arriving. The last of these men were not released until January 1866......
Prisoner Exchange System "2 General = 46 Privates"
At the start of the Civil War, a formal exchange system for prisoiners of war wasnot arranged because President Lincoln did not recognize the Confederacy as having wartime rights. However, after the defeat of Union forces at the 1st Battle of Bull Run, with a large number of Union prisoners held by the Confederacy, the U.S. Congress requested Lincoln take measures to effect an exchange. Up to this time opposing commanders sometimes would arrange an exchange of their prisoners under a flag of truce, but these transactions were few.
The first government-sanctioned exchanges took place in February 1862, but it was not until July 22 that a formla cartel detailing the exchange system was agreed to by the two governments. Under this agreement, all prisoners were to be released-either exchanged or paroled-within 10 days of capture. An equivalency table was devised in which a certain number of enlisted men could be exchanged for an officer. Excess prisoners who could not be exchanged were to be released on parole., which meant they could not perform any military service until they were officially notified that they had been exchanged.
The system was bogged down by paperwork, and each side found reason to interrupt exchanges from time to time, but the cartel operated reasonably well until it broke down in the summer of 1863. By that time the federal government had begun to use black soldiers in its war effort. Refusing to recognize black soldiers as prisoners of war, the Confederacy reduced them to slave status and threatened to execute as insurrectionists the Union officers who had commanded them. A retaliatory threat by the Union prevented the Confederacy from carrying out any executions but did not restore the cartel. Several times later in teh war, the Southern states needed soldiers and requested the exchanges resume, but Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, with plenty of Union soldiers, refused.
Fascinating fact: Prisoners were exchanged on the following basis:
1 general = 46 privates
1 brigadier general=20 privates
1 major general=40 privates
1 colonel=15 privates
1 lieutenant colonel=10 privates
1 major=8 privates
1 captain=6 privates
1 lieutenant=4 privates
1 noncommissioned officer=2 privates.
Fort Delaware "Starvation In A Land of Plenty"
The marshy location, inclement weather, brutal treatment, and overcrowded conditions at Fort Delaware prisoner-of-war camp on Pea PAtch Island in the middle of the Delaware River all combined to make the Confederate inmates miserable. It was the starvation diet, however, that imposed the greatest hardship and led to the most deaths. In retaliation for suffering endured by Union prisoners in Southern camps, the U.S. government reduced the rations of the Rebel prisoners. The men stared out across the river to fertile fields of grain and corn, yet they sat starving.
"The bacon was rusty and slimy", one inmate remembered about his rations, "the soup was slop...filled with white worms a half inch long...It was a standard joke that the soup was too weak to drown the rice worms and pea bugs, which however came to their end by starvation." A Georgia private wrote, "Our rations consisted of one-fourth of a half-pound loaf of bread, twice a day. Our meat consisted of a very small, thin slice of salt pork of fresh beef, which made about one good mouthful, with one Irish potato occasionally....I was so nearly starved I was reduced from 140 to 80 pounds."
The drinking water provided the prisoners was barely potable. It contained "solid inches of tadpoles and wigglers which was our morning draught in lieu of tea or coffee." remembered an inmate. For bathing and washing their ragged clothes, the prisoners had access only to drainage ditches that crossed the island.
Malnutrition and unhealthful conditions resulted in epidemics. The hospital facilites were inadequate to deal with the camp sickness. One prisoner recalled that "physicians, in contract service, have gone daily into hospitals, saturated with liquor; and without looking at the tongue or feeling the pulse, have tantalized the poor sufferers with the prescription, 'Oh, you must eat!' and without furnishing them with either medicine or meat, have left them to die."
Fascinating fact: Alarmed at prison conditions, a group of Fort Delaware neighbors organzied a picnic to raise funds to buy vegetables for the prisoners. A squad of Union soldiers descended on the picnic, arrested all the males, and jailed them at Fort McHenry.