Fort Delaware is a harbor defense facility built in 1859 on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River. During the American Civil War, the Union used Fort Delaware as a prison for Confederate prisoners of war. The fort and the island currently belong to the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation and encompasses a living history museum, located in Fort Delaware State Park.
In 1794, the French military engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant was surveying for defensive sites. He identified an island that he called Pip Ash “as an ideal site for the defense of the prize of American commerce and culture”.
The island that L’Enfant called Pip Ash was locally known as Pea Patch island. This island was mostly unaffected by humanity with one exception. Dr. Henry Gale, a New Jersey resident, used Pea Patch as a private hunting ground. Gale was offered $30,000 for the island by the US military, but he refused. The military was determined to get the island, so they appealed to the Delaware state legislature, which seized the island from Dr. Gale on May 27, 1813.
Construction of the fort and the Civil War
Construction of a fort on Pea Patch island began sometime before Dec 8, 1817. Chief Engineer Joseph Gardner Swift mentions a fort on the “Pea Patch in Delaware river” among forts that are progressing nicely. . A fire destroyed much of the work in 1831. Major Richard Delafield asked for $10,000 to tear down the remaining structure the following year. The structure was torn down in 1833.
Major Delafield desired to “erect a marvel of military architecture on Pea Patch.” The present structure was erected between 1848 and 1859, becoming the largest fort in the United States at the time.
During the Civil War, beginning in 1862, the island became a prison for captured Confederates and local Southern sympathizers. They were housed not in the fort itself but in wooden barracks that soon covered much of the island. Most of the Confederates captured at Gettysburg were imprisoned there. By August 1863, there were 12,500 prisoners on the island; by war’s end, it had held some 40,000 men. The conditions were predictably notorious, and about 2,900 prisoners died at Fort Delaware.
The fort was also used to organize and muster troops from the first state. Ahl’s Heavy Artillery Company was organized there for garrison duty and served there during its entire service.
The Fort Today
Delaware acquired the Fort from the United States government in 1947 after the Pentagon declared it a “surplus site”.[dead link] Today, Fort Delaware State Park encompasses all of Pea Patch Island, including the Fort. Transportation to the island is provided via ferry. Once at the island, visitors are brought to the fort on a jitney. Tours and special programs are available to visitors. For example, visitors may see one of the fort’s cannons fired. There are workers who interpret the roles of people who were at the Fort during the American Civil War.
Beach erosion affecting Pea Patch Island was recognized as a potential threat to the Fort in 1999. The United States Army Corps of Engineers erected a 3,500 foot long seawall during the Winter of 2005-2006 which now protects the historical Fort site and a migratory bird rookery, considered to be the largest such habitat north of Florida.
Fort Delaware has its share of ghost stories and has recently been under investigation for paranormal activity. The Sci-Fi Channel investigation series Ghost Hunters conducted two cases there including a live televised investigation on Halloween in 2008.
First Broadcast: 27th January 2009
A self confessed super fan of Most Haunted and editor of GhostMag.com. Matt’s passion for ghost hunting began when he moved into a haunted house in his second year of university in Leicester! His favourite location is the Niddry Street Vaults in Edinburgh.