Fort Delaware, situated on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, was a harbor defense facility built to protect the ports of Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The post is well known for its use prison camp during the Civil War, housing more than 12,000 Confederate prisoners at one time. Unsanitary conditions of the prisoner of war camp, in part stemming from poor drainage, gave the fort the reputation of being the Union’s counterpart to the infamous Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia.
The State of Delaware deeded Pea Patch Island to the U.S. government in 1813 to build a fort to protect the entrance to the Delaware River. The first earthwork fortification was constructed the same year, which served until 1821 when it was dismantled.
A second masonry “star fort” was built of brownstone with a wooden interior starting in 1819. The star fort was designed by army engineer Joseph G. Totten and construction was supervised by Captain Samuel Babcock. Babcock supervised the work until 1824 when construction was delayed due to uneven settling, improper pile placement, and the island’s marshy nature. Babcock was severely criticized for altering Totten’s original plans without orders and was required to appear before a court-martial in late 1824. In the end, the court determined he was not guilty of neglect but rather, an error in judgment and he was acquitted. Major Alexander C.W. Fanning took command and the post was manned by soldiers of the 2nd U.S. Artillery.
On February 8-9, 1831, a fire erupted at the fort destroying most of the buildings. What was left of the post was torn down in 1833 to make room for a new fortification. The stone was used to reinforce the sea wall.
In 1847 Congress appropriated one million dollars for the construction of a Third System masonry fort on Pea Patch Island. Captain Richard Delafield of the Corps of Engineers, designed the new fort and work on the bastioned pentagon-shaped fort began in 1848. The cost of driving the pilings ate up the million dollar appropriation and Congress provided another million to continue the work. It was 1849 before actual construction on the fort, which was to surpass Fort Sumter, South Carolina in size, began and it was not completed until 1859.
The fort covered about six acres and initially had a parade ground that covered more than two acres. Its 32-foot high walls were constructed of solid granite blocks and bricks, varying in thickness from seven feet to 30 feet and were surrounded by a 30-foot-wide moat, crossed by a drawbridge on the Delaware side leading to the fort’s sally port, or principal entrance. At this time the post was the largest masonry fortification in the United States. More than 25 million bricks are said to have been used for the fort and barracks.
By the mid-1850s, several additional buildings — mostly workshops and living quarters — were ranged along the interior face of the sea wall in the southeastern and northern sectors of the island. The fort was essentially complete by 1859, its rehabilitation having cost in excess of
$1,305,000. As a result of all this construction activity, the area surrounding the main fort, filled with shops, warehousing, sheds, houses, shanties, and other structures, evolved into a well established civilian settlement. Services such as a bakery, a laundry, and even a school were included within this community.
Fort Delaware’s greatest period of activity occurred during the Civil War. The fort was occupied by a single company of regular artillery in February 1861. The Commonwealth Artillery of Pennsylvania was the first volunteer unit to move in after the War began. Following the Battle of Kernstown, Virginia in 1862, 250 troops of Stonewall Jackson’s army were brought to the island as the first Confederate prisoners of war, even though the fort had not been planned for such use up to that time. That year, wooden barracks were erected to house 2,000 prisoners, but they were quickly overcrowded.
Most of the Confederates captured at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in July 1863 were also imprisoned at Fort Delaware. Initially, the prisoners were housed in brick barracks located within the main fort. By that time, there were some 8000 prisoners on the island and the barracks were expanded to house 10,000. There were some 12,500 prisoners on the island in August 1863.
As the prisoner population grew the prison quarters were relocated to the northwestern half of the island. Prisoners were housed in crudely constructed, fence-enclosed barracks in an eight-acre compound. Each camp was arranged into 10 rows of barracks. Each barrack was subdivided into chambers, which were known as “divisions.” A division was 19 by 60 feet with a narrow passage separating bunks in three tiers on either side and housed from 400 to 900 men. One Confederate prisoner described the camp:
“The pens were formed by enclosing a parallelogram of some eight acres by a continuous line of rude one-story pine barracks, running around the four sides. The enclosure, or courtyard, was then divided into two yards by a double line of high plank fence, with a parapet on the top, for sentries to walk and overlook the prisoners in each square.
An alley ten feet broad separated the two fences, preventing any intercourse between the two pens, and giving access to gates opening into each. Officers occupied the smaller pen nearest the fort; privates the other, which, though larger, was many times more crowded.
The row of barracks were under a continuous roof but were divided into rooms called “Divisions” numbered from no. one to forty. The buildings were really shells, constructed of long planks standing on end, in line, like a double fence, or covered bridge, running around three sides of a square. The floor was as rough as a stable; the roof leaky as a sieve; the weatherboarding so open that you could thrust your hand between most of the planks, and great drifts of snow accumulated upon our beds every night in winter”
Hospital facilities and other structures, including a kitchen and bakery, sutler’s shops, latrines, surgeon’s quarters, garrison barracks, an “oyster house,” beer saloon, tailor shop, officer’s gymnasium, commissary and storehouse and watch houses, were also constructed, sufficient eventually to support a prison population of up to 13,000 with their attendant guards and service staff. Other more temporary structures were erected by the prisoners themselves to suit their needs. These included barber shops, a ring maker’s tent and arbors for shade. The prisoners also erected a chapel which was used by the Federal officers and their families. During this period, virtually the entire island was improved in some form or other to accommodate the vastly increased population. Most of the new construction took place in the northwest half of the island, but the older developed southeast end continued in use and saw the erection of some additional buildings.