During the war, about 2,900 prisoners died while incarcerated at Fort Delaware, of which about 2,400 are buried in a national cemetery at Finn’s Point, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River. Despite the large number of deaths, the prison at Fort Delaware had one of the lowest death percentages (10%) of any U.S. Civil War prison. Half of the deaths occurred during a smallpox epidemic in 1863. Other deaths occurred due to cholera, pneumonia, scurvy, typhoid, and other illnesses. During this time, 109 Union soldiers and about 40 civilians on the island also died.
Among the political prisoners housed at the fort were Burton H. Harrison, private secretary to Jefferson Davis, and Governor F.R. Lubbock of Texas, who was the last prisoner at the fort in 1865.
After the Civil War, the resident population of Pea Patch Island declined dramatically and the focus shifted from housing prisoners to improving the fort’s defensive systems. In the early the 1870s, the barbette platforms located in the bastions of the main fort were modified to accommodate 15-inch Rodman guns. Concrete and earth-covered service magazines were also added. In 1894 a massive two-story concrete emplacement for three 12-inch guns on disappearing carriages was constructed covering more than half of the parade ground. Outside the main fort, two rapid-fire gun batteries and a torpedo casemate were constructed, but the majority of the earlier civilian and prison-related structures were either taken down or fell into disrepair. By the final decade of the 19th century, no more than a dozen or so frame buildings were surviving from the earlier period. More artillery improvements were made in the 1890s in time for the Spanish-American War, at which time the fort was again fully garrisoned.
In 1903, practically all of the garrison was removed except for a token force. The last major alterations to the island occurred in 1904-08 when between 3 and 12 feet of earth was spread over the surface of the island, raising its overall elevation considerably. In preparation for this work, nearly all of the other remaining buildings on the island were raised. With the exception of two buildings saved as quarters for white and black laborers, only the fort, the new gun emplacements, the torpedo casemate, and a coal bin were allowed to remain.
From 1908 to 1945, Fort Delaware functioned in a secondary defensive role to the nearby Fort Dupont and Fort Mott, which were located respectively on the Delaware and New Jersey sides of the river. Throughout this period, for the most part, the fort was occupied only by a small caretaker garrison. For a brief period during World War I, Fort Delaware was manned by the 3rd Company Coast Artillery. With the beginning of World War II, new plans for the defense of the Delaware River were developed. Rather than focusing at the point where the river expanded into the bay as the Fort Delaware-Fort Mott-Fort Dupont line of defense had, these plans called for the fortification of the mouth of the bay. The Fort Delaware garrison was increased in size until these new defenses were completed. Once finished the large gun emplacements and sighting towers at Cape May Point, New Jersey, and at Fort Miles, Cape Henlopen, Delaware, rendered Fort Delaware totally obsolete.
In 1943 the big disappearing guns were removed for scrap iron and in October 1944, the War Department declared the site surplus and the island reverted back to the State of Delaware, with the Philadelphia District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers retaining 19 acres for river and harbor maintenance projects.
In 1951 the island became a Delaware State Park and work began to preserve the remaining buildings and open them to the public. Today the site interprets its history for visitors with tours, demonstrations, and events. Costumed interpreters provide information and tours of the parade ground, officers’ quarters, barracks, kitchen, blacksmith shop, ordnance room, and more. Fort Delaware is also known for its “ghostly” activity and paranormal tours are offered in the fall.
Located in the Delaware River, just one mile from Delaware City, access to Pea Patch Island and Fort Delaware is by ferry only. The ticket office and ferry dock are located at 45 Clinton Street in Delaware City.
Fort Delaware State Park Office
Grass Dale Center
108 N. Reedy Point Road
Delaware City, DE
“Things here are not quite as bad as I expected to find them. They are, however, bad, hopeless and gloomy enough without any exaggeration. We went into dinner about three o’clock, which consisted of three hardtack, a small piece of meat (about three bites) and a pint tin cup of bean soup. We only get two light meals a day.”
— Confederate Private Henry Berkeley.