The Confederate prisoner population at Fort Delaware more than doubled following the three days of battle at Gettysburg beginning July 1, 1863. An estimated 6,000 Rebel soldiers captured on those bloody fields were processed at POW “depots” near Gettysburg, and interrogated for useful tactical information about Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before traveling by foot, trains and boats to Pea Patch Island in the middle of the Delaware River.
In charge of the on-the-battlefield interrogation process was Col. George H. Sharpe’s Bureau of Military Information, the intelligence staff of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Sharpe used enticements to encourage Rebel prisoners to divulge important data about the units in which they served, including their strength, location and tactics.
Sharpe, a practicing lawyer prior to the war, employed the terminology of his profession in noting that cooperative prisoners could receive “speedy liberation, upon their making full discovery of their knowledge of the enemy.” Included was an ability to return to their homes if located in territory under Union army control.
When word of these incentives reached Confederate prisoners already in confinement, Sharpe received letters requesting consideration of their cases. The BMI’s chief’s experience was that, once examined, “their stories were true, and their disclosures honestly given.”
Sharpe’s interrogation methodology ensured an ability to determine “the good faith” of those prisoners who decided not to return to the Rebel army. A number of these cooperative prisoners joined the Union military and thus were derogatorily termed “galvanized Yankees” by former comrades.
A reflection of the prisoner incentive process is seen in creation of “citizen barracks” at Fort Delaware. Research on this subject is ongoing by R. Hugh Simmons, editor of “Fort Delaware Notes,” a publication of the Fort Delaware Society.
Separate housing kept these turncoat prisoners away from retaliation by loyal Confederates reacting to their treasonous behavior. These POWs apparently received better rations and clothing than those in the regular prison.
“Citizen barracks” came into existence by the fall of 1863, following the battle at Gettysburg. They may have been located in a four-building complex on Pea Patch Island used for Union officers and enlisted men who served as additional prison guards.
An estimated 200 to 300 prisoners inhabited these special barracks at Fort Delaware. They were grouped into squads under a sergeant selected from among their own.
One was George Washington Newell, conscripted into the Confederate army in 1862 as a member of the 53rd North Carolina Regiment. He was captured at Gettysburg and confined at Fort Delaware.
According to Roger A. Bullard, writing in the February 2009 “Fort Delaware Notes,” Newell sought assistance from the U.S. Christian Commission to enter the Christian ministry to “devote myself to the service of God and my fellow men.”
Newell was an anti-secession Southerner forced into Confederate military service against his will and was ripe for expressing a desire to take the oath of allegiance to the U.S. In the process, he may well have disclosed useful military information to officials considering his case.
Whether Rebel prisoners were interrogated in the field or upon decision to seek restoration of citizenship, the benefit from an intelligence perspective was considerable. On Dec 12, 1863, Sharpe wrote to Brig. Gen. John Henry Martindale, military governor of Washington, D.C., and explained:
“We are entirely familiar with the organization of the Rebel forces in Virginia and North Carolina, with each regiment, brigade and division … and in their officers and locations. These and many other data … will throw light upon the credit to be given professions [i.e., disclosures] by considering the truth of the general story told by the prisoners or deserters, the circumstances of their capture, the locations in which their commands were raised, [and] corroborative statements of other prisoners from the same command.”
The quid pro quo for divulging such useful data of a military nature was often better treatment; and, in selected cases, release from bondage for those prisoners motivated to participate in the process.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. His latest book, with co-author Rick Schaus, “Eleven Fateful Days in July 1863: Meade Tracks Lee’s Escape after Gettysburg,” is due out in 2018. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.