Escaping from Fort Delaware prison was no piece of cake
The U.S. government built Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island, in the middle of the Delaware River opposite Delaware City, primarily to protect the city of Philadelphia from attack by enemy ships. Construction took more than 10 years, and the finishing touches and arming of the fort were still being made when the Civil War began in 1861.
Since the threat of a naval attack by the Confederates was almost non-existent, the War Department decided to turn Fort Delaware into a prison. Only 258 prisoners arrived between July 1861 and April 1862. They came from the Shenandoah Valley, particularly as a result of the Battle of Kernstown in March 1862. The prisoners were housed inside the fort itself.
After the Union and Confederate governments signed the Dix-Hill Cartel on exchange of prisoners, however, Commissary General of Prisons Col. William Hoffman decided that Fort Delaware would be a good location to hold the rebels until they were exchanged for Union soldiers in Southern prisons.
Hoffman ordered that barracks be constructed at Fort Delaware, outside of the fort itself, to accommodate up to 10,000 prisoners. The barracks were built in a relatively small area of less than five acres north of the fort, enclosed by a fence with platforms above it for guards to keep watch over the prisoners.
By July 1863, because of battles taking place in Mississippi and at Gettysburg, the number of prisoners rapidly rose to 12,595. Confederate prisoners had an obligation to attempt to escape, since that forced the Union army to assign more soldiers to guard duty rather than to the battlefront.
Normally, the guard force numbered around 1,000, but when the 5th Delaware Regiment was pulled out of Fort Delaware to guard the railroad to Baltimore in Maryland, for a brief period there were only about 300 soldiers available to guard the more than 12,000 prisoners.
As a result, the fort’s cannons were aimed directly at the prison compound, to discourage an uprising. Other safeguards included guarding privies to prevent escape through the “sinks” or trenches to the water, the use of gunboats to patrol around the island and placement of lights to illuminate the prison compound. In addition, officers were kept separated to ensure that they did not organize and encourage the enlisted men to escape.
When Confederate Brig. Gen. James J. Archer arrived at Fort Delaware after being captured at Gettysburg in July 1863, he immediately saw how few guards there were and attempted to organize a mass breakout. The plan was discovered, however, and Archer was placed in solitary confinement under close guard.
Prisoners who managed to escape from Fort Delaware crossed the river to freedom in several ways. They swam, floated by tying canteens to their bodies as a life jacket, and built boats and rafts. It was 19 prisoners who made the first successful escape from Fort Delaware on a raft built from scrap lumber picked up around the island.
Other known escape methods were by bribing the guards, replacing dead bodies in coffins with live ones and leaving the island by public excursion boats disguised in Union uniforms. Once the escapees reached the Delaware shoreline, a formal and informal “underground railroad” to the South assisted them in getting away.
Another method of “escaping” prison was to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. By doing so, prisoners received much better treatment, were placed in jobs somewhere in the North, or were released outright to go home. Those who took the oath were known as “Galvanized Yankees.” The way their fellow prisoners phrased it, they had “swallowed the yellow dog.”
An example of a successful escape was that of Sgt. Warren D. Reid and his cousin Joseph G. Marable, who were captured at Gettysburg. They found a wooden ladder lying around the Fort Delaware grounds and used it as a boat. Rather than take the shorter route to the Delaware shore, they thought it more prudent to head toward the opposite shore in New Jersey. Once in New Jersey, they commandeered a real boat to take them back across the river to Delaware.
The two men walked for five days across Delaware toward the Chesapeake Bay, and crossed the Northeast and Susquehanna Rivers into Harford County. They made a stop at the home of a “Dr. P,” who hid them in a corn patch until they were picked up and taken to Baltimore. From there, they moved west to Frederick, Md., and then to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., and freedom. Reid and Marable had traveled the “Reverse Underground Railroad.”
While that escape was successful, few prisoners were able to overcome prison security at Fort Delaware. Officially, only 52 Confederates escaped from July 1862 to July 1865. Some accounts claim that hundreds of prisoners escaped during the war. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Available evidence demonstrates that security at Fort Delaware worked well during the Civil War.
Fort Delaware State Park is a fun place to visit for all members of the family, and is open to the public from May through September. You reach the park after a half-mile ferry ride across the Delaware River, followed by a short jaunt in an open-air tram to Fort Delaware itself.
Costumed reenactors take you back to the days of the Civil War, and show visitors what life was like as prison guards, prisoners of war, and others who lived and worked on Pea Patch Island. For more information call (302) 834-7941 or go online at www.destateparks.com/park/fort-delaware.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War author and speaker and former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.