Fort Delaware prison hosted many prominent Confederates
During its three years of service as a Civil War prison, Fort Delaware — located on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, a half-mile from Delaware City — housed more than 32,000 prisoners of war. Some were prominent civilians and high-ranking Confederate officers. The latter included 14 generals and one admiral, as well as hundreds of other officers.
Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew was the first general officer prisoner at Fort Delaware. He was wounded at Fair Oaks Station on May 31, 1862, during the Battle of Seven Pines (part of the Peninsula Campaign), and left for dead on the battlefield. Discovered alive by Union soldiers and nursed back to health, he ended up in Fort Delaware until exchanged in accordance with an agreement between the Union and Confederate governments, called the Dix-Hill Cartel, on July 22, 1862.
Pettigrew would garner recognition for his role in the Pickett, Pettigrew, Trimble Charge (otherwise known as Pickett’s Charge) at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. However, he was mortally wounded at Falling Waters during the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg and died three days later at Bunker Hill, W.Va.
Brig. Gen. James J. Archer was the first general captured while Gen. Robert E. Lee was in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. It happened on July 1, 1863, at Gettysburg, and Archer ended up at Johnson’s Island prisoner-of-war camp on the coast of Lake Erie.
After about a year, Union officials transferred him to Fort Delaware as part of the 600 Confederate officers (later eulogized by Confederates as the “Immortal Six Hundred”) to be sent to Morris Island in South Carolina as hostages in retaliation for Union officer prisoners reportedly being placed in the line of artillery fire in the city of Charleston.
Archer regained his freedom when exchanged in the summer of 1864, and he rejoined the army. His health had been poor for some time, and he collapsed during the Battle of Peeble’s Farm near Petersburg, Va., and died in October 1864.
Brig. Gen. Jeff Thompson, a native Virginian, was mayor of St. Joseph, Mo., when the Civil War broke out. A brigadier general in the Missouri State Guard, he was captured at his headquarters in Pocahontas, Ark., in August 1863. His first stop was Gratiot Street prison in St. Louis, then on to Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie. In the winter of 1864, he went to Point Lookout prison in Maryland before ending up at Fort Delaware in February.
Exchanged in June 1864, Thompson returned to his command in the Trans-Mississippi (the region west of the Mississippi River) until the end of the war. He eventually settled in New Orleans.
Col. Basil Duke was a Kentuckian who joined his brother-in-law John Hunt Morgan’s Lexington Rifles and was captured with Morgan during his cavalry raid through Ohio and Indiana in July 1863. Duke spent more than a year in prison, including some time at Fort Delaware, before being exchanged.
He was promoted to brigadier general in September 1864, after John Hunt Morgan was killed as the result of a surprise Union cavalry attack at Greenville, Tenn., in September 1864. In April 1865, Duke escorted Confederate President Jefferson Davis during his escape from Richmond. After the war, he returned to Kentucky and became a successful lawyer.
Exemplifying family interrelationships during the Civil War, John Hunt Morgan was Duke’s wife’s brother, and his wife’s sister was married to Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill. Duke was also related to Union Gens. Irvin McDowell and John Buford.
Bailey Peyton Key, a grandson of Francis Scott Key — the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — was the youngest military prisoner at Fort Delaware. He had joined the 14th Tennessee Cavalry at age 12 and was captured on May 29, 1863, at age 13, as a member of John Hunt Morgan’s command.
While Gen. Jeff Thompson was at Fort Delaware, Bailey served as his orderly. The young boy refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States and stayed at Fort Delaware until February 1865. After his release, he returned to his old outfit and served in then-Brig. Gen. Basil Duke’s brigade.
The Rev. Isaac W.K. Handy was a Presbyterian minister from Portsmouth, Va. In June 1863, Union authorities learned that he had expressed secessionist views while visiting his in-laws in Delaware and imprisoned him in Fort Delaware.
Given the freedom of the prison, Handy preached and ministered to the prisoners, totaling about 15,000 at that time, and brought about a surge in religious activities at Fort Delaware. That led to the construction of a chapel by the prisoners themselves.
These six prisoners are examples of the many prominent Confederates and their sympathizers who spent time at Fort Delaware. Given the size of the prison population there during the Civil War, many more such stories could undoubtedly be told.
A visit to Fort Delaware State Park — where reenactors relate the story of life in a Civil War prison — is an experience that people of all ages do not want to miss. For more information about planning a visit to Pea Patch Island, 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 email@example.com.