Fort Delaware Society: Dedicated to restoration of a 'national treasure'
On Jan. 14, 1950, under the leadership of Wilmington newspaper editor W. Emerson Wilson, a group of 20 concerned individuals met at Hotel DuPont to form the Fort Delaware Society.
They took this action following a visit to the colorfully-named Pea Patch Island, where they were “shocked and discouraged” about the condition of Fort Delaware. This massive structure, originally built to protect the cities of Wilmington and Philadelphia from attack, had been pressed into service as a prison during the Civil War.
Longtime president and current Fort Delaware Society Chairman William G. Robelen IV described the condition of the fort in 1950: “After the end of World War II, the federal government ceded Pea Patch Island back to the State of Delaware … and many curious and enterprising folks went out to … vandalize the fort, knocking off brass doorknobs and locks, prying off fireplace surrounds, removing doors and stripping off whatever copper wires they could find…”
Robelen further lamented that “growth of trees and vines … covered some of the fort’s exterior walls … and interior rooms were piled high with plaster that had come off walls.”
The newly-constituted Fort Delaware Society recognized the historical significance and legacy of the former Civil War prison. The Society has been dedicated to the rescue of the fort from neglect and ruin. With blood, sweat and tears, the members have worked to restore the structure to a semblance of its former condition and have successfully turned it into a thriving tourist attraction.
Based in a number of places in the Delaware City area over the years, the Fort Delaware Society headquarters is now located in a permanent home, the Quartermaster Building at Fort DuPont State Park. The building itself is a historic World War II facility.
In reviewing the Society’s various headquarters locations, current President Catherine C. “Kay” Keenan — the first woman to hold that office — recollected, “We have come a long way in 62 years. From utilizing members’ homes; to the Old Library in New Castle; to the vacant World War II Enlisted Men’s” Club at Fort DuPont; to headquarters in Grass Dale Center at Fort DuPont State Park; then onto the old Wilmington Trust Building on Washington Street [in Delaware City] to our present location, the Robelen Building at Fort DuPont State Park.” She noted that “$180,000 was raised to rehabilitate the building to meet the Society’s mission.”
Keenan explained that their mission “is to foster an awareness of the existence and significance of historic Fort Delaware and preserve its legacy. This is accomplished by members engaging in many outreach activities in the tri-state area, participating in fundraising for the fort and enabling historical research.”
Since the fort served as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers, civilians suspected of treasonous activity and Union troops who committed various offenses, it is now essentially a museum that portrays the activities that took place there during the Civil War. It is open to the public from May to September.
At its headquarters, the Society maintains an extensive collection of records, publications and artifacts related to the fort’s operations and its function as a Civil War prison. Descendants of those who served as guards or who were inmates of the prison are able to access information about their ancestors.
Over the years, the Fort Delaware Society has sponsored a number of publications dealing with aspects of the fort’s service as a prison. “They Died at Fort Delaware, 1861-1865: Confederate, Union and Civilian” by Jocelyn P. Jamison lists the names of the approximately 2,500 individuals who succumbed from a variety of illnesses at the fort, and includes the date and location of their capture or arrest, as well as the date and cause of their death.
Another publication, “The Diary of a Yankee Private, A.J. Hamilton, 1862-65,” edited by W. Emerson Wilson, provides “a vivid and valuable picture of the life of a Union soldier” who served as a guard at Fort Delaware. Wilson also authored a brief history titled “Fort Delaware in the Civil War.” These and other informative publications are available for purchase from the Society.
Members of the Fort Delaware Society are committed individuals who contribute their time and effort to a cause in which they believe wholeheartedly. Visitors to the fort generally recognize and are thankful for the dedication of the volunteers who have restored and continue to maintain this “national treasure” for the common good.
Those who would like more information about this organization or who are interested in being a part of their important preservation and education work can call (302) 834-1630, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to their Web site at www.fortdelaware.org.
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.