Toward an Impregnable Coast(9)
"The policy which induced Congress to decide on and provide for the defense of the coast immediately after the War (1812) was founded on the marked events of that interesting epoch. The vast body of men which it was found necessary to call into the field, through the whole extent of our maritime frontier, and the number who perished by exposure, with immense expenditure of money and waste of property which followed, were to be traced in an eminent degree to the defenseless condition of the coast. It is to mitigate these evils in future wars, and even for the higher purpose of preventing war itself, that the decision was formed to make the coast, so far as might be practical, impregnable."

Seacoast foritifications were crucial to the defense of a young America. In 1794, Congress first passed legislation providing for a permanent system of seacoast fortifications to defend against foreign invasion. As port cities like Baltimore, Washington, New York and Philadelphia expanded rapidly after the Revolutionary War, they soon grew beyond the boundaries of the original forts constructed to protect them. The British were not content to let their former colonies slip away easily, and took to the seas once more in 1812 in an attempt to recapture control of the rebellious nation that had eluded its grasp less than 50 years before. Despite shortcomings in the American line of defense, the British were unsuccessful, but it was clear that a new system of seacoast fortification was necessary.

With nothing more to protect them than the crumbling Fort Mifflin and a few earthwork batteries along the Delaware River, Philadelphians were rightfully fearful of the havoc that could be unleashed on their city by European fleets. Merchantmen urgently petitioned Congress for more advanced fortifications to protect the thriving port city. While surveying a number of defensive sites in 1794, French Engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant had identified a tiny marshy island in the middle of the Delaware River, which he identified as "Pip Ash", as an ideal site for the defense of the prize of American commerce and culture. It would soon become home to the largest engineering effort ever undertaken by the United States military.

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From Hunting Grounds to Super Fort
The island was known locally as "Pea Patch." Folklore suggests that a boat carrying peas was grounded on its soft shores, which resembled more of a swampy collection of grass than any solid land, and soon there sprouted the crop from which it derives its name. Unheeded by most travellers, and virtually invisible on maps of the time, Pea Patch was hitherto unhindered by human progress with only one exception. New Jersey resident Dr. Henry Gale had used Pea Patch as a private hunting and fishing preserve for years before the war of 1812 broke out. In 1813 the United States military approached Gale with a $30,000 offer for the Island but he refused. The military appealed to the Delaware State Legislature, which ceded the island to them on May 27, 1813. Gale received nothing.
This photo of Fort Delaware's entrance or Sally Port
was taken during the Civil War. Union guards stand
on either side of the port.
Floating Steam Pile Driver
Meanwhile, the British Royal Navy had mounted an aggressive campaign, moving up the nation's rivers toward major port cities. Hampton, Virginia soon fell in flames, and the Fleet advanced on New Orleans, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia. While Brigadier General John Armstrong, the Secretary of War at that time, prepared for the defense of Philadelphia, Sir John Beresford and the British fleet bombed the shore town of Lewes, Delaware. The war ended before the fleet could attack Philadelphia, and in 1814 the government began to construct new fortifications on Pea Patch.

Actual construction on the first fort on the island began in 1819, but a fire destroyed much of the work in 1831. In 1832, Major Richard Delafield requested $10,000 to tear down the remaining structure and begin building quarters for the workers needed to renew construction. That structure would be deemed weak in 1833 and torn down.
Delafield's ambition to "erect a marvel of military architecture on Pea Patch" was stalled before it began. Fort Delaware was originally conceived to be five times the size of any existing American fort; in order for this great fort to stand, much work needed to be done. It would take many more years and the guidance of a different engineer for Delafield's vision to be realized.

Neither Flood nor Fire…nor Legal Battle Can Stop The Construction

In 1838, a ghost from Pea Patch Island's past came back to haunt the government, and stall their monumental plan. A man named J.T. Hudson suddenly claimed a right to ownership of Pea Patch Island. Dr. Gale, who had the land ceded out from under him in 1813, had passed the land to Hudson in his will and Hudson quickly hired a lawyer to file a writ of ejectment. The military was forced to abandon the Fort's construction for ten years. Finally, in 1848, the United States was ordered by the Supreme Court to pay Hudson a sum of $1,000 (significantly less than the original offer of $30,000 made to Dr. Gale in 1813). The government once again owned Pea Patch Island.

The ambitious plan conjured by Major Delafield was scaled back to less than half the original size, but the fort would still be one of the largest ever built by the military. A Mexican War veteran and brilliant engineer was appointed to resume construction. Brevet Major John Sanders reported to Pea Patch Island in March of 1848 to find that a record flood in 1846 had destroyed most of the material that had been left behind by Delafield a decade earlier. He had an utter mess on his hands.

Considerable repair work, the salvaging of old materials, construction of new quarters, and the design and construction of seawalls to stabilize the marshy island were Sanders' initial tasks. He determined that, in order to create a stable foundation for the fort, he would have to create a wooden framework, supported by thousands of giant poles, or "piles", driven into the riverbed. By allowing flooding to occur on certain parts of the Island, Sanders was able to more easily transport piles to their intended positions by boat. He even developed and employed a new technique for expediting the pile driving process: a floating steam pile driver. An early winter, along with the sheer number of piles that needed to be driven (6006 in total), slowed the pace of the work.

Progress was also hampered by inadequate funding, making the future of the project unclear. Sanders and the primary designer, Colonel Joseph Totten, spent the winter of 1853 in Philadelphia drafting a proposal for additional funding. Their calculated risk paid dividends when the fort was granted much-needed completion funds.

The interior courtyard of Fort Delaware, or "parade ground", photographed during the Civil War.

Prepared For Service

As Civil War drew inevitably closer, Fort Delaware underwent a dramatic transformation from a community of civilian tradespeople to a military garrison. Troops were moved to wartime status and construction efforts began to focus on the interior. Captain Augustus A. Gibson was assigned as the Commandant of the Garrison and troops began to outnumber civilians in residence. By April, the work of mounting the sea coast artillery began in earnest.

Batteries of heavy artillery troops were being assigned to Fort Delaware and the long days of drills, formations, and exercises that would continue throughout the Civil War began.

Enforced Peace Amidst War on Pea Patch

Confederate prisoners began arriving at Fort Delaware, for what was thought to be temporary imprisonment, in July of 1861. Tourists flocked to the Fort to sneak looks at the prisoners (and actually helped to facilitate the Fort's first prisoner escape). Civilians paid laborers, who were still working on the construction of the fort, more than their day's wage to cruise them to the island so they could watch the drills as if they were an exhibition. Fort Delaware was the country's most modern wonder - a feat of engineering to behold - and citizens were understandably in awe.

1862 brought the first political prisoners to Fort Delaware. The state's tenuous position as a border state and the army's crackdown on civilians who expressed secessionist sentiments contributed to arrests of dissidents. By the fall, 129 political prisoners were being held at the Fort.

Ship-loads of new prisoners arrived at Pea Patch Island with great frequency during the Civil War. The fort's reputation among Confederates was not good, though many other prisons both North and South had much higher mortality rates.

Handbill for a concert by the Fort Delaware Cornet Band

As the battles of the Civil War became bloodier and more frequent, the need to house surrendered or captured Confederate troops grew more urgent. Fort Delaware was a logical choice for prisoner confinement - it was remote enough to hinder escape, strong enough to withstand any attack by the weak Southern navy, and near enough to the Southern states to facilitate the business of prisoner exchange. Fort Delaware's place in history was assured...not as the site of a brave stand in battle, as originally conceived, but as an infamous prison for the unfortunate flotsam of America's bloodiest war.

While the facility was ill equipped to house the numbers of prisoners who came to inhabit the island, Fort Delaware was not as cruel or deadly as other Civil War era prisons. The statistics show that a smaller percentage of men died there than in most other prisons. Even though disease, dirty drinking water, and poor nutrition were rampant at Fort Delaware, they did not engulf the population as drastically as they did in other prisons. Confederates were given a wooden bunk in a barracks, and were exposed to the elements . The accomodations differed very little from their guards, who were housed in similar quarters. Overcrowding and the swampy nature of the island led to infestations of lice, rats, malaria-infected mosquitos, and other vermin. Dysentery, small pox, and other diseases were common and even epidemic on occasion. A 600-bed hospital and a separate pestilence residence were constructed to better deal with the various maladies that afflicted the island residents. A staff of well-trained surgeons tended to the sick with equal concern for Union, Confederate, and civilian life.

Many prisoners arrived with nothing more than tattered rags on their backs. Some were marched from the battlefield without shoes. Some Union guards, usually those with the least experience, meted out cruel punishments. Others (usually combat veterans) were fair and considerate. Contact with families was limited to single page letters due to the overwheling volume of mail that had to be screened by clerks.

Following the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, the prison population swelled by more than 12,500 new arrivals. Including the guards, garrison troops, construction laborers, and other residents, the population on Pea Patch Island approached that of Wilmington, Delaware's largest city. All were huddled together on 75 swampy acres. In three and a half years, more than 30,000 unfortunates passed through the gates of the island fortress. More than 2,400 died on the island, the vast majority of whom were buried at Finn's Point, New Jersey, just across the river from the fort.

Fort Delaware After The Union Was Saved

At the conclusion of the war, improvements in rifled naval artillery rendered Fort Delaware obsolete. It had survived the bloodiest war in American history without firing a shot in anger. When construction began it was to be one of the largest, most modern fortifications in the nation, but before it ever had a chance to prove its strength in battle, Fort Delaware was rendered useless. Over the years, the prison barracks and other facilities were torn down and sold as scrap. Weather and time destroyed most of the other structures including the once beautiful chapel, slowly eating away the fabric of the city that once graced the island. Efforts were made over the course of time to modernize the weaponry, the most important and costly of these taking place in 1896 when, once again, the entire system of coastal fortification was changed. After World War I the fort was placed in caretaker status. Passersby in the 1930's reported seeing laundry drying on the ramparts.
1896 Construction
WWII soldier stationed at Fort Delaware
World War II once again brought troops to the island, but they were withdrawn in 1943. In 1947 Fort Delaware was declared surplus property by the War Department, and remained unused until 1951. In that year, the State Parks Commission assumed control of the Island and its monumental fortification. This action was promted by the work of the Fort Delaware Society. Led by journalist W. Emerson Wilson, the society actively campaigned for the preseravation of the Fort. Today the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation continues to work closely with the Fort Delaware Society, furthering the work of those committed founders whose vision preserved this important segment of Delaware's heritage for future generations.


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