I went back to the Summer of 1864 today. After 3 days of fighting in 1863 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Robert E. Lee was forced to withdraw his troops to Virginia. Union casualties in the battle numbered 23,000, while the Confederates had lost some 28,000 men–more than a third of Lee’s army.
But what to do with the prisoners of war that the Union had taken? That's where Fort Delaware comes in. Pea Patch Island, equidistant from New Jersey and Delaware, was the site of an 1831 fort that had been destroyed by fire and rebuilt by 1859. It soon became home to 12,500 prisoners of war. This is where our visit to 1864 Fort Delaware commences. (Note- The present island is much larger today, due to dumping of dredging from an earlier deepening of the Delaware River Channel for large container ships.)
The Fort became a mini-city, with apartments for Union officers and their families, and commodius quarters for captured officers. Enlisted prisoners soon occupied wooden dormitory like buildings outside the protective granite walls of the fort. Workers such as cooks and laundresses commuted daily by boat from nearby Delaware City (just as we did today from the Delaware State Parks dock).
The exterior granite walls of the Fort stand as completed in 1859, but one of the most fascinating features inside the fort is the brick walls of the buildings that housed the mess halls, kitchens, laundry, and 3 floors of living space. The groined vaults and just the finely pointed red brick walls themselves are beautiful (as pointed out by our guide, who was a mason in real life). It is interesting to note that although presently powered mostly by generators, I did spot a solar panel on the roof of one of the brick buildings and learned that many more will be installed in the future.
Of course, children are fascinated by the place! When the soldier called for assistance with the firing of a cannon, he got 4 boys (one tiny, but as he said, "I'm strong") and one girl. What proceeded was what I would call "schtick" (I know I'm showing my age here). Each child was given a job, from cleaning out the barrel of the cannon to ramming gunpowder (not real) and holding a finger over a tiny hole in the barrel. He then ceremoniously told us to cover our ears and a not so mighty bang came out. By this time I had discovered someone I knew standing nearby and we discussed "Small wonder Delaware, where you always run into someone you know".
I also took a behind the scenes tour with a small group for an extra fee, and got to go upstairs into the beautiful brick vaulted chambers which once housed officer prisoners and got to go behind barriers in the furnished Union Officer quarters. This was supposed to be 30 minutes long, but lasted well over an hour, by which time I was ready to get back on the next ferry to Delaware City.
But before you can get on the tram back to the dock, there's one more thing to do. Since the "white nose" disease has decimated the bats at the fort, we had to tread through a soapy pad to kill whatever they think is spreading the disease. And then the next ferry, the Delafort, carried us back to Delaware City.