Pea Patch Island is a small piece of land in the middle of the
Delaware River, just northeast of Delaware City.
Pea Patch Island is the location of Fort Delaware, which protected
the ports of New Castle, Wilmington and Philadelphia until
World War II. It was most important during the American Civil War,
both as a defense post, and as a Union prison for captured Confederate
Pea Patch Island is quite small, and there is a legend that it was actually
manmade accidentally. The legend goes that in the 1700s, a ship
foundered on a sand bar in the Delaware. The cargo included peas, which
fell overboard, and actually sprouted and grew. The peas held the sand and
silt in place, and sediment slowly built up to form the island. The creation of an entire island in fifty years by a few pea plants seems to be a little far fetched, and Pea Patch Island (along with much of the
Delaware coast) is in reality a tide marsh.
After the Civil War, dredged material from the
River was deposited on the island, and much of the land adjacent to
the Fort is now solid ground.
The island was first fortified during the War of 1812, when dikes were
built to keep out the tides. Ownership of the island was in dispute
until 1843, when the courts ruled that it belonged to the government.
In 1846, all structures on the island were destroyed by a tidal wave, and
in 1848, construction of the current fort was begun. The fort was not
completed until 1860, and cost over one million dollars, in part because the
land was so unstable that two sets of wooden pilings had to be sunk into the
ground, one on top of the other. The fort is pentagonal in
shape, and constructed of granite. The fort sits inside a moat, in turn
surrounded by solid ground, and then the marsh and river. Cannons were
installed in the towers
and gun ports, but they were sold for scrap in the early part of the
Pea Patch Island and Fort Delaware first saw military use during the
Civil War, and was controlled by the Union throughout. Delaware was
essentially split during the war, with the southern part of the state
sympathizing with the Confederacy, even if it did not outright secede.
Fort Delaware defended the Delaware River, which
carried many manufactured goods, weapons, and gunpowder from Wilmington
and Philadelphia. The Delaware River would have also been an ideal
waterway to bring Confederate troops up in the event of an invasion,
so the river was heavily defended at this point.
Later in the war, the island served as a prison, with over 12,000 Confederate
soldiers kept in barracks on the north and west sides of the fort, surrounded
by barbed wire and cannon. While no prison conditions during that time
were ideal, this prison was particularly bad because of the heat, humidity,
and marshy conditions. Mosquitoes were incredibly bad, and disease
took a heavy toll among the prisoners, with cholera deaths reaching a peak
of 331 per month. Delaware winters can often be very harsh, so
the prisoners suffered during the cold months as well. The Fort itself
even has a few dungeon-like sections, where disobedient or troublemaking
prisoners were kept. Due to the high
mortality rates, the Finn's Point National Cemetery was established
opposite the fort on the New Jersey side of the river. A monument to the
Civil War dead still stands, although the Cemetery is also notable for
containing the graves of some Nazi prisoners of war held at Fort Dix in
New Jersey during the Second World War. Many of the dead interred at
Finn's Point were veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg.
There is an interesting anecdote I found about the prison conditions.
In 1864, the commander of the fort asked the surrounding communities to
provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the prisoners, because many of them
had scurvy. Many of these communities banded together and held a
benefit "Pic Nic Party" on July 28 to raise money and gather food
for the prisoners. While the Union leaders of the state were wary of those
sympathizing with the Confederate soldiers, they at first allowed the picnic
to proceed. But in the afternoon, soldiers from the 114th Ohio Regiment
arrived, dispersed the party, and arrested 26 of the picnic organizers.
These men were later taken by train and imprisoned at Fort McHenry in
Baltimore for a
week, but were returned to Delaware on August 6, with a brass band
celebrating their arrival. As I said above, Delaware was badly
split during the war -- this probably didn't help.
In 1896, twelve inch disappearing guns were installed in the Fort to
boost river defenses, and troops were stationed on the island for the
first time in many years. Troops were (again) removed in 1903, but the
fort was again fully staffed throughout the First World
War. Troops were stationed on the island during World War Two, though
their main mission was to sweep the river with searchlights to look for
German U-Boats. German POWs housed at Fort du Pont
in Delaware City
were conscripted to perform maintenance on the Fort during their internment.
In 1943 the guns were removed, in 1944
the Fort was closed, and in 1949 the whole island was turned over to the
State of Delaware. The State continues to run the island as a historical
museum and a wildlife refuge. The island is a sanctuary for
egret and heron.
Delaware, a guide to the First State, Federal Writers Project,
Hastings House, New York (1955)
Delaware: Small Wonder, State of Delaware and Harry Abrams Inc.,
New York (1984)
very hazy memory (Cub Scout field trip, I think)