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 soldiers.

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 twentieth century.

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.

Sources:
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)
http://www.del.net/org/fort/history1.htm
http://www.dpka.com/Project%20Pages/finns%20point.htm
very hazy memory (Cub Scout field trip, I think)

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