Sitting in the middle of the Delaware River about 9 miles south of Wilmington, is Fort Delaware. Designed to protect Wilmington and Philadelphia from attack from the sea, this imposing and impregnable granite and brick fortress sits on little Pea Patch Island. Pea Patch was so named because a shipment of pea seeds were lost overboard and ended up growing on the island. Much of it is at sea level and underwater when the river runs high with spring runoffs.
The fort was finished just before the recent rebellion began and has, thus far, not served its purpose of defending upriver citizens. Its isolated location in the middle of the Delaware River, however, rendered it a perfect prison for captured rebels and those opposed to the measures taken by the government in defense of the nation. The North calls them “traitors,” but in the south they are called “political prisoners.”
Among those held illegally is one Reverend, Isaac W. K. Handy, a Presbyterian minister, arrested the previous summer (1863). He is a man of proud bearing and a ready smile. After a careless remark at a dinner party, the Reverend found himself a guest in the infamous Fort Delaware prison.
The prison facilities inside the massive walls of the fortress are reserved for high ranking Confederates and the political prisoners. Their accommodations are demonstrably superior to those housing the lower ranking officers and enlisted men living in shabbily built barracks, where they are forced to wash themselves and their eating utensils in the putrid water of the canals running through their fenced confines.
Because of its location, escape from Fort Delaware is a fool’s errand, risking life and limb in the frigid and dangerous currents of the Delaware River. One has little choice but to endure the squalid conditions of the prison and hope the war ends soon.
Guards are often sadistic and some take pot shots at prisoners if they act suspiciously or do not quickly obey orders. Commanding the guards are Captain George W. Ahl and Lieutenant Abraham G Wolf. Both gentlemen, if one can even call them that, have the lowest respect for mankind, especially Confederate prisoners and often abuse their charges at will. General A. Schoepf is Fort Delaware’s commanding officer and seems to allow Ahl and Wolf freedom to have their way with the prisoners.
While there are many rumors of prisons in the South with prisoners suffering under similar conditions, alleged by some to be even worse, one certainly does not want to find oneself incarcerated at Fort Delaware.
Excerpt from An Eternity of Four Years, Chapter 26 – Wolf’s Revenge
The shackles were placed on my wrists, and they were tight. One guard tied a rope to the center of the chain connecting the two shackles and tossed the other end over a beam. Then two of them began hauling me up until my arms were fully extended over my head, and my toes barely touched the ground. I could neither hang from the shackles on my wrists comfortably nor support myself on my toes.
Wolf got in my face again, and like every encounter I had with him before, I could smell the alcohol on his breath. His eyes were glassy and he slurred some of his words.
“How long?” I asked.
He shrugged. “As long as I feel like.” He left two guards with me. “No one comes near him, understand?”
Christmas Eve and I was hanging from a beam like some ornament on a Christmas tree. My hands were already beginning to hurt, but I dared not show my discomfort to give them any satisfaction. It was to be a cold winter night, and I was not properly dressed to spend it outside. I knew if I hung there very long, my hands would eventually swell and turn purple, and I could lose their use.
Author’s Note: Lieutenant Abraham Wolf and his immediate superior Captain George Ahl were real guards at Fort Delaware, and their attitudes towards the prisoners depicted in my book were true to what my research said about them. The hanging torture that Ethan endured on Christmas Eve 1864 was indeed practiced on Confederate prisoners at Fort Delaware. An author could not ask for better antagonists than these two, or a better name for one than Wolf.
Images of Fort Delaware by Laura M. Lee and Brendan Mackie, Arcadia Publishing (Lieutenant Wolf is pictured on the cover of this one, seated second from the left)
Unlikely Allies, Fort Delaware’s Prison Community in the Civil War by Dale Fetzer and Bruce Mowday, Stockpole Books
Not much to report on Fort Delaware. After getting up at 6 in Gettysburg followed by a three hour drive to FD, we found it closed for the winter. The last weekend it was open was last weekend!
So, we packed up and headed for Dogfish Head Brewery, one of the most successful of the rapidly growing number of craft brewers, number 13 of over 3,000, a number changing almost daily. That was another hour and a half. We tested samples and took the tour. The place was indeed impressive, especially considering they started from nothing only 20 years ago.
We then packed up and drove 2.5 hours to Washington DC, managing to take wrong turns only three times, and that was using iPhones and Google Maps.
I am tired and ready to come home!