Ask a friend or neighbor if they have ever been to Fort Delaware, and you will likely receive a blank stare. Surprisingly, this delightful place to visit for children of all ages remains largely undiscovered.
Located on a small parcel of land aptly named Pea Patch Island that literally spawned in the middle of the Delaware River, it is accessible by ferry from Delaware City. The island doubles as the location of Fort Delaware (a coastal defensive installation and Civil War prison) and a migratory bird habitat for various species of herons, egrets and ibis.
Open to the public from Memorial Day to Labor Day annually, a visit offers a quaint yet memorable experience for those who venture to this relatively out-of-the-way part of the state. Geared toward lovers of history, as well as families with youngsters on summer vacation, Fort Delaware has something for everyone.
The story of Fort Delaware during the Civil War years is compelling. During a period of four years, 1862 to 1866, more than 30,000 Confederate officers and men, as well as civilian sympathizers, were incarcerated in this wartime prison. The unhealthy and crowded conditions caused the death of nearly 2,500 of the POWs.
For the most part, internment took place on the New Jersey side of the river. Burial parties unceremoniously dug trenches and laid the corpses side by side, to be covered with sod without markings or identification.
The cemetery located at Finns Point is accessible by ferry for those who wish to observe the location or pay tribute to the dead. A monument on the grounds lists the names of those who lie in the barren field.
A half-mile boat ride begins the adventure to Fort Delaware, followed by a brief journey by jitney from the island dock to the fort itself. Costumed interpreters greet arrivals with an explanation of what to expect upon entering the granite-and-brick garrison.
There are military structures to explore and entertaining demonstrations to enjoy. Tours of the island and a reconstructed prison barracks add to the overall experience.
Hands-on activities include helping the blacksmith hammer out parts for a cannon or working with the laundress as she performs her duties. Be sure to cover your ears while witnessing the firing of an 8-inch Columbiad cannon with a live gunpowder charge.
You will meet “Esau,” a free black man who served as the blacksmith’s apprentice. African-Americans helped build and operate Fort Delaware during the Civil War, and you will hear about their story of struggle and triumph over slavery.
Visit the laundry, where Julia Gunning, one of the fort’s laundresses, washes clothes the 19th-century way. You’ll learn to use a scrub board and may hear some gossip about the fort’s inhabitants.
Edmund Bryan, the ordnance sergeant, is keeper of the guns. He’ll explain that he is the only regular army soldier assigned to Fort Delaware. He is in charge of the fort’s ammunition supply.
Observe soldiers performing their daily drills. Drilling was important to insure proper formations and immediate response to officers’ commands.
Visit the enlisted men’s kitchen to see the cooks hard at work preparing various foods for their comrades. Then meander over to the Fort Delaware hospital, where you will hear how it differs from a typical military field hospital.
A replica of Pea Patch Island as it appeared during the Civil War in 1864 is available for viewing. There are artifacts from the Island’s past as well.
Fort Delaware is a state park; therefore, a good place to bring a lunch along to enjoy in a picnic area provided with tables and grills. There are no concessions stands, but drinks are available.
For ticket prices, performance calendar and other visitation information, check the website at http://www.destateparks.com/park/fort-delaware/ or call (302) 834-7941. You will not be disappointed — especially the young ones in the family.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (recipient of the Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award for 2015), available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.