Although the Civil War ended 150 years ago, its memory is kept alive at Fort Delaware every year at this time. From May 31 to Oct. 3, reenactors will be reliving the experiences of Confederate military prisoners and outspoken civilians who sympathized with their cause, Union guards and support personnel at the fort on Pea Patch Island to entertain and educate the general public.
Of the more than 32,000 Confederate prisoners held at Fort Delaware during the Civil War, nearly 2,500 died — most of whom were buried at Finn’s Point on the New Jersey side of the river, across from Pea Patch Island at Fort Mott. A bronze tablet on a monument lists the names of the prisoners buried there.
Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the Fort Delaware Society, which was chartered in 1950, along with government and private funding, the fort is an attraction for young and old. Visitors take a half-mile ferry ride from Delaware City to Pea Patch Island, and a jitney provides transport form the island dock to the granite and brick fortress. There, costumed interpreters take you back to the summer of 1864. The ferry also continues to the New Jersey shore for those who wish to visit the cemetery.
At Fort Delaware, you can help the blacksmith hammer out new parts for a cannon or work with the laundress. Observe (and cover your ears) as an 8-inch Columbiad gun fires a live gunpowder charge. There is also a replica of Pea Patch Island as it appeared in 1864 and artifacts from the Island’s past.
An added attraction is that the island serves as a summer home to nine different species of herons, egrets and ibis. The remote marshes provide a habitat for one of the largest wading-bird nesting areas on the East Coast. A hiking trail and its observation platform provide opportunities for photography and nature study.
A typical program at Fort Delaware this year includes the following:
• An “Afternoon Tea” that features a lively debate between the wives of Gen. Schoepf, the fort’s commanding officer, and Engineer Muhlenbrock — raising the question whether Muhlenbrock was sympathetic toward the rebels.
• A tour of the south end of the fort titled “Batty About Bats!” to learn about the bats that hibernate there in the winter. Discover why bats are such an important part of the ecosystem and how you can help them survive.
• “Hamilton’s Wager” is a humorous presentation about the struggles of being a soldier at Fort Delaware and what it was like to be there as a guard of the prisoners.
• A presentation titled “What is Freedom?” describes how African-Americans played a crucial role in the Civil War and had many unique struggles. You will learn what life was like for an African-American in Delaware in 1864.
• The “Herons and History Walk” is a birding walk to one of the largest heronries north of Florida. Along the way to the observation deck, learn about the history of this part of the island.
• At the “Nature Nook” in the visitor’s center, kids of all ages learn about cool animals that call Pea Patch Island home. You can complete the educational worksheet and receive a prize.
• A program called “Swallowing the Yellow Dog” features two Confederate prisoners debating whether or not to take the Oath of Allegiance to the North. This was a difficult and, in some cases, heart-wrenching choice that each prisoner had to make.
These and other programs are scheduled on certain dates throughout the season. Consult the Fort Delaware website at http://www.destateparks.com/park/fort-delaware/programs/index.asp for dates, times and details.
It is advisable to bring a picnic lunch when visiting the island, because there is no concession stand. Tables and grills are provided, and drink machines are available. The fort’s ticket office and gift shop is located at 45 Clinton Street in Delaware City. Call (302) 834-7941 to get directions and discuss your planned visit.
For those who have never been to Fort Delaware and Pea Patch Island and those who wish to return for another wonderful historical experience that the entire family can enjoy, now is the time of the year to go. Don’t wait, because the season will be over before you realize it.
All Delawareans and those who spend their vacations in this fair state should add Fort Delaware to your “must-see” list. It will be an unforgettable trip!
Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan’s latest book is “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (June 2015). Contact him at email@example.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.