Prison diary describes life at Fort Delaware


Rural lifestyle changed for a Nelson County, Va., farmer in May of 1861, when 20-year-old Joseph Edward Purvis left home to join the Confederate army. He served for the next two years in Company G, 19th Virginia Infantry Regiment, in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

When Lee led his army on an expedition into the North in 1863, a battle erupted at a small town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. On July 3, Sgt. Purvis was among the many Rebels captured on the battlefield and sent to Fort Delaware, a prison on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River.

For the first two months of incarceration, Purvis kept a diary of his prison experience. Walter L. Williams related excerpts from this diary in the 1978-1979 issue of Delaware History.

When Purvis arrived at Fort Delaware, he found himself among thousands of prisoners. The number continued to grow after the fall of the Confederate fortress at Vicksburg on July 4, as well as the defeat at Gettysburg.

After his capture, Purvis marched under guard, along with other prisoners, in the rain and stayed overnight in Westminster, Md., before moving the next day to Baltimore. They continued to be unsheltered from the rain while awaiting transportation to Fort Delaware by ship.

Arriving at the prison on July 7, Purvis received something to eat, which relieved his hunger. Hearing rumors of other Confederate defeats, however, caused him to fear “we are ruined certain.”

Continuous rain had its benefit, because it supplied drinking water to the island prison. With nothing else to keep him occupied, Purvis spent time reading his Bible and sleeping.

By July 11, the weather changed into “a beautiful day,” and Purvis had “a nice view of the river and bay.” Allowed to go out into the river to catch fish, the prisoners could see Delaware City on the mainland, less than a mile away. On Sunday, July 12, Purvis noted they “had preaching this morning,” which he attended, and thought it was “a very good sermon.”

The prisoner worried about not hearing information about the Rebel army that he could rely on, but he did not “feel uneasy about General Lee, [because] he will prove too much for the Yankees [to handle].” However, Purvis regretted that many of the prisoners were taking the oath of allegiance to the United States.

On July 14, 400 more prisoners, all of whom were wounded, arrived. Purvis noted that women had come from Baltimore, bearing gifts of food for sick prisoners.

The Virginian was in a melancholy mood on the 16th, wishing “I was in Dixie this evening instead of Fort Delaware. Oh! I would give anything if I was at home.” He complained about paying “two and a half dollars for a piece of tobacco about two inches long and can hardly get it at that.”

Fearing the possibility of an uprising, prison authorities shipped all the Rebel officers “from here this morning to [the prison at] Johnson’s Island, Lake Erie.” Without officers in the lead, an attempt of a mass breakout at Fort Delaware was considered less likely. However, one of the prisoners was killed while “attempting to escape by swimming the river.”

On Sunday, July 26, “one of own chaplains … preached a splendid sermon and we had prayer meeting this evening ourselves.” He was glad, because “There is a great many Christian Men with us here…”

By July 31, “we are still in this miserable place [and] our boys are getting very sick fast now.” By Aug. 8, a more dire note, “Our boys are dying very fast.”

Security on the island tightened: “They don’t allow us to go out on the river bank now nor do they allow us to bathe in the river.” However, by Aug. 24, a Maryland unit took over guard duty at the prison, and “are more kind to us than the others.”

Toward the end of August, the weather had turned cool, and almost “all of us are without blankets and we rest uncomfortable these nights.” Death was ever-present: “Eight or nine die every day and night.”

Purvis’s diary ended two months after his capture. A smallpox epidemic at the prison caused his health to deteriorate, and he was transferred to the prison hospital at Point Lookout, Md. He was finally released in a prisoner exchanged in February 1865 and ended up in a Richmond hospital.

Nonetheless, Joseph Edward Purvis survived his wartime ordeal and returned home. He married and fathered 14 children, and surely had many stories to tell them about life as a soldier in the Confederate army.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War”
(available at Bethany Beach Books).
Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at
www.tomryan-civilwar.com.