Of the more than 400,000 Union and Confederate soldiers imprisoned during the four-year Civil War, 1861 to 1965, some 55,000 would die in captivity. These prisoners faced the likelihood of contracting terminal illnesses due to harsh conditions in a variety of holding pens, such as converted warehouses or makeshift camps.
Fort Delaware on tiny Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River was one such prison. Built to defend the upriver ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia, it stood idle at the outset of the war. As a result, the fort — located off of Delaware City, about equidistance between Delaware and New Jersey — played host to Confederate prisoners, political prisoners, federal convicts and privateer officers.
Of the 40,000 men incarcerated at Fort Delaware, some 2,925 perished from a variety of causes — mainly inflammation of the lungs, diarrhea, smallpox, typhoid and malaria. Authorities initially buried them on the island; but, with land at a premium, later disinterred and reburied them on the New Jersey side, at Finns Point near Fort Mott.
The Fort Delaware Society, dedicated to preservation and interpretation of the fort, explains that a national registry of Confederates who died contains the names of 2,436 Confederate military prisoners who were interred in the mass burial trenches and pits at Finns Point, and these names appear on the 12 bronze memorial tablets placed around the base of the Confederate monument erected in 1910. There are no individually marked graves.
The Confederate monument is an 85-foot-tall obelisk built of reinforced concrete and covered with a facing of Pennsylvania granite. Subsequent research, however, identified an additional nearly 500 Confederates who died but whose names were not included on the monument. Also buried there are 39 civilians who had been incarcerated at Fort Delaware for various transgressions, and died in captivity. (http://fortdelaware.org/FDS%20Mission%20Statement.htm)
As early as 1879, the federal government had erected a monument and inscribed the names of 105 Union soldiers who served as Union guards and died at Fort Delaware, with 30 more designated as unknown (five have since been identified). In October 1875, the government designated this burial ground as the Finns Point National Cemetery. It is unusual in the sense that it has both Confederate and Union soldiers buried there. (http://www.cem.va.gov/CEMs/
Frederick Schmidt, a Union veteran who had lost an arm in the war, became the first Finns Point National Cemetery superintendent in 1875. He declared the cemetery in poor condition, because it had no roads or walks, no drainage, few trees, and headboards and fences rotten and broken down. As a result, improvements were made, and memorial services were held at the cemetery in the following years.
These improvements also came at the urging of Virginia Gov. James L. Kemper, a former Confederate brigade commander under Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett in the Army of Northern Virginia, who was seriously wounded at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Many of the men in his brigade who were captured at Gettysburg were sent to Fort Delaware, and those who died were buried at Finns Point.
One enhancement was placement of iron plates containing seven quatrains of Theodore O’Hara’s poem “Bivouac of the Dead” at the end of the seven Confederate burial trenches. Included is the oft-quoted: “On fame’s eternal camping grounds Their silent tents are spread, And Glory guards, with solemn round, The bivouac of the dead.”
Finns Point National Cemetery remains in active use as a burial site for American service veterans of all wars. It is operated and maintained under the Department of Veteran Affairs. One note of interest: 13 white marble headstones mark the burial place of German prisoners of World War II who died while in custody at nearby Fort Dix.
The grounds feature a walking trail of about .75 miles, from the river dock to the cemetery itself, and another stretch of the same distance from a parking lot at nearby Fort Mott.
Finns Point National Cemetery is open year-round, and can be reached by taking the first exit at the New Jersey end of the Delaware Memorial Bridge (I-295) and traveling east on New Jersey State Route 49 through Pennsville, N.J. A well-marked right-hand turn on Fort Mott Road takes you to Fort Mott and Finns Point National Cemetery. During the season, from April to September, you can visit both Fort Delaware and Finns Point by ferry from Delaware City. They are well worth a visit.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.