Civil War Profiles: The arrest and imprisonment of the Rev. Isaac Handy

Date Published: 
March 14, 2014

When Civil War came to the United States in 1861, it brought along with it a fear of sedition, which prompted limitations in the freedom of expression. Officials in Washington were concerned that the language or conduct of citizens would encourage rebellion.

One such citizen was John Merryman of Baltimore. Gen. George Cadwalader, the Union commander at Fort McHenry, sent a squad of soldiers to arrest Merryman for association with an armed pro-South militia company. Merryman’s lawyers requested and received a writ of habeas corpus from Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney, ordering Cadwalader to appear before him in court, along with the accused.

As Carl Sandburg points out in “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years,” Cadwalader refused to obey Taney’s decree on the grounds “he is duly authorized by the president of the United States in such cases [of treason] to suspend the writ of habeas corpus for public safety.” Despite Taney’s objections, Lincoln continued to defy the Supreme Court on this issue because he had the military power to do so.

While Merryman’s was the test case, many others would soon be arrested on various charges, including making statements in opposition to the federal government. To their chagrin, a large number of Delawareans — including the Rev. Isaac Handy — ended up in prison at Fort Delaware, as W. Emerson Wilson stated in “Fort Delaware in the Civil War,” because “they spoke freely against the government.”

Handy, a graduate of the theological seminary at Princeton University, had served as pastor of Port Penn and Old Drawyers (near Odessa) Presbyterian churches before taking the post as a pastor in Portsmouth, Va. During the Civil War, he and his wife, Rebecca, returned to her home in Bridgeville, and he visited his old community in Port Penn.

The issue of slavery having split the Presbyterian Church in 1857, Handy sided with the wing that supported the institution. In a discussion about conditions in the South, Handy asserted “the old flag was no longer the emblem of freedom but was being used by the Yankee soldiers as an emblem of oppression.” It did not take long for someone to report that to the local Provost Marshal, who had Handy arrested and taken to Fort Delaware.

Refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the United States, Handy spent the next 15 months in prison. The reverend’s loss turned out to be a gain for the inmates — some 15,000 mainly captured Confederate soldiers — because Handy’s incarceration brought about an increase of religious activity. Soon, a successful fundraising effort supported the construction of the 800-seat Trinity Chapel along the shoreline on Pea Patch Island east of the fort.

In “Fort Delaware’s Prison Community,” authors Dale Fetzer and Bruce Mowday quoted Handy: “How anxious are the thousands here imprisoned to get back once more to friends and home.” That came in light of prisoners dying daily from various diseases contracted in close quarters under much less than ideal conditions.

Handy’s diary while in prison paints a picture of “brutal life imposed on the POWs.” He speaks of starvation, disease and the bestiality of the federal administration at Pea Patch. Yet, Fetzer and Mowday question Handy’s characterization of conditions — especially given his freedom to move about and organize worship services. The relatively low mortality rate at Fort Delaware compared with other Civil War prisons tends to corroborate that skepticism.

In September 1864, Union authorities interrogated the 32 civilian prisoners then at Fort Delaware and decided to release 25 on parole. Handy was not one of the lucky ones. Nonetheless, he soon regained his freedom, on Oct. 13.

As he was able to smuggle his notes out of the prison to his wife, who remained nearby in Delaware City, Handy later published his diary. R. Hugh Simmons examined Handy’s version of events; and, in the February 2002 issue of “Fort Delaware Notes,” wrote that he “comes across as polite, respectful, calm and firm, but certainly not abusive.” Rather, he was ready to forgive “those who trespass against us.”

Handy’s ordeal of being caught up in the maelstrom that was the Civil War is reflected in Kathryn Pippin’s script of her play about Fort Delaware prison, “The Chains of Glory.” Handy prays aloud: “What have I offended against Thee, or against Thy servants, or against this people, that Ye have put me in prison?” He concludes, “Everyone seems to have been caught up in a wave of emotionalism where the commandments have gone by the wayside.”

Whether emotionalism or necessity was the principal driving force, the Civil War would prove to be the most devastating event in our nation’s history. Handy’s arrest and imprisonment was symbolic of the distrust and hostility that this cataclysm generated.

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