Civil War Profiles: Pea Patch Island in history and myth

Date Published: 
March 28, 2014

As a heavily-laden ship made its way up the channel of the Delaware River around 1770, it foundered and broke apart on a mud shoal, dumping its cargo of peas into the water. When the peas sprouted, an island eventually emerged. Ergo, the legend of how Pea Patch Island came into existence between Delaware City, Del., and Salem County, N.J.

Habitation on the island remained relegated to migratory birds until the early 19th century. As it grew in size, government officials recognized the potential for inclusion of Pea Patch in a military defense system for the Atlantic coastal area. The construction of a wooden fort resulted; designed to protect the upriver cities of New Castle and Philadelphia from attack. By mid-century, however, a massive granite pentagon-shaped building replaced the original Fort Delaware.

The primary function of the island fortifications soon changed, after several Southern states rebelled in 1860 and 1861, and formed the Confederate States of America. The ensuing Civil War led to an urgent requirement for places to confine captured enemy soldiers. Union officials decided to put the otherwise unemployed Fort Delaware to use for that purpose.

During its operation as a prison for Confederate POWs, Pea Patch developed a reputation among its disenchanted inhabitants as being akin to the French penal colony “Devil’s Island.” Although not even remotely in the same category as the worst Civil War prisons, such as at Andersonville, Ga., and Elmira, N.Y., almost 2,500 inmates died from various causes at Fort Delaware, out of a total population of some 32,000 over a four-year period.

At first, the fort’s authorities interred these dead prisoners on the island. Later, an area was set aside on Finn’s Point on the New Jersey side of the river for the increasing number of burials.

Over time, unusual occurrences took place on Pea Patch Island. Ed Okonowicz documented these stories in “Civil War Ghosts at Fort Delaware.” He writes, “Do some of these troubled spirits remain within the Civil War fort’s walls?”

The author, who doubles as a guide on “ghost tours,” has seen “the fainthearted want to head for … the safety of the mainland” once they “cross the drawbridge over the moat, pass beyond the 10-foot-tall, black iron doors and arrive in the dark hall-like entrance (called the sallyport).” The Discovery Channel sent a crew to film happenings at Fort Delaware, “one of the most haunted sites in the United States near the water.”

Who are these spirits inhabiting the island? One reportedly is a black woman who has been seen in the fort’s kitchen. A group of women and children dressed in period costume were working in the kitchen as living history presenters when they observed this person. It seems, “The ghost … looked around, opened the pots … made some approving sorts of nodding and smiling, and then turned around and walked [disappeared] into a wall.”

In 2001, workers built “the only accurately constructed Civil War-era, prisoner-of-war barracks building in the United States” on Pea Patch Island. Lore tells us that if you make things as they were, ghosts will come back to stay. During the annual Garrison Weekend that year, Confederate re-enactors left their belongings in the barracks, and upon returning found “their equipment had been rummaged through and tossed around,” even though the building was locked. At night, they heard “tapping on the roof and under the floor.” One (perhaps imaginative) “Rebel prisoner” “saw a canteen float across the barracks.”

In addition to its Civil War-related history, Pea Patch Island is home to a nature preserve — one of the largest heronries on the East Coast. Species of wading birds, such as herons, ibis and egrets, nest in this sanctuary from spring to late fall. These colorful creatures can be viewed from a trail and an observation platform.

The island’s attractions are part of Fort Delaware State Park. It is a magical place for children of all ages to view the sites and learn from staff re-enactors about its bygone era and legends. Okonowitz tells of an old Irish tale that claims ghosts cannot cross water. “If that’s true, then the phantoms on Pea Patch Island are trapped there forever.”

The park will open to the public on Saturdays beginning April 26. Tickets can be purchased on their website, at destateparks.com, or at the dock where you board the boat to Pea Patch Island. For more information, call the park office at (302) 834-7941.

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.