Pea Patch Island, Delaware – Names can often be deceiving. Take, for instance, the innocuously named Pea Patch Island. Taken in name only, it sounds like the kind of place one would go to have a garden party or even a nice place to raise children. But sitting on the middle of the tiny land mass is a hulking structure, its walls of gray stone foreboding. Inside the bare walls tell tales of pain and suffering, imprisonment and death.
While to many it is merely a military curiosity, a piece of history at which to marvel, there are stories. For some the old base was considered home, but many cannot rest because they are still trying to find a way to escape.
There are certain types of places that seem to be the “norm” for paranormal investigators. There are so many articles written on hauntings caused by the atrocities of the Civil War, but that war was the cause of so many restless souls that to ignore them would be close to impossible. The severity of the conditions, the horrors of the misery endured by the prisoners, the tragedy of their deaths all build to create hauntings that are both horrific and tragic. Hospitals, prisons, and military forts all seem to have at least a few restless spirits hanging around. Places like Fort Delaware appear to have more that its fair share, as it was once all three.
The complex that is known as Fort Delaware was not the first to sit on the tiny island. Prior to its construction in 1848, a French military engineer named Pierre L’Enfant set to work building a defensive fort on the island. However, in 1794 the island was already in use as a private hunting reserve for a doctor. When he refused to give up the land, L’Enfant appealed to the Delaware state legislature, who declared eminent domain on the island and seized it. It took him more than a decade to begin construction and close to another twenty years after that to see the building almost completed. However, and not without a sense of odd justice, a fire destroyed much of the structure. What remained was torn down in 1833 to make way for a new fort.
Construction on the new building began in 1848, and it quickly grew to gargantuan proportions. Its purpose was to be defense of the commerce shipping lanes, but it soon found itself being used for a much darker purpose. With the Civil War in full swing, the island fort became a prison for captured Confederate soldiers and to anyone else with loyalty to the South. It was run by a general of bad disposition named Albin F. Schoepf, whom his own men dubbed “The Terror.” Small wooden structures began to appear on the island, barracks for the prisoners, but far from what one might call a proper prison, these buildings did little to keep out rain and cold.
The conditions inside were brutal. Food was kept to a minimum, and the guards were instructed not to give the inmates extra clothing. The number of inmates swelled, and with their numbers, food became more scarce. Water became unsanitary, and smallpox ran rampant through the barracks. At one point it became common practice to feed the prisoners rats. It is estimated that by the end of the war, 40,000 prisoners were being held there in space that was scarcely meant to accommodate 12,000. Estimates at how many died there vary, but it is believed to be somewhere between 2,900 and 3,000 men. The trouble was, many were never properly buried. In the history of the fort fifty-two men managed to escape by climbing the walls, swimming across the treacherous Delaware River, and running to freedom. There are no statistics on how many died in the attempt.
Because of the number of people who died on the island, reports of paranormal activity abound. In fact, the old fort has been featured on both Syfy’s Ghost Hunters and on England’s Most Haunted, and both got some very interesting results.
By far, the most common occurrence reported is the sounds of moaning and anguish from the prisoner’s barracks to the fort’s basement area. The sounds intensify near the fort’s infirmary. More disturbing is the frequency at which phantom soldiers are not only heard, but seen. There are numerous photos, all by reputable sources, that contain hazy but distinct images of men in Confederate uniforms. They are most often sighted running beneath the ramparts as if they are still trying to escape.
There remains something of a mystery about the identity of one apparition. Not the typical image, it is a woman who visits the area of the officer’s kitchen. She is not content, however, to just be seen, as she is reputed to call out names and actually move objects.
In addition to the numerous apparitions and human sounds, there are also reports of children laughing, objects moving about before startled visitors, and people being touched or pulled. TAPS even got a particularly impressive recording of what could only be described as phantom cannon fire.
In 1947 the US military declared the old fort a “surplus site” so the state of Delaware acquired it. Now the whole island, prison and all, is a state park. Tours are available, but the island can only be reached by ferry, and once there, visitors are transported to the fort by way of a “jitney,” which is actually an old-fashioned shuttle bus. While there are a number of period re-enactors around, most of them are well aware that not everyone visitors see in uniforms are actors. In fact, many of them haven’t been alive in quite some time. And while the exact number of soldiers who died is up for debate, there is a plaque just across the river at Finn’s Point that reads: “Erected by the United States to Mark the Burial Place of 2436 Confederate Soldiers Who Died at Fort Delaware While Prisoners of War and Whose Graves Cannot Now be Individually Identified.”
There are ghost tours offered of the old fort as well as special tours that people can take. However, the best time to visit might just be the second week in June, when the “Escape from Fort Delaware” triathlon is held. Participants follow in the footsteps of the fifty-two who managed to escape by leaping into the Delaware River, swimming to shore, then participating in biking and running events. However, as the event is, to say the least, for experienced athletes only, one might want to go as just an observer and keep a sharp eye out.
See you next time!
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