Fort Delaware Banner

Painting by General Seth Eastman

Picture from the title page of sheet music for the piano
"Sounds from Fort Delaware."
published in Philadelphia, Pa., 1863

[Source: Atlas Editions; Civil War Cards]

Built on marshy Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, Fort Delaware was a Union prison especially dreaded by the Confederates. Originally designed to house 2,000, its capacity had been increased to 8,000 by 1863, with officers housed in stone buildings and the men in tents or flimsy wooden barracks sinking in the sodden, malodorous ground.

The commandant of Fort Delaware, Brig.Gen. Albin F. Schoepf, a Hungarian refugee, was nicknamed "General Terror". The inmates were described as "looking like the vanguard of the Resurrection ....Scores seemed to be ill, many were suffering from scurvy, while all bore marks of severe treatment in their faces and wasted forms".

Often, the only way for an inmate to obtain fresh food was from local civilian sympathizers or from Northern "suttlers" who set up shop within prison walls. Those with money would buy the much needed food, while the less fortunate inmates could only barter pieces of their uniforms or prison-made crafts for a few vegetables or pieces of fruit.

Water was another problem, as one prisoner wrote: "The standing rainwater breeds a dense swarm of animalculae and when the interior sediment is stirred up...the whole contents become a turgid, jellified mass of waggle tails, worms, dead leaves, dead fishes, and other putrescent abominations...the smell of it is enough to revolt the say nothing of making one's throat a channel for such stuff."

Even an 1863 outbreak of smallpox and calls for improvements from the U.S. surgeon general failed to move Col. William Hoffman, commissary general of Union prisons. Confederate prisoners continued to languish in Fort Delaware until two months after the war had ended.