Fort Delaware, a notoriously haunted military fortress built around 1817, served as a prison during the US Civil War. Much suffering and death occurred at this site, located on an island in the Delaware River. When my daughter's fifth grade class took a field trip there, I jumped at the chance to play ghost hunter. Here's what I found.
Fort Delaware, located on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, is a notoriously haunted area so when it was announced that my daughter’s fifth grade class was going there on a field trip (in the daytime, of course), I was the first one to sign up to chaperone.
This fortress, built in the early 1800s, was designed by French military engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who was also responsible for much of the design of Washington D.C., the US capital city. Because it is situated in the northern part of the Delaware River, it was an ideal spot for defending Philadelphia, PA and Wilmington, DE.
During the American Civil War, Fort Delaware was used to house Confederate prisoners of war and convicts. Most of the prisoners that were captured at the Battle of Gettysburg were imprisoned here. By the end of the war, there were 33,000 prisoners held at the fort, 2,400 of whom died during their stay.
Today Pea Patch Island and the fort are part of the Delaware State Parks system. The only way to get there is by taking a short ferry ride to a wooden pier. From there, a jitney takes you to the fort proper.
No prisoners were actually housed inside the walls of the fort (they were held in barracks located elsewhere on the island). You can find living quarters and offices, a kitchen, and a mess hall. A large part of the fort was dedicated to the storage of munitions.
Of the many structures that were built to support life on the fort (at one point there were prison barracks, a hospital, school, and even a couple of hotels to accommodate visiting family members) very few survived. The star-shaped fort, built first of wood and then of brick and stone, is surrounded by a moat. You won’t find any crocodiles here, instead, the moat served as a sewage system. The bathroom in the fort has simple wooden holes on a bench that go directly to the moat. There’s nothing between your butt and the water but air!
Now, to the fun stuff! There are many ghost stories associated with Fort Delaware. In fact, the popular US show “Ghost Hunters” filmed an investigation there a few years back. Local ghost hunters conduct paranormal investigations that are open to the public each fall and they’re often sold out long before the weather changes.
In preparation for their field trip, the kids were told some of the ghost stories and were excited at the prospect of finding unusual things, as were most of the parents, who had either seen the “Ghost Hunters” show or heard the stories themselves.
One of the most haunted areas is the kitchen, where there is purportedly a very cold area by the kitchen stove, which is said to be the spirit of a slave woman who served as a cook. The staff who work at the fort tell stories of kitchen utensils and other tools in the area being moved around. During our trip, the area was roped off but I got a long-exposure picture that doesn’t show much.
The mess hall is also said to be haunted and in it hangs an officer’s portrait, which the kids told me turned into a skull if you stared at it long enough. This was one of the first things that most of the children wanted to see. Given the high contrast of the blacks and whites and the shape of the man’s face, I can see why your eyes may play tricks on you and make it seem as though you’re seeing a skull, but we didn’t see anything unusual.
It is rumored that through out the parade grounds confederate spirits roam, still trying to escape from the fort. One of the most popular stories is of the attempted escape of a 9 year-old Confederate drummer boy. Legend has it that he tried to fake his own death in order to be transported back across the river in a coffin. Waiting for him on the other side of the river were either sympathetic Union troops or fellow inmates, who were supposed to free him from the coffin. Unfortunately, a shift change swapped personnel and instead of being freed, the boy was buried alive ( www.thecabinet.com). This story doesn’t appear to be rooted in historical facts, but it was one of the stories we were told by our tour guide.
Confederate Brigadier General James Archer’s spirit, a bearded man dressed in a gray uniform, is seen moving around the powder magazine and dungeon area. He was taken prisoner and arrived at Ft. Delaware very sick. He was thrown in the dungeon area as punishment for organizing a prisoner uprising ( www.thecabinet.com). Archer died a few months later from the effects of his illness and imprisonment, after being freed in a prisoner exchange.
Some of the great stone staircases are said to have spirits that touch your arms and back and make noises, including footsteps and yelling. The Delaware Area Paranormal society, a local ghost-hunting group, took a picture of a sinister black shadow on the staircase (check it out here). A second picture, taken a second later, showed nothing (and for the record, they used digital cameras).
We only had a short period of time to explore on our own so we didn’t get to roam all over the fort (plus we had a couple of scaredy-cats in our group) but I got some nice pictures with my Diana. The re-enactors, who included a Confederate soldier, school teacher, blacksmith, and prisoner, were fantastic at telling their stories as though they were still living in the 19th century. Next year, I’m getting my tickets for the paranormal tour VERY early so I can see some spirits.