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Ghosts At An American Civil War Fort

December 2006

Like so many other people, for the longest time I did not believe in ghosts. I believed in spirits and the possibility of things being supernatural, but I had never seen anything to make me believe in ghosts, until two summers ago.

As a college student working towards a degree in History, I needed to do an internship to obtain upper level credits to go towards my college degree. I was accepted to work in a remarkable program to do living history interpretation at a Civil War historical site in Delaware. So, I packed up my belongings and drove half way across the United States to spend a summer working at Fort Delaware State Park.

After working at Fort Delaware for the summer of 2005, I returned to work there again in the summer of 2006 because I loved my job. I had no idea how much I would enjoy working with the public and being able to work hands on at a place that had so much rich history attached to it. I also had no idea that I would get to experience working in an area that is quite haunted.

The stories that I am about to tell you are combined from the two summers that I worked at Fort Delaware and contain instances that I experienced and that many of my coworkers experienced, but before one can fully appreciate the spirits that for some reason have stayed at Fort Delaware, one must hear some of the Fort's history.

Fort Delaware resides on Pea Patch Island, which is about a mile from the Delaware City shore line by the Delaware River between the states of New Jersey and Delaware. The fort that exists there today began to be built between 1853 and 1859. There were two other attempts to build a fort on the island, in the 1700s and the early 1800s, but the first structure collapsed and the second one burned down. Until some revolutionary methods for securing the foundation of the fort were developed, no structure was stable on the island, but the fort that exists there today has stood for over one hundred forty-seven years.

Fort Delaware was so placed to protect Philadelphia and Wilmington for the duration of the Civil War. But the Fort was not just used as an artillery defense for the Union; it was a Confederate Prison as well.
The Fort at its peak function as a prison in 1864 retained over 1,000 Union enlisted men, 10,000 Confederate prisoners and 1,000 civilians. There were thousands upon thousands of people who lived, visited, were held prisoner, worked, and died on Pea Patch Island throughout the 1800s.

Like so many other American Civil War prisons, disease and suffering took precedence for the people residing on the island. There were outbreaks of yellow fever, smallpox, and malaria, which took many lives of prisoners and civilians alike. The prison's conditions were better than many other Civil War prisons at the time, but it was still a terrible place to have been sent. To give a person a good idea of how the prison was viewed by many of the Confederate captives, one prisoner compared Fort Delaware to the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The Fort continued to be occupied as a coastal defense in the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II. Additional remodeling and improvements were made on the Fort while the United States took an active role in these events. Therefore, the Fort has remnants now from all of these time periods.
Today, Fort Delaware has mostly been restored to the way it looked during its function as a military prison in the Civil War, but areas like Battery Toreburg, otherwise known as the Endicott section of the Fort, remain from these later refurbishments. All of the other buildings separate from the Fort itself that were used by the prisoners, civilians, and enlisted men have deteriorated and no longer exist. Though the buildings are gone, the spirits of many of the people who lived and died on Pea Patch Island linger, still doing their jobs or just hanging out?not to mention giving those of us who have worked there a fright or two.

One of the best known ghosts at Fort Delaware is the woman who haunts one of the officers' kitchens and is appropriately named the Kitchen Ghost. The officers' kitchen at the Fort is a fully working 1800s kitchen, including an 1862 cast iron stove and fully functional bread oven.

The room is furnished, and during the summer several employees work there baking and cooking in it for the public's view. In the kitchen there is a pantry which is the original room where vegetables, some meat, pots and pans, and assorted jarred foods were stored. This pantry is also where the Kitchen Ghost seems to spend most of her time. She likes to hide things from the workers, such as ingredients to a dish they are making.

One day this summer, two young women were in the kitchen fixing cinnamon swirls. When it came time to add the cinnamon, they opened up one of the cabinets where all of the modern supplies are kept within the kitchen, and the cinnamon had disappeared. The two cooks searched the kitchen several times and cleaned out the cabinet several times as well, in hopes that they had overlooked the cinnamon. Eventually both of the cooks were becoming quite frustrated and went around asking if any of the other employees at the Fort had used the cinnamon, which they had not. The two girls finally looked in the cabinet once more and found the cinnamon sitting on the shelf, right where it was supposed to be. The only explanation that could be found was that the ghost was playing a trick on them.

Another way that the Kitchen Ghost has startled visitors or staff is to say the name of a person who walks into the pantry; she has also told people to get out. With all of the little things that the Kitchen Ghost has done to visitors and staff, she only has once appeared. In this instance, there were about five or six women cooking a large meal in the Officer's kitchen when, suddenly, a woman whom none of them knew appeared surveying their food on the stove and the table. All of the women who were working in the kitchen were staring at this woman strangely when she merely gave them a small grin, turned around, and proceeded to walk through the wall. To say the least, the other women who were working in the kitchen that day left and refused to go back in. In the officer's quarters on the second floor of one of the buildings inside the Fort, there is a ghost of a child that haunts a few of the rooms.

This ghost has been known to tug on the back of people's clothing while they were engaged in cleaning or working in the officer's quarters. Also, on occasion, there has been a child's laughter heard within the fort when no children were on the island. Likewise, in the officer's quarters there is the ghost of a lady. Some of the staff who have been in the parlor waiting for visitors to come up the main stairwell have felt someone tapping on their shoulder, only to turn and find no one there. I, myself, on a slow day was up in the officer's quarters sitting on the sofa when I began to doze off a bit; suddenly I felt like somebody had taken both of his or her hands and placed them on my arms, but when I opened my eyes, there was no one there.
There have also been accounts of books falling for no apparent reason, and the recurring incident of crystals that hang from a set of candlesticks on the mantle piece moving back and forth like someone is moving them with his or her finger, but when this happens there is never any wind, nor person seen bothering the candlesticks.

In one of the old officer's kitchens, there is a laundry area set up. The original area of the fort where the laundry was located was knocked out for the construction of Battery Toreburg. In this old officer's kitchen, staff show visitors how laundry was done in the 1800s and allow them to try and do a bit of washing themselves. This room also has a ghost who workers believe is a woman. She has a helpful habit of threading needles with thread if they are lying about. Also, she will collect buttons which are lying around and will string them all together with a string. There has been some speculation that this ghost is the same as the one in the working officer's kitchen, but the staff members have no idea if that is the case.
Outside of the laundry area/officer's kitchen, people have heard a harmonica being played. The source of this music has never been found, but it is speculated that an old soldier's soul is sticking around to play a melody that can be heard by those who are listening hard enough. Also, in one of the powder magazines, there have been staff and visitors alike who have commented on someone in the vicinity swearing. What most find so unusual about this happening is that the swearing is worded in an old fashioned sort of way. I have asked several people that have heard it what exactly they hear, and they never seem to remember the exact words that were used. However, I have been told that it is believed that this voice belongs to a soldier who is searching for some gun powder in this powder magazine but cannot seem to find it and becomes frustrated, hence the swearing.

The only ghost at the fort that really scares me is one that lingers in an old stairwell, which is blocked off from the public's use. This stairwell is located in the Endicott section of the fort. The staff will occasionally use it to go from the second tier to the first on that side of the fort. There have been staff members who have used the stairwell and have stated that they had the feeling that someone was trying to push or pull them down the stairs by tugging their clothes. This ghost has also been known to stir up the birds so they will fly past a person on the stairwell, with what some think is the hope that a person will lose his or her footing and fall. I personally would not use that stairwell if at all possible and have only been up and down it a few times.

There have also been sightings by boats and barges going up and down the Delaware River at night stating that there are lights on in the Fort at night when there is no one on the island and the generator is turned off. There will also be occasional sightings of someone standing on the top of the fort as if keeping guard, when again no one is on the island.

These are only a few of the ghost stories that I know of, have experienced and or that have been told to me about Fort Delaware. There are many more to tell. Having said this, not everyone who has worked at the Fort or has visited has seen or believes that the Fort is haunted in any shape or form. But, Fort Delaware has scheduled ghost tours throughout the summer and fall if one is interested in visiting the park. I highly recommend it. If a person is lucky, he or she might even get to run into a ghost or two.

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