a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, September 22, 2008

Walls that can haunt a skeptic

DELAWARE CITY, Del. – Laura M. Lee is a skeptical park ranger, but she admits to having been spooked on more than one occasion while on the job at an old United States military fort off the coast of Delaware.

She once heard a crash shortly after exiting the mess hall at Fort Delaware, a sturdy stone fortress built in 1859 to protect the ports of Philadelphia, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., and later used to hold Confederate prisoners during the Civil War.

She returned to the dining room to find a portrait of Southern Gen. Leon Jastremski that had fallen to the floor, face down. It was the image of a man who had been tricked into believing he was being set free only to be taken to a Confederate camp that fell soon under fire from Union warships.

“It was the anniversary ... of day the ship sailed out of here,” Lee said, following an August tour through the travel destination that consistently wins award for its outstanding programs. "That was weird."

In one corner of this maze of buildings, her co-worker portrays a Civil War blacksmith turning hooks from blazing-hot metal. Nearby, an actor pretending to be a Union soldier hums a mellow tune with a harmonica while standing guard over a “prisoner” chopping wood. Meanwhile, another employee of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources shows a group of children how troops kept guns clean and ready for fire during America’s war between the states.

At the same time, Lee is discussing another ghostly story about the night she slept in one of the bedrooms and was startled awake by a rocking chair in motion when no one else was in the room.

“They tell a lot of ghost stories around here,” she said.

There is good reason to believe tales of horror at this incredibly intact piece of American military history on Pea Patch Island that supposedly formed around the wreckage of a boat carrying a cargo of peas. The land apparently grew around silt that built up when the pea pods sprouted.

Toward the end of the Civil War, the sprawling island became a brutal home to nearly 40,000 captured soldiers and sailor, where 5,200 of them died, mostly from infectious diseases, Lee said.

Jastremski, though, ended up on Morris Island, South Carolina, after he was tricked into trading his watch to a Union soldier to gain freedom. He found himself at a destination so grotesque that he ended up eating rats to survive. Others wearing his coat of arms escaped Pea Patch through outhouses that drained into the bay to certain deaths in swift tides.

Fort Delaware was destined for a much better fate, as it “never was attacked and never fired a shot in anger,” Lee said. It was modernized in 1896 but soon became obsolete after the military tested its defenses by firing a missile from a friendly attack ship.

“They put a big hole in it,” she said.

And the place would become abandoned by World War I because its walls were forever defenseless against airplanes that drop bombs, she said.

As many as 18,000 visitors now take the short ferryboat ride from Delaware City each year to the island to walk around this amazing fort that survives in great shape despite its age.

They cross the heavy bridge over a moat to the puzzling grounds and wonder how and why the rambling buildings took shape and become eager to explore their dark halls.

(Caption: Rob Williams and Sean Carrow portray a Confederate captured at Gettysburg and Union guard, respective, at Fort Delaware)

(Click here to view a slide show of photos from my visit to the fort)

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