A Picnic on the Island

 

The fort appears fierce, as if its long and tortured history were still present and death was a holiday. Fort Delaware is ominous and large, filling the small island in the Delaware River near New Castle, as if there were two moats — one around the prison and the river itself. It was originally built to defend the mid-Atlantic shores of the states following the War of 1812, but was finished to be used as the prison holding Confederate soldiers captured by the Union during the Civil War. The pentagonal bricked bastion is a haunting presence.
***
It was May, May 5th to be exact; and Grandpa was taking us over to Pea Patch Island for a little history and a picnic. Grandpa knew everything. About everything. We never knew which stories where true, but most were fascinating. My younger sister Sally and I sat quietly in the small boat taking us over to the National Park, where the huge brick structure stood surrounded by the River.
Grandpa started in with his stories. “You know how this island got its name, don’t you?” We just stared at him, knowing he did not expect an answer. “There was a barge, all those years ago, that hit the island by accident. It carried peas in its hull and they spilled all over the south side of the island. By the next year, little pea plants sprouted everywhere.”
“This fort was built by soldiers before and during the Civil War.” Grandpa shared. “Our government started building it earlier, but it took them a long time to get around to finishing it. But the need for a prison during the war got them moving a bit faster. It burned down to the ground once, but the government came and built it again.”
Sally and I looked at each other, and Sally rolled her eyes.
“We’ll take the tour through the fort, and then we’ll break out those sandwiches in the cooler. How’s that?” We both smiled at Grandpa, knowing there were more stories to come.
We followed the ranger through the large, dark buildings.
“These rooms were used to house Confederate prisoners during the Civil War until1865. The winters here could be harsh and food was sometimes scarce. There were a few Confederate prisoners who attempted to escape this island.” We continued through the corridors, surrounded by the echoes of emptiness.
After the tour was over, Grandpa found a nice shady spot in a bricked courtyard near the entrance to one of the fort’s corridors. “Let’s spread out Grandma’s cloth here. I’ll get the sandwiches out,” I said. Sally and I poured our drinks.
“Look, you can see the train station over there on the shore,” Grandpa said between bites of his sandwich. “And that damned nuclear plant over in New Jersey.” After a short silence he started in about the history again, “You know, many of the prisoners who came to this prison died here. My great-granddaddy fought in that war, for the Union. There’s a cemetery over there in New Jersey at Finn’s Point with hundreds of graves, full of both Confederate and Union soldiers alike. Mostly Confederates. Those days were hard, I’m told; but the fort is still standing firm.”
Just as he was finishing that last sentence, I heard a sound coming from the entrance to the fort. It sounded like crying. Someone was sobbing. Sally and I looked at each other and moved a bit closer together. A woman, in strange clothing, was carrying a tray through the courtyard. Her face was sad and her eyes were red. Startled and in disbelief, I watched her walk right through the red brick wall at the opposite end of the courtyard as if the wall wasn’t even there. Sally gasped, and I felt a chill.
***
What was that? I feared I saw a man with two young girls, sitting joyfully and dressed in scant clothing outside the door. That cannot be. What was that? It was May 5, 1864 and the memories of the stench in the room, made bearable by a cool morning breeze, took me back to that place.
The guards sat, without formality, in the courtyard. Mary had just brought pots of bread for the prisoners and left them near the door. I walked over, slowly enough not to draw attention to myself. There, amongst the loaves, was a small piece of paper. I broke a piece of the bread and lifted the missive with it; then I slipped the paper into my pocket that held the stamp the sutler had given me the day before.
I walked to the back of the damp cell, near the small window with only iron bars separating us from the chill outside and freedom. There I ate my bread, one small welcome bite after another. Others had moved toward the courtyard to partake of some bread. Pulling the paper from my pocket, I quietly unfolded it. Two lines read “My dearest, you are arranged with a coal boat at the southwest corner at dawn in a fortnight. There will be a Union uniform under the grey rock next to the large willow tree. Be safe and know my love is with you.” She had taken such a perilous risk in placing that missive to me. I cherished her and held hope within my heart that I would one day be with her as a free man.
This prison had been my home once before. Captured at the Battle of Kernstown in March of 1862, I was separated from my regiment and comrades in the 27th Virginia Infantry. It was on a hot August day in 1862 when I was traded, in an exchange, back to the Confederate Army and gleefully released from this hell. After months in the hospital and anxious to reunite with my compatriots, I was able to return to fight again with the Allegheny Rifles.
After Gettysburg, we marched back to Virginia to prepare for the battle at Spotsylvania in the Spring of 1864. It was a brutal fight, with fallen comrades everywhere and lasting several days. On the third day I was shot in my right leg and, once again, captured by the Yankees. After several days of marching, often with the help of comrades, I was again at this Fort on the island in the Delaware River. Such memories of defeat I have of that time, not only of my misfortune to have returned to this place called the Devil’s Dungeon, but the memories of the suffering of my brothers on the battlefield where I had left them. However, this time my leg received medical attention prior to being condemned again to the fort’s chambers where darkness prevailed and rats were, at times, our only food.
It was while I was in the infirmary that I made the acquaintance of Mary. She came to the room, bringing meals for the infirm, along with the sutler. She was very gentle in her conversation with me. Her beauty and kindness brought spells of happiness to me, so welcomed, and I let her know of my gratitude. She always smiled. She was like sunshine itself in such a dreary place.
The island was often foggy with its unrelenting rain and dampness. The summers were unbearably hot. Once, in 1862, our cell flooded and we stood in water to the hems of our trousers. Many were sickened during that time. Some died and escaped to the graves at Finn’s.
Two weeks ago I had been assigned on a detail to repair the brick structure around the ovens in the kitchens. My experience as a mason back in Virginia had proven to be a blessing. The days working with the masonry gave me further opportunity to visit with Mary. As we each worked our separate tasks, we conversed about our hopes for a better future, how I missed my family back in Clifton Forge, and the sadness of this wicked war. Mary’s parents lived across the river near Dover, and she would send them half of her salary. As the days passed, she won my heart. Her kindness and the placidity of her voice would often take me by surprise, reminding me that life held some solace.
On a couple of occasions I was able to accompany Mary to the gardens to assist as she gathered vegetables and herbs. She prepared grand dishes for the garrison officers. I loved her more each day, and on our last visit to the garden I had bravely taken her hand, in spite of my dire circumstances, and declared my love. She returned my gesture. Hand in hand, as the sun set, we ran to take shelter from the rain in the garden’s potting shed. It was there that we became one, betrothing to one another, if only before God. My memories of this tenderness have sustained me since so long ago.
But too soon the repairs were finished and I was returned to the drudgery of the mildewed halls with my comrades. The prison was crowded as there had been no prisoner exchanges, so food was scarce. Visualizing the gardens behind the garrison, I would dream of being with Mary. There were too few occasions for us to pass messages to each other since I did not wish to see Mary chastised or, worse, sent away.
The fortnight would come soon enough, and I could be free to travel home. I could not allow any mistake in this endeavor. Fort Delaware had been me nemesis long enough. Two days after reading Mary’s note, I took a fever. There was no soft place to lie down, no respite. My head ached and I slept, while homesick for the tenderness of family, on that ragged blanket for two more days. By then I could hardly swallow. Surely this was to pass, as I recalled the nearness of my freedom.
As I stand here now, in this empty room, I remember my despair the next morning as the rash appeared and they took me to the infirmary. It was a makeshift infirmary, not where I had been before. This was a dreary place with there were others ill as I was. I knew of the smallpox that often killed in this Devil’s dungeon. I feared it may be my fate. I grew weak. I wanted to see Mary but knew that I could not. I wanted to see my father, so far away. I slept, dreaming of Mary in the gardens and of my dying comrades on the battlefield. I could not eat; my breathing was difficult. I slept, in blackness, and never returned to the sunlight. It was May 5th, 1864, and I made my trip to Finn’s cemetery.
But now, on this cloudy day, I’m still in the corridor near the courtyard. Why am I alone in here? Each small sound echoes against the walls. Was that Mary I saw, with the tray, earlier? There, that old man and two young girls are walking away. I feel connected to them, yet they are strangers. They do not belong here. These memories return over and over, but I cannot leave. Why can’t I leave this god-forsaken place? I cannot leave Mary.
***
Grandpa sat behind us on the boat back to shore. He was quiet and seemed sad. Sally and I were still frazzled from seeing that ghost. When we told Grandpa, he had assured us there was no such thing.
“Grandpa, tell us more about the island,” I said, trying to cheer him up. “Did your great-grandpa ever come to this island during the war?”
That caught his attention.
“Yes, he was stationed here in the Civil War. As a matter of fact, he married a young woman who cooked here … my great-grandma. They were married on in early August of 1864, right there on the island. Your great—great-grandma’s name was Mary. And, of all things, my granddaddy was born right on this island before the war ended. He was born here because he came early. My great-grandfather, still in service to the Union, sent her and the baby to the mainland when she was able to travel, and my grandfather grew up in Little Creek down by Dover. I suppose he was a blessing during the wartime here. War doesn’t decide who is right; it decides who is left.”
As his mood lifted, he added, “They should have called the baby Pea Patch.”
We were quiet the rest of the trip to shore. I looked back at the Fort and watched it fade eerily into the distance.

 

 

 

Image by Alena Sivyi

© 2014 by Sandra Fox Murphy. All rights reserved

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