Ghosts of the Confederacy at Fort Delaware
H-CivWar readers, today we present a history site review by a historian truly on the frontlines of public education. Robert Baumgartner is an adjunct professor at Camden County College in New Jersey, a high school history teacher, and an employee at the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial. Recently he returned to a historic site he first visited as a child and discovered that the Lost Cause still haunts this northern Civil War site. (Glenn Brasher, series editor)
Ghosts of the Confederacy at Fort Delaware
At the southern end of the Delaware River, Pea Patch Island is home to Fort Delaware. The island was deeded to the federal government in 1813 and the fort was completed by 1859 as protection for the ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia. Converted into a prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War, it held as many as 12,595 Confederate inmates. It was also manned for short intervals during both world wars, but was declared surplus in 1944 and deeded back to Delaware. Fort Delaware then became a state park in 1951, accessible today by ferry from New Jersey and Delaware.
My first sojourn to the site was at the behest of my grandparents when I was in grade school in the mid 1990s. From what I remember, there were reenactors portraying a minstrel show and singing “Old Dan Tucker,” but I was too young to contemplate the role these shows played in how 19thcentury whites perceived African Americans. Visiting again in the early 2000s, the only noticeable change was that there were Confederate reenactors in the POW barracks interacting with guests. Despite my limited knowledge of history in those days, it was still fascinating to see such an old fort.
As an adult now with an education and career in history, I recently felt compelled to return to Fort Delaware to see what changes have been made. The fort’s physical structures have undergone little if any evolution from when I visited as a child, but there is a noticeable increase in programming, with living history interpreters taking visitors back to 1864. Unfortunately, the value of these programs is uneven.
The “Story of a Prisoner” program, for example, nicely offers prisoners’ stories in their own words from personal letters and journals. However, this program is offered off site at the Bear Library in Bear, DE. This is within close proximity to the historic site, but it is likely that most of the fort's visitors never make it there. If the program can not be moved to the fort itself, perhaps it would be beneficial to install interpretive signs around the barracks featuring these first-person primary source accounts.
One popular program in the fort itself capitalizes on the “escape room” phenomenon in order to increase visitation (even Colonial Williamsburg is doing this now). The attraction pits teams against the clock as they use clues, artifacts and documents to escape the island, with the premise that they have been wrongfully arrested as traitors. Escape requires the team to prove loyalty to the Union, so there is clearly a “right” and “wrong” side.
Such interpretation is weakened, however, by the presence of living history interpreters acting as Confederate prisoners that do little to emphasize the role of slavery in the causes of the war or in soldier motivations. Since the deadly events at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E Church and in Charlottesville, historic sites have been placed under the microscope for their interpretations of the Lost Cause and slavery. It is erroneous to assume that a northern site would be free of Lost Cause interpretation.
While there are some actors at Fort Delaware that portray rebel soldier slaveholders speaking of slavery in positive terms as a necessity, they will then often remark on a particular slave friend that they miss, suggesting the classic Lost Cause trope of patriarchal bonds between master and slave. Others portray recently captured soldiers from a poor white background that have no slave property. Rather than speaking of white supremacy at all as motivation, these actors mostly peddle economic factors, northern aggression, and “state’s rights” as their motivators, giving little opinion on slavery one way or the other.
Slavery is more frequently addressed by the actors portraying Union civilians and soldiers, and they do feature a range of opinions on emancipation. There are calls by many of the characters for emancipation, for example, but others are wary as to what that would mean for their own economic future or how the government would assimilate freedmen. Nevertheless, there does not seem to be an emphasis on soldiers embracing emancipation simply as a military necessity for saving the Union--a common northern soldier sentiment by 1864. For the most part, these northern characters are more preoccupied with portraying civilians concerned about their loved ones, or bemoaning the need for better food for the prisoners. This is not bad interpretation, of course, it is just not very inclusive or instructive about the war's causes. Few of these reenactors are African American, and I encountered a blacksmith who lamented that there are few black reenactors to tell their story.
Still, it is nice to see a Civil War site addressing slavery at all, even if with uneven results. The reenactors have changed their stories a bit over the years but it remains clear that slavery has touched the individuals they portray even if in varying degrees. Fort Delaware’s current interpretations are clearly more progressive than was a depiction of a minstrel show, reflecting our nation’s current grappling with the ghosts of our past.
Speaking of ghosts: analysis of the paranormal is another standard event at Fort Delaware in the fall. In the past, several tourists entered the fort with home video camcorders and posted videos on the internet purporting to capture supernatural activity. This led to the site being featured on the cable program Ghost Hunters a few years back, causing an upsurge in visitors looking for ghosts within the fort’s walls.
As with many other historic sites these days, Fort Delaware State Park now capitalizes on the ghost craze, featuring well-attended ghost tours of their own. While this certainly brings in guests, it is my experience with "ghost" hunters that the historical narrative becomes lost. The history fascinates and attracts them to a site to locate a potential spirit, but beyond that there is a negligible interest in the actual events or true lessons of a site. The challenge for sites like Fort Delaware is to take advantage of the ghost craze to attract visitors, but to make sure they leave with at least some significant exposure to the true importance of the site and its real legacy.
Overall, Fort Delaware has beautifully preserved structures and some worthwhile programs. While there may not be a plethora of exhibits on the ground, the living history interpretive programs do get visitors involved in the history of the fort. Reflecting our current national conversation about the difficult legacy of the Confederacy, the fort addresses slavery, though the Lost Cause appears too often in the sentiments of the rebel reenactors. Programming at state park sites is limited by funding, so we cannot fault Fort Delaware too much for trying to capitalize on the “escape room” and ghost craze. However, if park staff can get more creative, they can insure that these visitors are still exposed to a historically solid and consistent message about the war’s causes, and of Confederate and Union soldier motivations. In order to stay relevant, it is imperative that they do so.
Camden County College, New Jersey