Thursday, July 16, 2009

Escape from Fort Delaware

In the early days of the American Civil War, the Union-run prisoner of war camp, Fort Delaware, still had a relatively low inmate population (still over half of what it would become only a year later) and few problems. It was run by Captain Augustus Gibson, whose general philosophy was to show the same respect and treatment to the captured Confederate troops that he would hope to be shown if he was in their shoes. While the attitude won him respect from the very prisoners he was in charge of guarding, it also raised suspicions about his loyalty to the Union by some of his troops and nearby residents. He remained confident of his approach however and that confidence proved to be his undoing.

After a general had visited the camp and had expressed a specific concern regarding the lack of gunboat patrols around the island that could keep a lookout for escape attempts, Captain Gibson assured his general that he had things completely under control. Only a few weeks later, this would prove to be a big mistake. 143 years ago to this day, 19 inmates at Fort Delaware constructed a makeshift raft and managed to navigate it across the Delaware River to the shore of Delaware, where local residents aided in their escape. For the high command it was obvious that Gibson's overconfidence (and suspect allegiance) was a detriment to his command and he was removed.

Things changed drastically after Gibson had left the camp. The population continued to swell and the treatment of the inmates went from bad to worse. In total, the Union estimates put the total of successful escape attempts at 273, although Confederate estimates nearly double, if not quadruple, the number. Escapes from the island were fraught with danger. Those that tried faced everything from drowning in the swift currents to patrol boats to sentries to sharks. It is unclear about how many perished by attempting to escape, which might account for some of the paranormal activity reported on the grounds of the former prison to this day. During the second week of June, these escape attempts are recreated with the annual Escape from Fort Delaware Triathlon, which attracts around 400 athletes per year.

Read more tales of Fort Delaware.

-Casey H.

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