Unlikely Allies: Fort Delaware’s Prison Community in the Civil War
By Dale Fetzer and Bruce Mowday
Reviewed by Keith Jones
Unlikely Allies is a very thorough history of the famed POW camp on a tiny island in the Delaware River. It begins with the survey of the simple little mud flat known initially as “Pip Ash” Island by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the famed first chief engineer of the United States Army. Pea Patch Island which had previously been used as a bird hunting preserve had value for its strategic location to protect the Delaware River from enemy invasion.
Skillfully crafted by Fetzer and writer and journalist, Mowday, this history tells the story of this important federal fort in a readable and accessible format. From the time that L’Enfant surveys and reports on the island through the scramble to outfit it as a full artillery battery and the erection of barracks for use as a busy prisoner of war camp. Fort Delaware quickly becomes a full operational community and one of the most famous northern POW camps of the war.
Being the commandant of a POW camp is a thankless and often no-win proposition. The authors do an excellent job of covering the commanders and the various military outfits and their key officers who manned the fort. In every case most of the men would have preferred other duty. This tiny island would be home to many famous guests throughout the war. Not only were there high ranking Confederate officers, but one of the primary uses of the prison was for “prisoners of state.” That is the political prisoners confined there for a number of infractions in the north deemed to be treason. Some of these were as blatant as spying or colluding to commit actual acts of insurrection, but most were for less overt actions. These were among the thousands imprisoned for the duration of the war without charges or due process for actions like writing newspaper editorials critical of the Lincoln administration or members of state legislatures casting votes the federal government deemed damaging to their position.
If you have ever wondered about the role played by Fort Delaware or just wanted to go behind the scenes of a northern POW camp, Fetzer and Mowday do an excellent job of taking you there.