Rebel Spirits: Searching for
Civil War ghosts
By David Healey
at Fort Delaware
Deep inside the walls of Fort Delaware,
it's as dark as the salt-washed night air on Pea Patch Island.
Water drips from between cracks in the mortar of the arched brick
ceiling, spattering the people filing through the dark corridors.
Overhead, bats flit through the cavernous ramparts, empty and
black as the eye sockets of a skull, and feet slosh through pools
It's a night for conjuring history.
"You get a little history lesson
and a little ghostie lesson," says Dale Fetzer, one of the
two "spirtual guides" on this ghost tour of the old
fortress. "There's been a lot of actual sightings. It's
fun. On every trip we've had somebody see something we hadn't
Fetzer is a tall man, 6-feet, 5-inches,
wearing a dazzling Civil War general's uniform as he portrays
Gen. Albin Schoepf, the fort's commander during the war. His
full beard, intense gray eyes and courtly appearance make the
Bear, Del., resident look as if he stepped right out of 1863.
The other guide on the fortnightly ghost
tours is Ed Okonowicz, a storyteller from Maryland and author
of several books about ghosts on the Delmarva Peninsula, as the
area between the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays is known. He was
interviewed recently by the producers of a show for the Learning
Channel, so some of his Fort Delaware tales will be part of the
"Haunted Waters" special to be aired on the cable channel
during Halloween week.
Okonowicz is the general's opposite,
a shorter man who springs with 20th century energy beside the
reserved general. They play off each other's stories like morning
drive radio hosts and handle barbs from the tour group as wittily
as stand-up comedians.
Fetzer, who recently
published a book about Fort Delaware and served as a consultant
for the Civil War films "Gettysburg" and "Glory,"
sticks with the facts. He shares the fort's history with visitors.
Okonowicz talks about the spooky stuff.
There's plenty of it, and in spite of
rational 20th century minds, the atmosphere begins to make the
stories believable. After all, the tour group is utterly alone
on the island in the middle of the Delaware River. "There's
nothing out there except you and everything as it was 135 years
ago," Okonowicz says.
Looking west across the water toward
the Delaware shore, the town of Delaware City is a collection
of distant lights. To the east, a few lights mark the New Jersey
shore across the turbulent currents in this part of the river.
It's this island location that made Fort Delaware ideal for a
prison camp. For the prisoners in the 1860s, the shore must have
taunted them. Freedom lay there, just within sight across the
water but nearly impossible to reach.
A few tried to escape. Just over 300,
according to Fetzer. Only 52 were successful. That's a tiny number,
compared to the 32,305 prisoners held there during the course
of the war.
For most, the only way off the island
came with prisoner exchanges, peace, or death. Some 2,300 Confederates
are buried in a cemetery on the Jersey shore at Finns Point,
victims of prison life. It's these souls, and the souls of the
men who lost their lives trying to escape, who supposedly haunt
Fort Delaware today.
As the group of more than 80 visitors
crowds into the prison room that held high-ranking Confederate
officers, Okonowicz tells the story of how some of these unquiet
ghosts came to be.
There's the 9-year-old drummer boy who
tried to escape by hiding in a coffin. The work detail of Rebels
knew he was there and was planning to let him out when they reached
the New Jersey cemetery. Unfortunately for the boy, the work
detail was switched at the last minute.
"He was buried alive," Okonowicz
says, holding the rapt attention of the room, especially the
young boys in the audience. "You can imagine his last, awful
moments as the air ran out in the coffin underground. He clawed
and clawed at the wood with his fingers until the blood ran and
they were worn down to the first knuckle, but it didn't do any
A woman gasps in disapproval at the
gory tale. Okonowicz pounces. "Hey, if you're offended now
you better get the next boat back," he says. "This
is a ghost tour!"
"You've got to kill somebody to
get a ghost," Fetzer points out.
There are places in the fort where visitors,
Civil War re-enactors and fort restoration workers have seen
ghosts. One spot is a kitchen in the fort, where a woman in 1860s
clothes sometimes bustles through.
Another allegedly haunted spot is near
the powder magazine where Confederate General James Archer was
locked for a month in solitary confinement after plotting a mass
escape from the prison, filled to overflowing at the time with
prisoners taken at Gettysburg. The magazine is located in a labyrinth
of old gun emplacements deep inside the fortress. Lantern light
catches the irridescent patches of limestone leeching from the
brickwork, the beginnings of stalachtites in these manmade caverns.
Archer later died from an illness contracted in the dank, windowless
room in the bowels of the fortress. His ghost is now said to
roam the area.
One thing for certain, at the magazine
there is a definite "cold spot" - often a sign of otherworldly
activity, according to Okonowicz. Several in the group stand
there and feel the drop in temperature - along with the hair
on the back of their neck standing on end.
Walking from the cold belly of the fort
back to the parade ground, the night air feels much warmer, almost
tropical compared to the fort's "dungeons." Out on
the island, far removed from any traffic, it's oddly quiet. The
few electric lights don't do much to keep the darkness at bay.
For Beryl Cook of Wilmington, Del.,
it was her first visit to Fort Delaware, even though she has
lived in Delaware since 1966. She wasn't especially worried about
seeing ghosts. It was more ethereal creatures she was concerned
about on the marshy island: "If I saw a snake, I'd be more
Coming back on the boat, no one admitted
to having seen any spirits. They had seen a bit of history come
to life, but no apparitions.
As for the leaders of the tour, Okonowicz
and Fetzer, ghosts have been elusive, too. Okonowicz has witnessed
just one inexplicable incident - strange lights in the fort one
night as he passed by in a boat.
Fetzer, who has been a living history
interpreter on the island for many years, leading visitors through
the fort, has never seen a ghost. He has an explanation for that,
"I don't want to see them,"
the historian says. "I don't want to see something I can't
explain. I don't mess with them and they don't mess with me."