Rebel Spirits: Searching for Civil War ghosts
at Fort Delaware

By David Healey


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 of water.

It's a night for conjuring history.

And spirits.

"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 planned."

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 good."

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 afraid."

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, however.

"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."



Chance meeting sparked Civil War romance

By David Healey

(Originally published in The Washington Times on Aug. 8, 1999)


There couldn't have been a worse time for Capt. Lucien M. Bean of the 17th Mississippi Infantry.

The Confederacy was crumbling. In the heart of the South, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was "making Georgia howl." Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood's entire army had been smashed to bits by Gen. George Thomas at Nashville. Down around Petersburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee's troops held on in their trenches, which the Union army would soon overrun.

For Capt. Bean, however, the fighting was already over. He had been taken prisoner near Richmond on Dec. 10, 1864. After a stay at the infamous Old Capitol Prison in Washington, he was sent on Feb. 3, 1865, to Fort Delaware, a Union prison island in the Delaware River.

Bean's story survives today because he kept a diary of his experiences from 1864 until after the war. He wrote, too, about the lifelong romance that was sparked during his journey to Fort Delaware.

Neither the North nor the South treated prisoners well. Considering Confederate troops had little enough food to begin with, it's likely the young captain resembled a skeleton as the train filled with prisoners steamed north through Maryland.

Upon reaching Delaware, the prisoners stopped in the town of New Castle on their way to Delaware City, where the prisoners would be ferried to the prison camp.

One can imagine the scene as the train stopped. Confederate prisoners leaned out the doors of the box cars as the Yankee guards kept watch on the station platform, their bayonets glinting dully in the winter sun. Some of the soldiers probably lay on the floor of the unheated railroad car, too sick or too weak to move, going on to die at Fort Delaware.

Two young ladies happened to be in New Castle that day and caught a glimpse of the Rebels. One was Miss Annie M. Foard of the village of St. Augustine in Cecil County, Md. The other was Miss Julia Jefferson of Middletown, Del.

Capt. Bean spotted the two young ladies and asked their names. Miss Foard passed Bean a card with both their names, along with a scarf to keep him warm at the prison camp.

At Fort Delaware, Bean exchanged letters with Miss Foard all through the winter and spring of 1865. According to his diary, his fellow prisoners kidded him about the scarf.



William Stubbs opens Capt. Bean's diary. The penciled lines are still clear even after 130 years.

"I'd like to eventually write out the whole thing," says Stubbs, a local historian who lives in a Cecil County farmhouse built in the 1750s by a distant relative. He was given the diary by Carolyn Lorraine of Chesapeake City, a relative by marriage.

The diary is actually inscribed with the name of Sgt. Charles Howard of the 76th New York Infantry. The sergeant from Tompkins County, N.Y., has even written a few diary entries.

How did a Confederate captain end up with the Union soldier's diary? That's another story in itself, one that Stubbs gladly shares:

On May 6, 1864, during the battle of the Wilderness, Capt. Bean came across Sgt. Howard, who was lying in the road, badly wounded.

The Wilderness was a terrible fight. Smoke floated in the tangled underbrush. Units were all mixed up.

Bean took pity on the wounded Union sergeant. "I had him moved to the side of the road, to some shade," Bean wrote. "Gave him water. We then were ordered to advance and I never heard from him afterward."

In gratitude, the wounded Yankee gave Bean his diary. Bean used it to keep a faithful account of events from that day until after the war. His words help tell a love story that brightens a dark chapter in the nation's history.

Stubbs closes the diary, wraps it again in protective plastic, then returns it to his bookshelf.

"I consider myself the custodian of the diary," he says.



Fort Delaware remains a forlorn and imposing place, and it must have been even worse for a young prisoner. Visitors have claimed to see ghosts walking the narrow brick passageways. Cold wind off the Delaware River still washes between the open iron bars on the windows.

On June 19, 1865, the misery ended when the prisoners were released.

Set free, Bean briefly visited Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia. He then journeyed to the Foard home, where, according to his diary, 'The most important events of my life occurred during the week I enjoyed with my friends at St. Augustine, Md."

From Cecil County, Bean returned to his home in Buena Vista, Miss. But not for long.

That autumn, Bean and Annie Foard were married at St. Augustine Episcopal Church. Julia Jefferson, who had been at the train station the day the future newlyweds met, was the maid of honor.

Bean went into business in nearby Kent County, Md., for a few years, then moved his wife and family to New York, where he worked for the West Shore Railroad.

In later years, he and his family returned to Chesapeake City in Cecil County. He died there in 1921. Annie died in 1924.

Bean and his wife are buried side by side in the St. Augustine Church cemetery. Annie's headstone lists her date of birth as 1841. The modest headstones are tucked up tight against the side of the church. Nearby are the graves of three Union veterans.

If it weren't for Bean's diary, no one would ever guess his interesting story from the simple inscription on his headstone:

Capt. Lucien M. Bean
Co. A., 17th Miss Inf.

There are no dates for his birth or death. Bean and his survivors must have been proud of his service to the Confederacy to use it as his only epitaph 56 years after the War Between the States ended.



Words to live by at the Mark Twain House

By David Healey


The first thing you notice about the Mark Twain House is that it's dark inside - almost like a movie theatre just before the show begins. As your eyes adjust to the cool dark, you're nearly overwhelmed by the grandiose entrance hall: marble floor, hand-stenciled ceiling and walls, and so much carved woodwork it looks like an army of craftsmen must have been set to work to create it all.

"Open up the blinds and let some sunshine in and it would be beautiful in here," remarks one visitor. The sheer grandeur of the entry hall - and the stairwell that rises three floors overhead - seems a far cry from the barefoot, downhome antics of some of the author's best-known characters, like Huckleberry Finn.

Still, the anecdotes the tour guide shares are at odds with the surroundings - and go to show how proud Samuel Clemens (nobody but strangers called him "Mark Twain," that was just his penname) was of this mansion his writing had helped earn.

Although Clemens died in 1910, he remains one of America's best-loved authors. Ernest Hemingway called "Huckleberry Finn" the first American novel. Nearly every high school student has been assigned that book in English class. Clemens is famouse for his witty one-liners that still bring a smile a centery later. He is quoted for humorous effect about as often as Will Rogers and Yogi Berra.

Many don't realize Clemens was a prolific author and lecturer who wrote several books besides "Huckleberry Finn." A visit to his home in what was once an upscale neighborhood in Hartford shows another side of Clemens besides that of irrascible commentator - Clemens was a dedicated family man who raised three daughters in this spacious mansion.


 Some must-see features of the Clemens' house:

The telephone booth in the entry hall. Clemens was a constant critic of the poor phone service of the late 1800s. In fact, he kept a daily log, noting that the line had so much static on one day that it sounded "like artillery" on one day and "like a battlefield" on another. Early phone service wasn't always reliable - hmm, sounds kind of like the Internet, doesn't it?

Loose marble tiles in the entry hall, the result of a billiard table being dropped - accidentally - from the third floor. Oops.

A wonderful, dark, book-filled library with a greenhouse attached at one end. It's the kind of room, where, if the tour guide wasn't looking, you'd take a book off the shelves, stretch out in a chair, and light up a cigar.

Clemens' ornately carved bed that he bought in Italy for $200. That was a lot of money in those days, but the bed was supposedly centuries old. A woodworker in Hartford quickly determined it was a fake. Forever after, Clemens slept with the pillows on the footboard so he could see the ornately carved headboard every evening and every morning "to get his money's worth," as he put it.

Photo courtesy of the Mark Twain House

Probably the best room in the house is the billiard room on the third floor. It was the only spot in the mansion where he could find some peace and quiet. He often spread his manuscripts out on the surface of the pool table when writing - in fact, the surface is still marked with pencil scratches.

Oh, and he loved to shoot pool there, too, when he wasn't working. Clemens wrote seven books in this room - including "Huckleberry Finn" - so for writers and fans it's a sort of literary sanctum, billiard table and all.

This house is strictly "look-don't-touch" so it's not the best place for small children, but if you happen to be passing through Connecticut it's well worth a visit even if you're a casual fan of Sam Clemens.



All aboard for the B&O Railroad Museum

By David Healey

There's something about a steam locomotive that gets the imagination going. Maybe it's the steam or the churning drive wheels, the sound of the whistle and the mighty chug of the pistons.

Even when a steam locomotive is standing still, it looks like it's going places.

Anyone who wants to take his imagination for a ride should pay a visit to the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. Located at the site of the former Mount Clare Station on West Pratt Street, the 37-acre museum grounds are home to the biggest collection of "railroadiana" in the Western Hemisphere. Although Mount Clare was at one time a busy working train station, the only trains that come and go these days are the weekend excursion trains that make the 25-minute round trip to the Carrollton Viaduct.

Still, the spirit of railroading is alive and well. It's easy to get a feel for the ghosts of the past while wandering among the locomotives on display. The engines span the history of railroading in America, from the Tom Thumb, America's first steam engine, that competed in the legendary race between steam and horse-powered trains, to massive steam locomotives like the 320-ton Allegheny, which generated 7,500 horsepower. There are also diesel engines like the ones in use today. Climbing aboard the huge locomotives can be an awe-inspiring experience.

"The engineer was like God," says museum volunteer Harry Eck, standing in the shadow of the J.C. Davis, a B&O locomotive built in Baltimore in 1875. "Nobody dared say no to him."

Eck would know. He started his railroad career working in the very roundhouse that houses the main portion of the museum display. Eventually he became an engineer on some of the last steam locomotives to run in Maryland. He retired as superintendent of locomotive operations for the Chessie System.

Even the casual visitor will learn some interesting facts about the early days of railroading. For instance, as Eck leads a tour he points out the "sandbox" atop the locomotive J.C. Davis. By pulling a handle in the locomotive's cab, the engineer could release sand that was funneled to a tube that spit the sand in front of the locomotive's driving wheels to give traction. Otherwise, the wheels tended to spin uselessly on the polished rails when the train was starting out.

There was also the matter of tallow needed to lubricate the steam chest at the front of the locomotive. When things started to get squeaky, the engineer would order one of the crew to work his way down a narrow catwalk that ran the length of the locomotive. Once at the front of the train, the crewman could reach down and add tallow - rendered animal fat - to grease the mechanism. It's not a job most people would volunteer for, which is where that concept of engineer as God came into play.

The real centerpiece of the museum is probably the main building that houses it. Known as the Roundhouse, it was built in 1884 and measures 240 feet across and 123 feet high. (As you drive into the city on I-395, look straight ahead as you pass Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Roundhouse will be plainly visible ahead.) It was used until 1953 as a workshop to repair the B&O's passenger cars. Now restored, it's a spectacular, airy space, lit by natural daylight from tall windows that circle the peak. The Roundhouse is often rented out for parties and even weddings.

For those whose taste runs to smaller trains, the museum includes a 12-foot by 40-foot HO model layout built in 1956 that shows the entire B&O line of that day in miniature.

A trip to the B&O museum will leave visitors nostalgic for the bygone era of trains. Chances are, you'll never hear a train whistle in the distance quite the same way again.