Confederate prisoners at Belle Plain, Virginia, captured at Spotsylvania, May 1864

Confederate prisoners at Belle Plain, Virginia, captured at Spotsylvania, May 1864

The Union army marched Lieutenant Cherry and other captives from Doles’s Brigade to the rear and held them for several days. Crab described his experience:

After being crowded up with other prisoners in the rear of Grant’s army for a few days, I was put upon a small boat, Swanee, on the Chesapeake Bay and carried to Point Lookout. I was not landed there but taken to Fort Delaware in Delaware State and there landed and put into officers’ quarters. There were 2,200 of them [officers].

Crab was fortunate to have avoided Point Lookout, which sits on the Maryland shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It was the largest of the Union’s prison camps, and one of the worst. This prison camp was built for 10,000 but held between 12,000 and 20,000. Four thousand prisoners died at Point Lookout. A mass grave held 3,384 prisoners.

Lt. Cherry's prison

Fort Delaware and Pea Patch Island

Fort Delaware was better. The fort still exists in the Delaware River south of Wilmington. Finished in 1859, the Union army occupied the fort in 1861. The Fort Delaware Society operates the island, now a state park, with volunteer re-enactors who wear the garb and speak the talk of 1864. The fort sits on Pea Patch Island, a six-acre tract in the middle of the river.

Into this tiny island the Northern government introduced as many as 13,000 Confederate

In Delaware River

Map of Pea Patch Island

prisoners. High-ranking officers and political prisoners lodged within the fort, but the mass of prisoners lived outside in wooden barracks. Sickness was rampant:

A brief description of the fort  at > Civil War Prison Camps>Fort Delaware will help form an impression of what life was like. The site quotes a Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who wrote:

“The prisoners were afflicted with smallpox, measles, diarrhea, dysentery and scurvy as well as the ever-present louse. A thousand ill; twelve thousand on an island which should hold four; astronomical numbers of deaths a day of dysentry [sic] and the living having more life on them than in them. Lack of food and water and thus a Christian nation treats the captives of its sword!”

Rations were slim. Captain John S. Swann described the food:

“We formed in line and marched to the mess hall, in which were several long rows of plank tables with pieces of bread and meat arranged along the sides at intervales [sic] of some two feet. When we were in place each prisoner took one ration. The bread was made of rye and wheat flour, well cooked, but the piece very small, about half enough for a well man. The meat a small chunk of beef. Occasionally all sinew or mostly bone. It was cut up very carelessly and very small, not half a ration. Some days the bread was substituted with crackers, and these were hard days on us. We were permitted to take these rations to our bunks. I ate mine but remained very hungry. When dinner came the same thing was repeated, except there was occasionally a tin cup of what was called corn soup very tasteless and insipid, with little or no grease.”

Captain Swann had been commanding officer of Company A, 26th Battalion, Virginia Infantry. His description of prison life at Fort Delaware he wrote eleven years after the war. He describes — in a brief memoir well worth the reading — the hardships of prison life but also the kindnesses of some of his guards. See

Fort Delaware in 19th century

General officers lived inside Fort Delaware but other officers and the enlisted men lived on the island.

These conditions affected Crab, who wrote:

Pretty soon, though, I took sick, and as there was much smallpox in prison, it was supposed I, too, had it. I was sent to a ward in hospital for development of the disease. It turned out not to be smallpox, though, and I was quite sick some two weeks and was visited by some good ladies from Maryland who sympathized with our cause (Mrs. Howard) and who gave me some clothing, which I yet appreciate.

About 2,900 prisoners died at Fort Delaware, according to Jocelyn P. Jamison, an archivist of the Fort Delaware Society, which operates the prison and publishes a journal.

Many Confederates attempted to escape from the prison. The typical route consisted of dropping into the river through the prisoner’s latrines, which were built over the water. Then the escapees used clothing blown up with air to float into Delaware. A network of Confederate sympathizers helped them transit Delaware and Maryland and return to the South. Crab wrote:

While in prison I formed a plan to escape with a fellow officer, Bob Childs. But it was never put into execution, as it involved swimming over a mile by the aid of caissons. I was placed, upon getting well, back into the barracks with the other officers and had a hard time of it as the food was bad, water bad, weather hot, and confinement hard to bear.

Prison life for Lieutenant Cherry soon grew much worse.