Part three of three
One month after capture at Deep Creek, then located in Jackson County, Pvt. Asaph Wilson Sherrill arrived at Fort Delaware Union Prison on Friday March 4, 1864. The prison was located on Pea Patch Island, in the center of Delaware Bay, 2.5 miles from the mainland on either side. Asaph would spend the last full year of his life in the prison before him. He set eyes on a granite fortress built in the shape of a pentagon which was traversed by ditches of sea water. Because of overcrowding, Asaph was assigned to one of 54 wooden barracks located outside the fort walls on the northwest side of the island. The common wooden sheds were to accommodate about 10,000 prisoners, but at this juncture of the war, there were about 12,000 prisoners housed. Sherrill walked on plankways covering the marshy ground to a barrack to be confined in a room 19 by 60 feet where all other North Carolina prisoners were assigned. There were three-tiered bunks on either side with a narrow passage between. He was only allotted one blanket. In the center of the room was one stove, and there was an allowance of one barrow-load of coal per day.
Asaph had to quickly learn how to survive in living conditions which were publicly referred to as wretched. First, he learned not to speak to or approach any of the sentinels. Each day began with roll call. The men were formed in a line, then marched out by a door to a plot of ground, known by prisoners as “Devil’s Half Acre,” where all remained until the last man of the 12,000 had passed the doorway and had been accounted for. This generally occupied about two hours even in extreme weather elements.
Breakfast was then served in the mess hall, usually around 9 a.m. In a long dark room were several rows of long plank tables. Sometimes the food was on a tin plate, other times it was placed directly on the uncovered greasy table. On each table were pieces of bread and meat arranged at intervals of about two feet. Each prisoner took one ration. The bread and meat varied as found in writings of prisoners after the war. All agreed the rations were slight. Assorted breads were described as yellow cornbread three inches long and one inch thick; a small piece of bread made from rye or wheat flour; crackers; three pieces of hard tack; and baker’s bread, often stale. Breakfast meat was told to be a very small piece of bacon or beef. The weak coffee served was made from a decoction of logwood and beans.
Only two light meals were served daily to Sherrill and others. The dinner fare was served about 3 p.m. The food was once again placed in individual servings on the table for the men. The menu was the same as breakfast, a piece of bread and a piece of meat. The meat could have been a small chunk beef which was occasionally all sinew or mostly bone, a piece of salt pork or salt beef. Coffee was replaced with corn or bean soup served in a pint tin cup. Once a month inspectors or health commissioners visited the prison, but the officers in charge always knew when they were coming. The mess hall would be clean, beans and meat were in the soup, and a general appearance of good treatment was presented so that a fair report could be made and published. Drinking water was brought from Brandywine Creek about 10 miles away. Many waking hours were consumed with thoughts of food by the starving soldiers. At the end of the day another roll call would be conducted.
The prisoners tried to make the lingering hours pass lightly. Occasionally they played games such as cards and checkers or chess. Some formed a debate club and even performed theatrical performances all improvised by themselves. However, the days were overshadowed with suffering and deprivation as well as thoughts of home and freedom.
Diseases were the deadliest issue which faced these Civil War prisoners due to impure water, exposure, poor food and unsanitary conditions. Fort Delaware lost so many prisoners it was dubbed “The Fort Delaware Death Pen.” Approximately 2,700 Confederate soldiers died while being held captive. Asaph Wilson Sherrill became a Fort Delaware death statistic. Furthermore, out of 1,184 Confederate soldiers serving from Jackson County, 49 died in Union prisons. Asaph had been diagnosed with dysentery, the greatest single killer of the Civil War. The disease claimed more soldiers than battle wounds. Insufficient medical treatment then became Asaph’s worst enemy. He died on March 2 or 3, 1865. His muster roll records reveal he was buried on the Jersey Shore. Had he survived another month, Asaph would have witnessed the end of the war on April 9, 1865.
Sherrill’s burial place is now known as Finn’s Point National Cemetery, located across the Delaware River in New Jersey. A Confederate monument identifies the site, and names of the deceased Confederate prisoners are inscribed on bronze plaques affixed to the base of the monument. Asaph’s name and unit appears as “Sherill, A.W. C Thomas’ N.C. Legn.”
A grassy field covers the remains of 2,436 Confederate soldiers who died when they were captive at the fort. Underfoot, there are mass graves, stacked in columns of three or four with men entombed in simple wooden boxes.
Graves cannot be individually identified. Charles W. Rivenbark, a Fort Delaware Confederate prisoner from New Hanover County, North Carolina who bunked in the same barrack Asaph was assigned upon arrival and was still there following Asaph’s death, reminisced in 1874 that, “A coffin detail was made up every morning, 25 rough boxes being the day’s task, and more frequently it happened that more coffins were lacking than corpses.
“Over on the Jersey shore was the burial ground, and there, in the rude holes we dug for them, reposes the body of many a gallant Southern man, whose noble heart once throbbed only for truth and honor and liberty and love and home; whose unrecorded greatness and valor will only be known at the great final day when the graves shall give up their dead and justice at last be meted out to all.”
This information was researched and provided by William Loranzo “Bill” Crawford, Frank Moody Crawford, Jr., Ann Davis Melton, Mary Katherine Sherrill Lowder and Nancy Sherrill Wilson, Asaph Wilson Sherrill’s great-great-grandchildren.
Brown, Matthew M. and Coffey, Michael W. “North Carolina Troops: A Roster 1861-1865, Vol. XVI, Thomas’ Legion.” Raleigh, NC: Office of Archives and History, 2008.
Clark, Walter, ed. “Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-1865, Vol IV.” Published by the State. Goldsboro, NC: Nash Brothers Book and Job Printers, 1901.
Crow, Vernon H. “Storm in the Mountains: Thomas Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers. “1982.
Garren, Terrell T. “Cherokee Confederates.” The Read on WNC, 2012.
Godbold, E. Stanly Jr. and Russell, Mattie U. “Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas.” Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
Trotter, William R. “Bushwhackers, The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains, Vol. II.” Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair Publisher, 1988.