One More Book

Selected essays from Bruce E. Mowday:

May 20, 2021

Election nights

at the old

Daily Local News

            Excitement, pressure, fatigue and a bit of danger were all part of election nights at the old Daily Local News.

This week reporter Mike Rellahan wrote about memories of the recently dismantled Daily Local News building. With Tuesday’s primary election, my thoughts turned to long election nights of long ago and forgotten elections. I joined the newspaper’s staff in 1974, when the paper was independently owned by the Thomas family, and worked most election nights for two decades.

In my early days before computers and the internet, ballots were hand-counted. The process was slow and laborious. Editor Bill Dean selected his overnight election team to spend hours at the county courthouse. Election officials from each of the hundreds of Chester County precincts drove results to the county courthouse to the waiting officials from the county’s Board of Elections.

Those county election officials sometimes waited in vain as the precinct officials decided they needed a good night’s rest before driving to West Chester or a good meal and an alcoholic beverage. Many a night, frantic calls were made to locate missing results.

Once the county officials recorded the results, the numbers were passed to waiting reporters crammed into the hallways of the courthouse. The Daily Local News set up a long table to accommodate an oversized sheet of newsprint listing every precinct and every candidate. Then the fun would begin; not really. Reporters were assigned segments of the chart to record results and a lucky reporter would call out the vote totals. When the designated caller’s voice failed, a rotation took place and a rested voice would resume calling out precincts, candidate’s name and number of votes.

About 5:00 a.m. Bill would remind us to hurry and complete the task. We had to transport the chart to the newspaper to be typeset so readers could have a complete accounting of the previous day’s election in their afternoon paper. If a sleepy or wayward official hadn’t arrived at the courthouse by our deadline, a reporter remained to record the final vote count and hurry back to the newspaper.

The newspaper richly rewarded the election night crew. We were taken out to a free breakfast, usually at the old restaurant near the old movie theater on High Street. Somehow the $5 meal seemed amply rewarding for the all-night assignment.

Some election nights, I was assigned to write stories on the election races and candidates. Depending on the assignment, food might be available as candidates either were delirious with joy after a victorious campaign or crestfallen because voters rejected them. The assignment was more exciting than counting votes, and could be dangerous. One night an inebriated candidate blamed his poor showing on the pre-election stories I wrote. As he started to make a motion of throwing a punch, one of his compatriots ushered him out of the room.

As computers and the internet replaced hand-written charts, the process no long took all night. When I was city editor and managing editor, I was in charge of election coverage. We had two editions. The first one was useless to readers as we seldom had any results to report but we needed stories. The stories were written in such a way as the later editions had the same story with the results added at the beginning.

My election night didn’t last as long as those at the courthouse.

I also didn’t receive an amply deserved and rewarding free breakfast.

(Bruce E. Mowday of West Chester was a reporter, columnist and editor for the Daily Local News for 23 years. He is an author of more than 20 books.)


Fort Delaware Historical Society talk

Fort Delaware: Gettysburg’s Impact!

Sunday, February 2, 2020


        I thank you for inviting me to speak at your annual luncheon and especially Tom Smith for helping to arrange the talk.

Fort Delaware and the Historical Society was like a second home for me when Dale Fetzer and I were researching Unlikely Allies: Fort Delaware’s Prison Community in the Civil War. I vividly remember going through the files of documents and the piles of illustrations. It was a wonderful experience.

When I first visited Fort Delaware I realized the place was historic and had an important story to tell and to preserve. I also thank you for your efforts to preserve Fort Delaware.

Today I’ve been asked to talk about the impact of Gettysburg on Fort Delaware. Some time ago, Dale spoke to you about the history of the fort, so let’s go down the road just south of here and enter the way back machine to 1863.

In that pivotal year of the Civil War, Fort Delaware stood as the stalwart defender of the cities of Wilmington and Philadelphia, two very important towns for the Union. The state-of-the-art fort was a formidable obstacle for any opposing navy, especially the Rebel navy, to attack the two cities.

Union officials soon discovered the Southern navy posed no credible threat to Wilmington and Philadelphia. So, the issue arose: How to best utilize the fort, which cost taxpayers a lot of money, more than $1.3 million. Now if you are wondering what that would cost today, the calculator I used said the tax bill would be about $26 million 500 thousand. That’s a lot of money.

The answer, of course, was to use Fort Delaware as a prisoner-of-war camp. There was a need as the North had plenty of soldiers and generals – lots of generals – weapons and provisions. What they didn’t have was a place to house prisoners of war.

Maj. General John Dix first suggested using Fort Delaware to house prisoners to relieve the overcrowding at Fort McHenry in July 1861. A few prisoners were housed at Fort Delaware and removed during the late months of that year. But in early 1862 Washington alerted Fort Delaware to prepare for more Confederate prisoners.

Fort Delaware was about to begin the buildup to become a major POW camp.    On April 1, 1862, 248 Confederate prisoners captured at the March 23 battle at Kernstown, Virginia, arrived at Fort Delaware. This wasn’t an April Fool’s Day joke.  This was just the start of a major change in the way Fort Delaware was to be used. The zenith would come after Gettysburg.

After Kernstown, the number of prisoners increased. By the end of June the prison held 1,260 Confederates. After the 7 Days battles, another 2,174 prisoners arrived. The prison was becoming overcrowded. In July 1862 a prisoner exchange program was established. In early July Fort Delaware housed 3,434 prisoners. By August 1, because of the exchange, the number dropped to 355.

The number of prisoners continued to fluctuate from 68 to 2,470 in one month. 

On January 1, 1863, 5 prisoners were reported held at Fort Delaware. That’s right, you could count them on one hand. The number of prisoners, and the number of guards, had been decreasing for several months.

In June, just before the battle of Gettysburg, 2,000 prisoners arrived from fighting in the west. General Albin Schoepf the commandant, notified Washington he had room for another 2,000. I thought in the Army you weren’t supposed to volunteer. Later, I’m sure Schoepf must have wondered why on earth did make that comment about extra room because …

And then Gettysburg! 8,922 Confederates were about to invade Fort Delaware in July 1863.

The Federal victory in Pennsylvania had a profound impact on the residents of Pea Patch Island. Beginning within days of the battle thousands of captured Confederates were sent to Fort Delaware. By the end of July the POW population had swelled to 12,595! – far more than the number that Schoepf said could be accommodated.

With the Gettysburg prisoners, the population of Pea Patch Island was more than 16,000 – larger than Wilmington. And the increased population caused Fort Delaware to deal with inadequate housing, security, sanitary concerns and provisions.

Think about today. What would need to happen if 12,595 people were dropped in any area of the United States? That’s the population of a fair sized town. In fact, it would be the fifth largest town in Delaware, ranking between Smyrna and Middletown.

Schoepf and his staff had to immediately solve problems in all of those areas, problems that fast tracked because of Gettysburg.

No one had planned for the great number of prisoners and General Schoepf and his staff had to scramble to prepare and to house and feed all of the extra people. This was no small task.

The building of the prisoners’ barracks was inadequate and some collapsed. The floors couldn’t support of the weight of prisoners when filled.

Safety was a major issue, as the Confederate prisoners outnumbered the Union guards by 10 to 1.

On July 5, Confederate James J. Archer arrived at Fort Delaware, the most notable Rebel officer captured at Gettysburg. He was made prisoner on the first day of the battle, July 1, at the railroad cut. Archer was captured in the initial fighting with the Union Iron Brigade along Willoughby Run, the first general officer of the Army of Northern Virginia to be captured in the war.

          Archer’s troops were engaged with members of Federal cavalry under John Buford early in the morning. The Iron Brigade counter attacked and drove Archer from the field. It was during this fighting that Maj. Gen. John Reynolds of Pennsylvania was killed, the first general to die at Gettysburg.

A private from the 2nd Wisconsin was given credit for capturing Archer. Archer and his brother and aide-de-camp, Robert Archer were both sent to Fort Delaware.

As you can imagine, Archer was not a happy prisoner.

From the moment Archer stepped foot on Pea Patch Island, he was bent on making an escape. He too noticed that the Confederate prisoners on the island far outnumbered the Union guards. He also noticed a laxity in the manner of the guards and believed the Confederates could easily over power the guards, take weapons and control the fort and the island. If he succeeded, this would have been a major problem for the North. Remember Delaware was a slave state when the war began and many thought Delaware would leave the Union.

Luckily Archer’s plan was discovered before he had a chance to launch the scheme. Archer and other Confederate officers were eventually housed in the fort itself, away from the Confederate enlisted men.

Archer’s unsuccessful attempt didn’t dissuade other Confederates from making the attempt. According to official reports, 52 prisoners successfully made their way from the island to the mainland and the reverse underground railway and back to General Lee’s army.

Each time an attempt was made more stringent restrictions were imposed on the Rebels. Which, of course, meant that the guards had extra duties at Fort Delaware.

Disease, including small pox, had been an issue on Pea Patch Island and the increased prisoners from Gettysburg caused major medical issues. During the last half of the year more than 1,000 prisoners died of the small pox disease.

A solution had to be found to the epidemic and the root of the solution was the work done by both Union and Confederate doctors. That is part of the reason Dale and I called our book on Fort Delaware, Unlikely Allies. The doctors from both armies were unlikely allies.

Prisoner exchanges eased the situation, also. Officials figured the average stay at Pea Patch Island would be about two months. The idea of a rapid exchange faded as prisoner changes stopped for most of the rest of the war. If a prisoner didn’t take an oath to forgo the rebellion, they were going to stay on the island until the end of the war.

As the last year of the war began, 7,600 prisoners remained at Fort Delaware. January 1865 was a cruel month for the prisoners or the guards. Major snow and ice storms ravaged the island.

That was also the time of my favorite escape from Fort Delaware. A Confederate prisoner wanted to try ice skating on the frozen Delaware. Everyone laughed when he tried and fell several times. They didn’t laugh when the prisoner stood up and raced to freedom. The skates were found but not the prisoner.

With the spring brought the conclusion to the Civil War. When Richmond was captured, General Schoepf celebrated, firing all 156 cannons of Fort Delaware. Another cannonade took place when Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

With the conclusion of the war, you might think the prisoner count would drop. It didn’t. In May there were 8,261 prisoners. More people were incarcerated after President’s assassination. And, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured, some of staff, including his secretary Burton Harrison, were sent to Fort Delaware.

In fact, Harrison was the final prisoner released from Pea Patch Island on January 16, 1866.

Looking back, Gettysburg had a jarring impact on Fort Delaware on many fronts.

On June 1, 1863, the month before Gettysburg only 51 prisoners was housed there. By the beginning of July the prisoner count increased to 3,673 and by August it was 8,963.

The increased number of prisoners caused a need for medical care, food and security. The Union expanded precious resources – men, money and material – to keep Fort Delaware operating.

Despite all of the issues facing Fort Delaware, General Schoepf and his staff did a remarkable job running Fort Delaware and following their orders from Washington. All contributed to the saving of the Union.


America’s Lost History
Who is this William Penn?
Will anyone remember Bayard Taylor?
What is trench art?

For anyone remotely connected to Pennsylvania the question seemed absurd. “Who is this William Penn?”

The young man was serious. I met him at the Downingtown Farmers Market on a recent Saturday morning. Don Ervine, owner of Tally Ho Coffee, introduced us. Don and the man, who recently moved to the area, were talking history and Don thought I might enjoy joining the conversation.

The young man was schooled in Connecticut and said he was taught very little about the settling and the founding of the nation other than what took place in New England. To his credit he professed an interest in delving into the nation’s past. In his defense Don indicated the man was not born in the United States.

If William Penn is fading from history, what about Bayard Taylor? The connection between Penn and Taylor came earlier this week as I was working on a book on Gettysburg with Craig Caba, who controls the fabulous J. Howard Wert Gettysburg collection. Wert, who was involved in the Battle of Gettysburg and collected priceless items from the battle and other important events in American history, was friends with Taylor, an internationally acclaimed writer in the mid-19th century. Taylor’s brother was killed during the Battle of Gettysburg.

When I told Craig of the movement to take Bayard Taylor’s name off the Kennett Square library, Craig was appalled. Taylor was one of the nation’s leading men of letters, Craig pointed out. If William Penn is lost to history will Taylor be far behind if his name is wiped from the library’s title?

My third thought on America’s lost history came on Thursday during a discussion with antiques dealer David Taylor. We talked about the waning lack of interest in historical items and how the antiques trade has suffered in the last two decades. People don’t value historical items.

Dave said he had to close his shop outside of Kennett Square several years ago because he couldn’t sell enough items to pay his one employee, let along other fixed costs. One item he specifically mentioned was trench art. He said at one time trench art – art crafted by soldiers during a time of war – was highly collected. The articles told a lot about the feelings of the common soldier. If the art isn’t valued it will be discarded.

The United States is losing sight of its past and we are suffering in so many ways.

Bruce Mowday
September 4, 2015

The History Books Are Closed

School’s out! Another school year has passed and the history books are closed.

Were the history books even opened? Just what was taught in our schools about our history?

The answers to those two questions will be different, depending on individual schools in the area. My conclusion is based on my experiences in the past month or so speaking to home school and middle school students in Lancaster and Chester counties, Boy Scouts and book talks and signings in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

The teachers and administration at the Swift Middle School in Quarryville put on a great program by inviting several volunteers with knowledge of the Civil War to talk and demonstrate aspects of one of the most important events of our nation’s history. Groups of students spent 20 minutes with a volunteer and then proceeded to the next one. By the hand-written notes I received, the day had a positive impact. The principal also agreed. The school also had a field trip planned to Gettysburg which was a bonus for the students.

Learning local history is also important and the Coatesville Area School District invited me to speak at all three middle schools on the history of the city. Coatesville is celebrating its centennial as a city. By the questions asked, students were interested in the local history. The best comment came from a teacher who said a student became interested in reading because of a history book.

The home school parent wanted history of Downingtown and I spent a delightful morning with them walking around borough streets. The Boy Scouts asked me to talk about the Civil War battle of Antietam in the days preceding their visit to the site.

Now, for some not so good comments from teachers.

During a book signing in Delaware I had a chance to talk to a teacher from the Wilmington area. Little or no history is taught in those schools as budget cutbacks have wiped history from the classrooms. At a Pennsylvania book signing a teacher from a suburban Philadelphia district commented wars and battles are not taught because they are not politically correct.

As a country we are in trouble if classrooms are not teaching the history of our country. There is no way to instill the values of the Constitution or to explain the foundation of our country and government without the teaching of history.

Closed history books are a big problem.

Bruce Mowday
June 15, 2015

Concise Writing

“Is that all you have Mr. President?”

The question was reportedly asked of President Abraham Lincoln after he gave his famous Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. Lincoln replied in the positive. His few appropriate remarks lasted about two minutes and was delivered after Edward Everett talked for more than two hours. Of course Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has had a powerful impact on American history while Everett’s address is mostly forgotten.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address came to mind after a conversation I had with a friend last week. The friend quoted a popular historian/author who said writing concisely is difficult but one usually gets more information from a tightly written book than a volume that comprises a thousand pages.

You can’t judge a book by its cover or its title. I’m reading a book about Lincoln and the title indicated the book is about Lincoln’s relationship with the media. I was intrigued by the subject but the author so far has recounted the history of the United States in detail during the early 1800’s. Good research and writing but the minutia, for me, has his buried the message promised in the title.

Two weeks ago I was in Washington, D.C., for celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s second inauguration address. In the speech Lincoln made famous the phrase “with malice towards none and with charity for all.” The address has been called the second most famous political speech in American history because it addressed reconciliation with the South and was delivered as the Civil War was concluding. The whole speech was only several hundred words.

Some time ago I had a talk with a fellow author who asked about the word count of a recent book. She expressed surprise because in her world of self-publishing the length of my manuscript wouldn’t support a proper binding. Authors shouldn’t be writing to fill pages. Authors should be researching, writing and succinctly delivering a message.

Concise writing is difficult but effective.

Bruce Mowday
March 23, 2015