Most of the Confederate soldiers captured at Gettysburg were taken to Fort Delaware; my great-great-grandfather Private James L. Keel was one of them. We call him Grandpappy Jim.
Keel was born in Martin County, North Carolina on 18 March 1846 and was 15 years old when he enlisted in Company H, North Carolina 1st Regiment on 24 June 1861 in Williamston, North Carolina. He made extra money working as a teamster and was paid bimonthly from 1861 through April 1863.
The 1st North Carolina served everywhere during those years, fighting with the Army of Northern Virginia in Mechanicsville, Sharpsburg, and Chancellorsville, and marched with General Robert E. Lee to Gettysburg in July 1863, where Keel was captured. He was marched with 11,000 other prisoners to Fort Delaware, a Union fortress on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River. Within 10 days, he swore the Oath of Allegiance to the Union and became a prison guard in Ahl’s Independent Battery as an alternative to being a prisoner of war in an overcrowded, disease-ridden prison.
Seven companies of “Galvanized Yankees” were recruited from the prison pen at Fort Delaware in the summer of 1863. They got their name from the color of galvanized steel, which is gray steel coated by blue-tinted zinc, much like a rebel soldier wearing a blue Union uniform.
Jim Keel was 18 years old and described as having a light complexion, light hair, grey eyes and standing 6 feet and ½ inch tall. At some point between August 1863 and March 1864, he married a local Delaware City girl and was granted a short leave of absence at the end of March 1864 to visit Philadelphia with his wife. Due back at Fort Delaware on 4 April 1864, he failed to report and was listed as a deserter on 1 May 1864. His wife, which the North Carolina family did not know he had, said he was drunk when she put him on board the ferry to return to duty.
He was apprehended on 16 June 1864 on board the oyster schooner Rainbow in Chesapeake Bay at or near Delaware City and was tried for desertion by a General Court-Martial convened at Fort Delaware on 12 July 1864. Keel was sentenced to forfeit all pay and allowances from 8 April 1864 and to serve the unexpired term of his enlistment at hard labor at the Dry Tortugas, Florida. While a harsh sentence, he could have been sentenced to death.
Except he didn’t. Instead, he returned to company duty with all pay and allowances due from the date of his desertion, as directed by “Special Order No. 324 dated September 7, 1864, Headquarters, Fort Delaware.” He went back to being a prison guard and mustered out with Ahl’s Battery at Wilmington, Delaware on 25 July 1865 receiving all due pay and allowances.
So what on earth happened? Why was this deserter (or traitor, if you looked at him from the perspective of his former Confederate comrades in arms) suddenly returned to duty with rank and back pay? Who was this mysterious “wife” that we knew nothing about and what happened to her? So many questions and no one had answers!
After wondering for 40 years, we now have his court martial file from the National Archive. While it doesn’t really explain the wife at all, we know that Keel pleaded “Not Guilty” to desertion but did not present any evidence in his own defense. But there was a bigger legal issue going on than whether he was a deserter: in the opinion of Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General of the Union Army, Fort Delaware’s commander Gen. Shoepf did not have the authority to call a general court martial, so the sentence was overturned.
Keel’s file includes a 4-page letter from Joseph Holt to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, laying out his argument that the prison did not constitute a Brigade and therefore was not legally able to convene a general court martial. It bounced around to other officers for their review and input, ultimately leading Stanton to agree with Holt’s original opinion. This decision was telegraphed to Gen. Shoepf at Fort Delaware
And just like that, Keel was released back to his service.
James Keel disappeared for a few years after the war ended. I wouldn’t have wanted to return to North Carolina, either, after changing sides – but he was not the only one in his county. He may have been with this first family during these years, though to date I have found no record of a marriage in the Delaware City area. But at least the mystery of why he was not sent to Dry Tortugas, Florida, has been solved – and was the subject of a legal decision to boot.