Fort Delaware: Security versus Liberty

Home Education Landmark Lesson Fort Delaware: Security versus Liberty

Fort Delaware: Security versus Liberty

The topic of the lesson is the expansion of presidential power during the Civil War, and how this affected civil liberties provided by the Constitution.  The lesson focuses on the political prisoners held at Fort Delaware during the Civil War.   Students will examine the charges brought against the political prisoners and discuss the issue of liberty versus security.  Students will also consider the conditions at Fort Delaware and the treatment of political prisoners.


Pea Patch Island , DE

Type of Landmark



19th century
Government and civics
Military conflict
Civil War

Learning Objectives

  • Students will be able to identify the purpose of and conditions at Fort Delaware by reading background material about the Fort.
  • Students will be able to identify the threat to civil liberties that exist during times of war by examining President Lincoln’s policies/actions that encroached upon the civil liberties of citizens during the Civil War.
  • Students will be able to identify the expansion of presidential power during wartime by examining Lincoln’s policies/actions during the Civil War.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1. Students will be given an opinion essay written by Susan Schulten, titled Rights during Wartime; in the essay, they will also find a political cartoon from 1864 addressing President Lincoln and civil liberties.
  1. After reading the article and looking at the political cartoon “Lincoln the last”; students will discuss the following questions:
  1. What are civil liberties and explain their significance?
  2. Summarize the argument made by the author.
  3. Do you agree or disagree with the argument?
  4. Cartoon Analysis:
    1. Please identify the people and objects in the cartoon
    2. List the symbols you see in the cartoon and what they might mean.
    3. Do the words in the cartoon clarify the symbols and their meaning?
    4. What is the topic and message of the cartoon?
  1. Next, students will be given the names of 6 political prisoners held at Fort Delaware, and will be asked to examine why these people were detained at Fort Delaware.  Students will also be asked to discuss should they have been detained.  Place students in groups of three or more, and provide the students with at least one person from the list, or up to all six. 
  1. James Snowdon Pleasants
  2. Hon. Richard B. Carmichael
  3. Hon. Madison Y. Johnson
  4. Warren J. Reed
  5. Rev. Isaac Handy
  6. Colonel Waring

A resource packet will be provided to students with information about five of the political prisoners held at Fort Delaware. (A PDF resource packet:  The Union Prison at Fort Delaware- A Perfect Hell on Earth) James Pleasants’ case will be found online by following the link on his name.

  1. Student will then be given primary source excerpts about conditions at Fort Delaware.   After reading the primary source material about Fort Delaware’s conditions, students will be directed to list any conditions that stand out as unjust for those held as prisoners of war.
  1. Students will then have a class discussion around the key question of did the U.S. government violate the rights/civil liberties of the listed political detainees at Fort Delaware, and whether or not conditions at Fort Delaware factored into their opinion of justified or unlawful detainment.  

Suggested Discussion points:    

  1. What is the importance of Habeas Corpus in protecting the rights of citizens?
  2. For what reasons were these men detained at Fort Delaware?
  3. Do you believe that these were valid reasons for detainment during a war?
  4. Should civil liberties be infringed upon at all during war? If so to what extent?
  5. What were the conditions like at Fort Delaware?  What were the major issues with the fort?
  6. What is more important in times of war, civil liberties or national unity?
  1. After the discussion, students will be given an opinion article by Jennifer L. Weber, titled Was Lincoln a Tyrant?







Civil Liberties: The state of being subject only to laws established for the good of the community, especially with regard to freedom of action and speech.

Habeas Corpus: A writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person's release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention.

End of Lesson Assessment

Students will be assessed based on their response to the following essay question:

In times of war, presidents have often expanded their powers in order to successfully execute their war strategy.  In your opinion, please discuss whether or not you believe the United States government was justified in its detainment of political prisoners held at Fort Delaware?  Please provide clear examples from the readings and cases to supports your response. 

Responses will be evaluated based on the following:

  1. Clarity of writing and organization
  2. Use of valid examples and details to support arguments