Civil War Profiles — The strange case of Provost Marshal Edwin Wilmer
In 1863, as the Civil War progressed into its second year and casualties mounted in the Union army, the federal government decided to institute a draft. To organize Delaware’s portion of the draft, U.S. Provost Marshal Gen. James B. Fry designated the 6th Delaware Regiment’s commander, Col. Edwin Wilmer, to serve as the state’s provost marshal with responsibility to oversee draft proceedings and suppress disloyalty.
According to the Spring 2017 issue of Delaware Historical Society’s “Making History,” Wilmer’s job was to fulfill President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 2,454 men as Delaware’s quota to strengthen the Union army.
Trouble was in the offing, however, as anti-war Democrats, in particular, rose up in protest to the draft. As noted in Harold Bell Hancock’s “Delaware During the Civil War,” in the western Kent County community of Sandtown, an angry crowd of armed men besieged the home of draft enrolling officer John Green — and dispersed only after cavalry arrived and arrested several of the participants.
When the first drawing in the draft took place on Aug. 12, Wilmer warned people who had gathered that troops would fire upon them if they got out of order. Those who were drafted and were unwilling to serve benefited from funds raised by anti-administration groups to pay the $300 commutation fee permitted by law to hire a replacement.
An example of draft enforcement is reflected in Wilmer’s letter to Henry Bartlett of Mill Creek near Hockessin, informing him of his selection to serve for three years. The letter advised Bartlett how to report for duty and threatened that he would be considered a deserter if he did not comply.
Wilmer’s responsibility to suppress disloyalty came into focus when arrests took place of those who openly opposed Lincoln’s policies. The provost marshal conducted a raid at a picnic held to raise funds to aid Confederate prisoners of war at Fort Delaware, and arrested 25 men who were incarcerated in Fort McHenry in Baltimore, until politically influential persons obtained their release.
The Rev. Isaac Handy learned firsthand about the federal government’s strict policies. While serving as a Presbyterian pastor in Portsmouth, Va., he let it be known that he no longer venerated the U.S. flag that now represented “abolition, coercion, downtrodden constitution, oppression and tyranny.”
Soon thereafter, as described in “Delaware During the War Between the States” by Thomas J. Reed, et. al., when Wilmer learned about Handy’s comments, he ordered his arrest while the reverend was visiting his wife’s family in Delaware. Handy spent the next 15 months imprisoned in Fort Delaware.
Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in order to put down the rebellion permitted arbitrary arrests such as Handy’s. It also led to charges on the part of his political opponents that the president was tyrannical.
Wilmington resident William Bright suffered Handy’s same fate when stories circulated that Bright was storing supplies to assist Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army that invaded the North in June 1863 and perhaps would capture the city of Wilmington. Wilmer ordered Bright’s arrest, and he also ended up at Fort Delaware.
Bright initially refused to take a loyalty oath to the United States, but after a few months of incarceration, he became ill and decided to take the oath in order to gain release from prison.
As a prominent Wilmington businessman, Bright later profited from his resistance to the Lincoln administration during the war. He gained a seat on the city council in 1867 and was sufficiently popular to make a run for the governor’s seat.
Undoubtedly, some Delawareans believed retribution was gained in Edwin Wilmer’s case when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton dismissed the provost marshal on the charge of accepting gifts from employees and other offenses while in office. A court martial found him guilty and handed down a sentence of two years in prison.
That strange episode ended in Wilmer’s favor, however. Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, responded to his appeal for clemency and granted him a pardon in October 1865.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. His latest book, with co-author Rick Schaus, “Eleven Fateful Days in July 1863: Meade Tracks Lee’s Escape after Gettysburg,” is due out in 2018. Contact him at email@example.com or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.