Learning about Civil War Delaware
Delaware’s participation in the mid-19th century conflict that took the lives of thousands in this state and hundreds of thousands throughout the country was unique in a number of ways. Politically and emotionally, the state divided along North-South lines.
On the whole, businessmen and farmers in New Castle County emulated their industrious counterparts north of the border, while those in Kent and Sussex counties moved at a slower pace, in keeping with Southern culture and way of life. Consequently, many Delawareans who served in the military during our four-year cataclysm wore blue, while others chose to head south and don the gray.
For an overview about this Delaware dichotomy, a good starting point is J. Thomas Scharf’s “History of Delaware, 1609-1888.” It includes a chapter on the Civil War.
William H. Williams addresses the fundamental issue that led to our national conflict in “Slavery & Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865.” An understanding of the conflicting views of Delaware’s political leaders can be gained by reading Harold Bell Hancock’s “Delaware during the Civil War: A Political History.”
Thomas J. Reed, W. Andrew McKay and the Rev. Anthony R. Wade attempt to explain Delaware’s complex political, military and social issues during this era in “Untying the Political Knot: Delaware during the War Between the States” — a title that infers a Southern context to the story.
Over the years, the Delaware Historical Society has published articles that deal with the Civil War in their Delaware History periodical. Of particular note is Norman B. Wilkinson’s four-part series “The Brandywine Home Front during the Civil War,” which focuses on events taking place in New Castle County during the period from 1861 to 1865.
When the war was at its peak in 1863, many thousands of Confederate prisoners of war were garrisoned at Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island in the middle of the Delaware River near Delaware City. Prison life of these POWs and their Union guards is described in “Unlikely Allies: Fort Delaware’s Prison Community in the Civil War” by Dale Fetzer and Bruce Mowday.
The names of the 2,436 prisoners who did not survive their incarceration are contained in Jocelyn P. Jamison’s compilation titled “They Died at Fort Delaware, 1861-1865: Confederate, Union & Civilian.” This listing also includes Union troops who died at this prison while serving as guards, as well as civilians who were detained for alleged crimes against the state.
Delaware’s fighting units are remembered in “History of the First Regiment Delaware Volunteers” by William P. Seville, who served with that regiment. An updated and expanded accounting of what the regiment encountered on the battlefield can be found in Jeffrey R. Biggs’ “They Fought for the Union: A History of the First Delaware Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac.”
John E. Pickett provides coverage of the Second Delaware in “The Crazy Delawares: A Short History of the Second Regiment Delaware Volunteers.” Both the First and Second Delaware regiments served on the front lines during much of the Civil War and suffered numerous casualties.
To learn about one of Delaware’s military heroes, read “A.T.A. Torbert: Southern Gentleman in Union Blue” by A.D. Slade. Torbert, who was born in Georgetown and later settled in Milford, rose to the rank of brevet major-general while serving in both the infantry and cavalry during the Civil War.
Members of Delaware’s DuPont family are featured in “Lincoln’s Tragic Admiral: The Life of Samuel Francis Du Pont” by Kevin J. Weddle, and the story of Henry Algernon DuPont is included in “Delaware’s Medal of Honor Winners” by Roger A. Martin. Both DuPonts served with distinction during the Civil War.
Judge John P. Nields honored another military officer in a speech that was published under the title of “James Harrison Wilson: Delaware’s Greatest Soldier.” Wilson, who rose to the rank of major-general, became an adopted Delawarean when he married a young woman from Wilmington.
Other publications that provide an overview of Delaware’s role in this country’s deadliest conflict are “Civil War Delaware: The First State Divided” by Michael Morgan, and my own “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military & Social Perspective.”
Many similar difficulties that led to separation of the states in the mid-19th century are currently looming on the horizon. By understanding the complex political situation that the state of Delaware had to deal with during our great conflict, we will be better prepared to comprehend and respond to the challenging issues that face our country today.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point