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Delaware History: The state's role in the Civil War

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This year marks the beginning of a nationwide, four-year commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. And while it’s true that none of the battles were fought on Delaware soil, that does not mean that our state was a sideshow to the epic events taking place 150 years ago. As a border state, Delaware was considered by the Lincoln administration to be part of a critical buffer zone. It was also an example of a slave state—one of just four—that remained in the Union.

The state’s geographic position and its north-south split between industrial and agricultural economies reflected the split in the country as a whole. Although there were Delawareans throughout the state who supported the president, northern New Castle County tended to be heavily pro-Union, while many southern Delawareans sympathized with the South.

“Despite being on the fence about whether they supported the Union or the Confederacy, pretty much everyone wanted a peaceful solution, even if it meant allowing the southern states to secede,” says Laura Lee, park historian at Fort Delaware.
Those sympathetic to the South included then-Gov. William Burton, a Sussex County Democrat, and both U.S. senators from Delaware, Willard Saulsbury Sr. and James Bayard Jr.

“They were referred to as ‘peace Democrats,’ because they were opposed to Lincoln’s policy of coercing the South to stay in the Union,” says Terry Wright, chairman of the Delaware Heritage Commission’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Planning Committee.

The du Pont family, and in particular Henry du Pont, played a major role in keeping Delaware and the Union together, according to Joan Hoge-North, a director at the Hagley Museum and Library. A prominent Delawarean, head of the DuPont Co. and commander of the Delaware militia, Henry du Pont was “absolutely, positively, 100 percent adamant that Delaware stay in the Union,” says Lucas Clawson, curator of the current Hagley exhibit depicting the du Ponts and the Civil War. Unlike other Delawareans, du Pont was convinced that the unity of the country trumped any argument for states’ rights.

More than 13,000 Delawareans fought for the Union (including 954 “colored” troops). Estimates of the number of Delawareans who enlisted with Confederate units range from several hundred to several thousand, Wright says.

Delaware still permitted slavery at the time of the war, though the number of slaves—1,800, compared to 20,000 free blacks—was dwarfed by that of most other slave-holding states. There was a strong abolition movement in the state as well, Wright notes. Some Delaware residents, both whites and free and enslaved blacks, were actively involved in the Underground Railroad before and during the war.

Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island near Delaware City was one of the North’s largest detention centers for Civil War POWs. It was one of only two that held enlisted men, as well as officers and political prisoners. At its population height, the 70-acre island was home to 12,000 prisoners, garrison and their families.

Fort Delaware was given the nickname “the Andersonville of the North,” but Lee says the northern prison was nowhere near as bad as the notorious POW prison in Georgia. “The facts just don’t support the nickname,” she says. Andersonville had 33,000 prisoners at once in a compound one-third the size of Pea Patch Island. Andersonville had no shelter for prisoners; while in Fort Delaware, prisoners lived in the same type of wooden barracks as the garrison. Rations at the Delaware prison were significantly more generous. Prison records show evidence that local civilians aided the prisoners, including a group of women from New Castle County who provided food and clothing.
Civilians got involved in the war in other ways, too. Some served as nurses for the troops. Women who stayed home held fundraisers, sewed clothing and sent food and letters to their fighting men.

Delaware’s industry contributed significantly to provisioning the military. Powder makers at the DuPont Co. worked day and night throughout the war, producing almost half of the gunpowder purchased for use by the Union forces. Wilmington shipbuilders Harlan &Hollingsworth built 27 vessels during the Civil War, including three ironclad ships for the Union Navy, while Pusey & Jones worked on 39 vessels from 1861 to 1865 and built six ships and a tugboat. Wilmington’s manufacturers supplied Union forces with wagons, ambulance carriages, railcar wheels, tents, knapsacks, shoes and more.

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