In May 2011, this column was born as the result of a discussion over lunch at the Bethany Diner with the editor of the Coastal Point, Darin McCann. The agreed-to proposal was writing a series of articles for the newspaper titled “Civil War Profiles.”
In fact, a number of columns were ready for publication, having been written over previous years for “The Last Campaign,” the newsletter of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table, based in Dover. Little did we know at that time how popular the subject of the Civil War would be with the Coastal Point readership.
What accounts for this positive approach to information about a conflict that occurred more than 150 years ago? In part, a driving force is learning about events that impacted the lives of ancestors who served in either the Union or Confederate armies during a pivotal period of our nation’s history.
Many people call or send emails to tell their personal stories passed down through the family about great-grandfathers or other ancestors who engaged in the great conflict. Often they share treasured artifacts: photographs, letters, discharge papers and equipment, such as swords or other personal military items.
Given this continuation of almost weekly “Civil War Profiles” articles, a wide variety of subject matter has been addressed. A large number are Delaware-related, including political, military and social aspects.
DuPont family members have been frequent topics, because they played important roles during this difficult period. Adm. Samuel Francis DuPont and his wife, Sophie Madeleine, Col. Henry A. DuPont and his son Henry, who earned the Medal of Honor for bravery on the field of battle, as well as the crucially important DuPont Powder Works that produced almost half of the Union army’s gunpowder.
Other Delawareans profiled include high-ranking Union officers Alfred T.A. Torbert of Georgetown and Milford, Henry Hayes Lockwood, who was born in Kent County, and James Harrison Wilson, who resided in Wilmington. Among those who went south to join the Confederacy were David Stewart Hessey of Seaford, Samuel Boyer Davis from New Castle County and Caleb Ross, the son of former Delaware governor William H.H. Ross, also of Seaford.
A Wilmington woman, Anna M. Ferris, who maintained a personal diary throughout the four years of civil conflict, provided a variety of subject matter for columns, especially dealing with the domestic front. Ferris recorded her anti-slavery and pro-Union sentiments with style and grace.
A young man named George Alfred Townsend, born in Georgetown, has been a topic for discussion on several occasions. Townsend went off to war as a young reporter and made his mark focusing on behind-the-scenes happenings, revealing much about the life and hardships of the common soldier, as did the renowned Ernie Pyle in World War II. Townsend’s classic series on the Lincoln assassination and John Wilkes Booth’s conspiracy written for the New York World were recounted here.
Much has been said in these columns about the fighting men from Delaware, especially the brave soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Delaware regiments. The troops of these regiments fought in every major battle in the Eastern Theater and sustained one of the highest casualty rates among Civil War units.
Accounts about Delaware African-Americans have been addressed, including those who joined the 54th Massachusetts regiment — the first black unit recruited following President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.
Locally, William Oliver, whose family still lives in Frankford, served in the 32nd U.S. Colored Infantry and is buried in Frankford’s Antioch A.M.E. Church cemetery with an official Civil War gravestone.
For the past six years, whether featuring Irish immigrants coming to America and joining the military in great numbers, the dedication of monuments and statues around the state in commemoration of Civil War units or personalities, Fort Delaware’s role in incarcerating thousands of Confederate prisoners, or the Underground Railroad that ran through the heart of Delaware to the Pennsylvania line, “Civil War Profiles” seems to have sparked an interest in learning how our country survived the threat of disunion over intractable political issues.
To date, 237 articles have been published — the equivalent of a book-length collection. They all are accessible online at coastalpoint.com by searching on the author’s name.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.