Civil War Profiles – Chronicling events on the Delaware homefront
Beginning in April 1961, the Delaware Historical Society commemorated the 100th anniversary of the war between the Northern and Southern states. The society commissioned historian Norman B. Wilkinson for this project, titled, “The Brandywine Home Front During the Civil War,” published in its quarterly journal, “Delaware History,” during the Civil War centennial, 1961-1965.
Part I introduces the readership to the presidential election of 1860, in which the disintegration of the Democratic Party into disparate factions swept Republican Abraham Lincoln into office. The vote in the Brandywine and Christiana Hundreds reflected this surprising result, with 617 votes for Lincoln, while the tally for the other three presidential candidates combined was 664.
With the fear of impending civil war on the horizon, Henry DuPont, head of the DuPont Powder Mills, wrote his cousin Navy Capt. Samuel Francis DuPont reassuring him that security at the mills was not threatened. Henry DuPont predicted that the Potomac River would be the dividing line, and “I think both Maryland and Delaware will stand firm [with the Union] to the last.”
Before long, Delaware regiments mustered into the Union army. Camp DuPont near Brandywine Springs and Camp Brandywine on the Wilmington Agricultural Society farm became their training grounds.
Following the Northern defeat at Bull Run near Manassas, Va., in July 1861, it became evident to most that the conflict would not soon end. Delaware firms received orders from the federal government for ambulances, baggage wagons and tents, as well as vessels, such as sidewheelers, sloops, gunboats and ironclads.
A Delawarean was in the news when soon-to-be Adm. S.F. DuPont captured Port Royal, S.C., on Nov. 7. His neighbors back home cheered in recognition: “Hurra, the Navy did it all! Hurra for little Delaware! DuPont commanded. Hurra! Hurra!”
Part II deals with the second year of the war. The DuPont family remained in the forefront, given that Lammot, grandson of the company’s founder, E.I. DuPont, went on a secret mission to England for Secretary of State William H. Seward to purchase 3 million pounds of saltpeter to augment the Union army’s black powder supply, which was dangerously low.
An event demonstrating political division occurred when Adm. DuPont sent a captured Palmetto flag from his victory in South Carolina to his wife, who planned to present it to the State of Delaware. Henry DuPont opposed this idea because “the Governor & Sec. of State & most of the people at Dover were sympathizers with secession & they would not appreciate the gift nor perhaps take proper care of it.”
The emancipation issue caused widespread concern and discord in Delaware. Many thought it should be postponed, pending the war’s end. Despite perceived economic benefits to ending slavery, politicians relied on racial issues for re-election.
In Part III, Wilkinson addresses the federal government’s call for conscription of men to continue the war. This new regulation ran afoul of local Peace Democrats, or “Copperheads,” who demonstrated against the draft.
Local businesses prospered as Washington awarded additional contracts for railway cars and ships. Harlan & Hollingsworth Co. shipbuilders in Wilmington were running at full capacity.
Fear of invasion pervaded Delaware in June as Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army marched northward into Pennsylvania. Newspaper headlines blared, “The enemy is upon us. No time is to be lost … for the defence of our State and Country.” Union victory at Gettysburg in July eventually calmed these fears.
Part IV covers 1864-1865. It features the 1st Delaware Regiment’s homecoming on Jan. 1, 1864, as they paraded through the city from the Wilmington docks with Col. Thomas A. Smyth in the lead.
Political divisions within the state continued. The state legislature denied a New Castle County proposal to appropriate money to soldier’s families and defeated a motion to thank Delaware soldiers for their services to the federal government.
The news of Lee’s surrender to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9, 1865, brought about a “frenzy of relief and rejoicing” in the Brandywine communities. Joy turned to distress at the assassination of President Lincoln just five days later.
Wilkinson closes his narrative by identifying the Brandywine region as distinctive for the danger of attack and sabotage of the DuPont Powder Mills. Thousands of residents of this homefront “lived through an uneasy four years on top of a massive powder keg that could have exploded any moment.”
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. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.