As Election Day, Nov. 6, loomed ahead, the mood throughout the country in 1860 was one of nervous tension. Despite the fear that a number of Southern states were preparing to secede from the Union if Abraham Lincoln became president, torch-light processions were occurring throughout Delaware in favor of the candidates for the highest office in the land.
In Wilmington, exuberant Republicans made these political demonstrations a feature of their campaign. A diarist recorded some 400 equestrians followed by a multitude of marchers paraded in the brilliant light of fireworks (Delaware History, April 1961).
Less hopeful parties, the Northern and Southern Democrats and the Constitutional Unionists, followed suit with similar rallies, but knew they were working against the tide. As Kevin J. Weddle points out in his biography, Delaware’s Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont, although a non-slave holder, worried any attempt on the part of the federal government to abolish slavery throughout the country would destroy the Union.
In “The Brandywine Home Front during the Civil War,” Norman B. Wilkinson points out that DuPont wrote to his friend H.W. Davis, “If S[outh] C[arolina] is allowed to withdraw, then our Nationality has been a fiction, a compact without solid foundation. On the other hand, coercion creates a Southern Confederacy & sooner or later a Civil War.” DuPont had described the national dilemma in a nutshell.
The prospect of the abolitionist-friendly Lincoln becoming president gave hope to the 1,800 remaining slaves in Delaware, as well as the 20,000 free African Americans living under onerous restrictions of “black codes.” Yet, the majority of voters in the state were anathema to the idea of a Republican in the White House.
Some Delaware Republicans had anticipated that William Seward, a popular senator and former governor of New York, rather than Lincoln would be the standard bearer for the party. One of the faithful mused, “He more than any other man created the public sentiment that has now grown so powerful. He threw down his glove for the cause [of an end to slavery], when it was little and despised, and the best efforts of his great heart and mind have been consistently devoted to it — and now another is to wear the honors he so honestly won.”
James Diehl in “Remembering Sussex County” writes that former governor William Henry Harrison Ross waited with trepidation at his expansive plantation in Seaford for the outcome of the pending election. Ross’s sympathies were with the Southern secessionists, and his preference was that Delaware would decide to join this separatist movement rather than remain loyal to the Union.
Sussex County had the largest slave population in the state, although its overall population was the smallest spread out within the largest land area. It was predominantly agricultural and essentially rural with a few small towns like Seaford, Georgetown, and Lewes, but was isolated from the counties to the north. Culturally, it had a lot in common with the Deep South states such as Alabama and Mississippi.
Slow to accept improvements in the field of agriculture, Sussex County continued to use oxen to a great extent, and paid little attention to expanding from the standard cereal crops into truck crops and fruit production. Politically, the people of Sussex County were ripe to support a secessionist movement.
Delaware, an undersized so-called border state, sandwiched between slave states to the south and free states to the north, was vulnerable to the whims of its larger and more powerful neighbors. Exactly which side the Democratically-controlled state legislature would decide to join if the nation began to break apart after the forthcoming election was very much up in the air.
It was quite clear, however, that a predominant number of Delawareans distrusted and disliked Abraham Lincoln, the Republican nominee for president. The people preferred current vice-president of the United States, John Breckinridge from Kentucky, who was running on the Southern Democratic ticket.
The citizens of all t33 states in the Union in 1860 held their collective breath as Election Day drew near. Somewhat akin to the current political uproar in the United States, feelings had been rubbed raw in anticipation. Regardless how the election turned out, difficult decisions loomed ahead for the person entrusted with the duty of shaping the nation’s future.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts, and 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 www.tomryan-civilwar.com.