In April 1861, newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers proportioned from the loyal states to put down a rebellion of seven deep-South states that had seceded from the Union. The expectation in Washington was that the uprising would be quelled quickly, and the military enlistments would only last for 90 days.
Within a few weeks, 900 men came forward in Wilmington to fill Delaware’s quota. The eager patriots committed to the three-month obligation under the banner of the 1st Delaware Regiment. Henry Lockwood, a West Point graduate from Camden, Del., took command as the unit’s colonel.
To assemble the newly-minted soldiers, Camp Brandywine sprung up near the river of the same name, in the vicinity of the DuPont Powder Works. The stay for some was brief, when orders arrived that directed two companies to move to Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, Md., and two others to head south to protect the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad bridge over the Bush River.
The duty was peaceful, as well as healthful. Nearby springs provided waters for bathing, and fishing became a favorite pastime.
Letters printed in a Delaware newspaper described soldier life at Perryville, across from Havre de Grace. Home away from home became an old sawmill divided into compartments for a semblance of privacy.
New terminology began to creep into conversation, including “rations,” “mess” and “reveille.” The men were also apprenticing on running the railroad: guarding the track, manning the switches and even driving the engine.
Payday was most welcome. Typical of young men with a few dollars in their pocket, they searched out the surrounding drinking establishments, restaurants and photo shops.
Currency also allowed them to augment their diet with eggs, butter, milk and pies. Once word went forth that the paymaster had visited, local citizens arrived in camp with baskets of food for sale.
Jeffrey R. Biggs chronicled this story in his recently published book about the First Delaware Volunteers, titled “They Fought for the Union.” It updates and expands the regimental history that adjutant William P. Seville penned in 1884.
Drilling was a regular part of the soldiers’ daily training. Companies of men regrouped to take part in battalion-level drills.
At day’s end, a dress parade took place, with the battalion drawn up in line of battle. The intent of these formalities was to instill pride in the unit and prepare for future combat.
The regimental band was a welcome addition to the 1st Delaware. On occasion, the musicians traveled the countryside to entertain Marylanders, but appreciation was mixed in this divided state.
Being stationed close to home was also a temptation for the troops. Some went missing to spend time with family and friends. That led to discipline for the offenders, such as a number of days in the guard house on a bread-and-water diet.
By July, the Delaware men had either spent time at Camp Brandywine or performed guard duty in adjoining areas of Maryland, prompting Lockwood to request a more active role for his unit. The news of the Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Va., that July highlighted the 1st Delaware’s lack of direct engagement in the hostilities.
Three months went by quickly, and the end of the war that the politicians and military commanders had anticipated did not materialize. By Aug. 13, enlistments in the 1st Delaware began to expire.
The Delaware men began arriving back in Wilmington for discharge. They turned in their camp equipment and muskets to the mustering-out officer.
As the 90-day regiments were ending their commitments, the Union army began recruiting for longer periods. In Delaware, Camp Andrews sprung up for this purpose, south of Wilmington at New Castle — named for John William Andrews, commissioned as colonel of a regiment.
The new unit would serve for three years as the 1st Delaware Regiment, superseding the earlier version. Demonstrating their loyalty to the Union, many of the 90-day men chose to reenlist.
A dramatic change in the level of engagement was in store for these soldiers. The 1st Delaware Regiment was destined to be one of the hardest-fighting units of the Army of the Potomac; engaging in all of its battles, beginning at Antietam in September 1862.
More than half of its men would become casualties of war. Many made the ultimate sacrifice.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (recipient of the Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award for 2015), 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.