When Quaker merchants migrated from Philadelphia to Delaware in the early 18th century, they attracted shipwrights and ship carpenters to the fledgling community that evolved into the city of Wilmington. In 1740, William Shipley, Joshua Way and David Ferris contracted to have the first vessel built in Delaware for the foreign trade at the foot of Market Street on the Christina River.
As Richard Urban points out in “The City That Launched a Thousand Ships,” over the period ending in 1775, shipyards in Delaware built more than 300 vessels for coastal and foreign trade. One story holds that the ship named the Nancy, built in Wilmington and at the time anchored in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, was the first to raise a quickly-sewn-together American flag when it learned the colonies declared their independence from the British in 1776.
In the 1850s, two firms — Harlan & Hollingsworth and Pusey & Jones — located along the Wilmington waterfront began to perform ship repair and engine installation work. Pusey & Jones also contracted to build its first iron steamship, the Flora McDonald. Harlan & Hollingsworth soon followed with construction of the steamers the Ashland and the Ocean. The shipyards fostered numerous supporting industries in the Wilmington area.
In the decade prior to the Civil War, Delaware had led the nation in iron shipbuilding. Over the course of a decade, the 35 iron-hulled vessels outperformed the combined production of shipyards in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Boston and Baltimore.
By the time the Civil War erupted in 1861, the American naval forces were still using wooden sailing ships and had commissioned only a few steamships. The engagement featuring the Union Monitor and the Confederate Merrimac (renamed C.S.S. Virginia) in 1862, however, awakened the U.S. Navy to the need for iron-clad ships.
To meet the need, federal authorities issued grants for establishment of shipyards in Chester, Pa., and Camden, N.J. At the same time, the U.S. Navy transformed Wilmington-built ships into blockade gunboats, troop transports and supply vessels.
The Confederacy, meanwhile, converted ships that Harlan & Hollingsworth had built for Southern merchants prior to the war into blockade runners. A ship named the Cecile brought more than 2,000 rifles into the South before wrecking on a reef in 1862. The Wilmington-built the Austin was transformed into the blockade runner the Donegal. That ship made a number of successful runs into Mobile, Ala., before being captured by the Union blockading squadron and converted into a Northern supply vessel.
During the Civil War, however, Wilmington shipyards only participated to a limited extent in construction of ships for the U.S. Navy. Harlan & Hollingsworth reluctantly constructed three Monitor-class warships. They were less than enthused about these projects, due to the government’s poor record for completing projects quickly. Urban surmises that a pacifist Quaker influence may have had something to do with this disinclination, as well.
Pusey & Jones contracted with the government to build seven sidewheel and propeller steamers as Union supply ships. A number of companies established to fulfill wartime contracts assisted Pusey & Jones with these projects — including Kirkman & Co., W&A Thatcher, and Jackson & Sharp. Robert Barr & Co. also contracted to build a number of ships for the federal government.
The boom in shipbuilding continued following the Civil War, with construction of larger and faster steamships, and a new generation of warships for the U.S. Navy. The center for this enterprise remained along the Delaware River.
Wilmington continued as a hub for this activity through the remainder of the 19th century, on through a good portion of the 20th century. Following World War II, however, most of the shipyards had shut down, and the waterfront area went into decline.
As for those two most prominent Wilmington firms, the new Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation Ltd. absorbed Harlan & Hollingsworth in 1917, and Pusey & Jones ceased operations altogether in 1960. Both of the companies have earned recollection for their contributions during the Civil War.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.