In the decades following the Civil War, it was not uncommon for former members of military units to put their collective heads together and publish a history of their regiment’s experiences during the four-year conflict between the North and South. In 1884, the 1st Delaware’s regimental history initially appeared in print.
More than 100 years later, Longstreet House resurrected this long-out-of-print volume, and reissued it in 1986 to keep the flame alive. A dozen years later, this same publisher put out an expanded version of the 1st Delaware’s record in the war.
Fortunately for Delaware history buffs, Jeffrey R. Biggs took it upon himself earlier this year to self-publish an annotated version of the 1st Delaware regimental history, along with extensive appendices that enhance our understanding of this unit’s wartime hardships and heroics.
Not satisfied that the entire story of the 1st Delaware has yet been told, Biggs performed intensive further research and in 2016 will publish his version of the regiment’s performance under the title “They Fought for the Union: A History of the 1st Delaware in the Army of the Potomac.”
To generate interest in his forthcoming chronicle, Biggs created a video by way of introduction to his labor of love. It contains threads of the depth and breadth of the story the new book will tell.
For example, Biggs relates the 1st Delaware would pay a high price in casualties to help repair a broken nation. The implication being that Delaware, itself a slave state, would have to sacrifice more in recompense “for every drop of blood drawn by the lash.”
The 1st Delaware was anxious to engage in its initial major encounter with the enemy at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, which happened to be the bloodiest single day of the war. Afterwards, Richard Knox wrote they were satisfied if they never saw another battle like that. The regiment led the assault on a sunken road appropriately branded “bloody lane,” and, as a result, many of their dead now rest in Antietam National Military Cemetery.
Sgt. Charles Tanner recorded his belief, “To lose what we swore to defend with our blood would have been in our minds a disgrace, and every man of the 1st Delaware was ready to perish rather than allow the colors to fall into the hands of the enemy.” Eight of 10 color-bearers were killed.
At Fredericksburg in December 1862, the 1st Delaware again found themselves at the worst spot at the worst moment on the battlefield — the opening attack on Marye’s Heights. Casualties from this encounter totaled 105 killed or wounded.
Chancellorsville would follow in May 1863, and the entire regiment narrowly avoided capture in the dense woods by the decisive maneuvering of its fearless commander, Col. Thomas Alfred Smyth. This experience led Pvt. John Carey to lament, “We Union soldiers had to retreat back over the river.”
Arriving at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, the 1st Delaware “would be placed at the pivotal point of the battlefield.” The following day, they were called upon to defend the stone wall along Cemetery Ridge against Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew’s assault during Pickett’s Charge. Sgt. John Dunn described the scene, “The air was filled with flying missiles … a perfect hailstorm of iron and wooden splinters.”
Although the regiment suffered many more casualties at Gettysburg, most of the men would reenlist for the duration of the war and were present at Appomattox when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army in April 1865.
The toll was heavy for the original 838 men who joined the regiment in 1861. Only 131 mustered out in July 1865; while nearly 200 were killed, missing or died from disease.
Jeffrey Biggs’ has dedicated his research to remembrance of the 1st Delaware Regiment’s sacrifice and valor during our nation’s traumatic internal struggle. You can view the inspirational video about his forthcoming book at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_y7O3wi_Vc.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.