Prior to the onset of civil war in 1861, Delaware decided to remain in the Union, even though it was one of 15 Southern states where the institution of slavery was still practiced. While choosing to side with the North, on the whole, Delaware was not enamored of newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln and his administration — in fact, it had voted against him in the elections of 1860 (see, “Lincoln and Delaware: Never a warm relationship.” Coastal Point, May 30, 2014).
Nonetheless, in a message to a special session of Congress on July 4, 1861, about the fate of the United States nearly two months after hostilities between North and South erupted, Lincoln raised a question that he would address more dramatically two years hence at Gettysburg.
As quoted in “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,” nine volumes by Roy P. Basler, editor, he asked, “whether a constitutional republic … a government of the people, by the same people — can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.”
Lincoln had no choice, he said, “but to call out the war power of the Government; and so to resist force, employed for its destruction, by force, for its preservation.” The president went on to lament that none of the slave states, except Delaware, raised a regiment of troops to defend the nation. He obviously was grateful to the First State for siding with the Union, and its willingness to defend it.
In late 1861, with the intention of abolishing slavery peacefully and perhaps ending the war, Lincoln drafted a bill for Congress called Compensated Emancipation in Delaware. In his elaborate plan, Congress would pay the State of Delaware $719,200 in 31 annual and equal installments with the condition “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, at any time after the first day in the year of our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and sixty-seven, within the said State of Delaware…”
Emancipation of Delaware slaves would occur gradually. All born after the passage of the act would be born free, and all slaves above the age 35 would become free. All others would be free arriving at the age 35 until January 1893, when all remaining of all ages would become free, subject to apprenticeship for minors born of slave mothers.
The Delaware General Assembly rejected this plan as intrusive on the rights and privileges of the State, but it was indicative of the president’s positive and hopeful view of Delaware in these trying times.
This appreciative attitude toward Delaware is reflected again in the president’s annual message to Congress on Dec. 3, 1861. In discussing the newly-established Confederacy’s assault on Fort Sumter, Lincoln cited support for the Union south of the Mason-Dixon Line, whereas “noble little Delaware led off right from the first,” with Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri following its lead.
Returning to the issue of slavery in a letter to Henry J. Raymond, founder and publisher of the New York Times, on March 9, 1862, Lincoln posed the question, “Have you noticed the facts that less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware, at four hundred dollars per head? Raymond responded by publishing “several articles in support of your message” and praised it as “a master-piece of practical wisdom and sound policy.”
On Aug. 16, 1862, Lincoln wrote a detailed letter to Delaware Rep. George P. Fisher, reviewing Delaware’s manpower contributions to the war effort. His personal involvement was another indication of Lincoln’s concern about Delaware’s military support for the Union. However, from a political perspective, in his message to Congress in December 1862, he addressed apprehension on the part of whites about the growing free black population and its implication for security in the states, including Delaware.
After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase proposed that it be applied to areas under federal control, and not just where rebellion still existed. The president firmly rejected this idea, because, if these exemptions were applied to the friendly slave states, such as Delaware, would “it not lose us the elections, and with them, the very cause we seek to advance?”
Reelection was obviously on Lincoln’s mind and, in October 1864, he calculated prospective voting in the states. He listed Delaware’s three electoral votes in the opposition column. This prediction proved correct, as Delaware chose Democratic candidate Gen. George B. McClellan.
Lincoln welcomed Delaware’s loyalty during the four years of conflict, yet Delawareans’ preference for separation of the races went counter to the president’s philosophy. They agreed to disagree for the sake of maintaining the Union.
Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (April 2015). Contact him at
firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.