Civil War Profiles: Newspaper partisanship in Civil War Delaware


In pre-Civil War America, the dominant newspapers were based in New York: James Gordon Bennett’s Herald, Horace Greeley’s Tribune and Henry J. Raymond’s Times. However, as Brayton Harris points out in “Newspapers in the Civil War,” the invention and expanded use of the telegraph and a soaring literacy rate in the U.S. led to a quadrupling of active newspapers across the country between 1825 and 1860.

In Delaware, as the Civil War loomed, erupted and progressed, those seeking control of the political process allied with likeminded newspaper editors to expand and encourage their constituencies. These journals heralded partisan viewpoints on behalf of their political patrons.

The two wings of the state’s Democratic Party, under the respective leadership of Sen. James A. Bayard and Sen. Willard Saulsbury, struggled for supremacy through their press organs. The Delaware Gazette, a Wilmington newspaper, supported Bayard, while Dover’s Delawarean was the outlet for Saulsbury’s pronouncements.

Sam Townsend of New Castle County challenged Bayard and Saulsbury, both of whom supported the Southern concept of states’ rights and the institution of slavery, for control of the Democrat Party.

Townsend favored Stephen A. Douglas, a senator from Illinois, who was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1860. Townsend’s voice in print was the Delaware Inquirer, a newly established newspaper whose editor was James A. Montgomery.

Harold Bell Hancock writes in “Delaware during the Civil War” that Townsend’s opposition did not prevail. Delaware Democrats sent delegates to the party presidential convention in Charleston, S.C., with a mandate to cast votes for states’ rights candidates.

The Gazette reported that Sen. Bayard and Rep. William G. Whiteley represented New Castle County. John Barr Pennington and John H. Bewley carried the banner for Kent County, while Saulsbury and former Gov. William Ross spoke for Sussex County. All were hostile to Douglas, who favored compromise on the slavery issue.

At the Charleston convention in April 1860, the Delaware representatives split over the secession question, with Bayard and Whiteley walking out to join a splinter group that met in support of states that had seceded from the Union. While the Gazette remained silent over this issue, the Delawarean took the supporters of secession to task in “a series of bitter editorials.”

The Republican Party in Delaware was hard pressed to take advantage of divisions among rival Democrats. There was virtually no liking for Republicans in Kent and Sussex counties, and what favor there was came mostly from manufacturers and their employees in New Castle County.

Dr. J.S. Prettyman’s Peninsular News & Advertiser, based in Milford, was the only Republican Party newspaper in the entire state. However, two others — the Delaware Republican and the Delaware Journal — differed with the Democrats, and eventually sided with the Republicans.

Because of Republican Party weakness, opposition to the Democrats came from the People’s Party, which often was philosophically aligned with the Republicans. The platforms of both parties included protective tariffs that the business community favored and restriction of immigration — a holdover from the nativist and now-defunct Whig party.

The Delaware Republican claimed that 90 percent of the People’s Party favored representation at the Republican national convention. In condemnation, the Gazette editorialized with considerable bitterness that both the Journal and the Republican were only posing as organs of the People’s Party; while, in fact, were leaning toward “Black Republicanism.”

In Delaware, the overriding issue in the forthcoming presidential election was that of race. The Democratic editor of the Gazette condemned the Republican “doctrine of equality [that] would seat the black man at the white man’s tables, marry him to his daughters, place him on juries, and elect him to the legislature.”

While Abraham Lincoln won the presidency on the Republican ticket, Delaware voted for the secessionist Southern Democratic candidate, John C. Breckinridge — thereby demonstrating its anti-Republicanism.

In exasperation, the Democratic-leaning Delawarean attributed Lincoln’s election to “the folly of his enemies” who fought among themselves and undermined what would have been a near certain victory.

In an effort to stem the outbreak of national conflict, independent newspapers in the state, such as the Smyrna Times, urged federal evacuation of Fort Sumter, S.C., a potential flashpoint between North and South. As Hancock relates, that flashpoint exploded on April 12, 1861, when Confederates bombarded the fort.

In Sussex County, the independent Georgetown Messenger’s editor flat-out recommended “hanging secessionists to preserve the government and free institutions.” In contrast, the editor of the Democratic Gazette was conciliatory and believed that, in Sussex, “the voice of the people … acknowledged their devotion to the Union.” The Republican concurred that, in lower Delaware, “Union feeling predominates everywhere except in Smyrna,” where secessionist sympathy abides.

The partisan journals in Delaware set a tone during the election and outset of warfare that continued the next four years. Conflict on the battlefield was reflected in how the news was reported and editorialized on the home front.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at
www.tomryan-civilwar.com.