The state legislature approved the creation of a military school for young men in Wilmington in 1859, but its contribution to education in Delaware was short-lived. It could not survive the increasingly confrontational political atmosphere following the outbreak of hostilities between the states.
Theodore Hyatt founded the Delaware Military Academy as an offshoot of his Educational Institute and benefited from incorporation into the 1843 legislation that granted “franchises, rights, powers and privileges” to the Wilmington Library Institute. B. Franklin Cooling III related its story in the April 1971 issue of Delaware History.
A graduate of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, Hyatt adopted an educational philosophy that emphasized “parental cooperation, strong Christian influence and severe discipline.” Infantry drill was included in the curriculum to ensure the students had systematic exercise that would “add the carriage of a gentleman in a well-developed physical constitution.” The program attracted students from other states, including Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas and Nebraska.
Hyatt outfitted his “cadets” in gray uniforms and applied to Gov. William Burton for arms for use in conducting drills. Burton complied, sending rifles, bayonets, sabres and field artillery. He also made Hyatt a member of his staff, with the rank of colonel.
Newspapers helped create a favorable public image for the academy. The Delaware State Journal & Statesman noted that it was “a perfect beehive of young patriots” and anticipated they would be “all good soldiers and true American liberty-loving students.”
Controversy arose, however, following the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860. Delaware’s allegiance was divided, and it cast a majority of its votes for Southern candidates John Breckinridge and John Bell. With war clouds looming over the slavery issue, Southern-sympathizer Thomas F. Bayard, son of U.S. Sen. James A. Bayard of Delaware, petitioned the governor to transfer the academy’s arms to a militia company he organized.
Pro-Unionist Hyatt protested the transfer, but Burton ruled in favor of Bayard. Hyatt resisted, but he reluctantly compromised in that academy students would be permitted to drill with the arms during the day, as long as they were returned to Bayard’s “Delaware Guards” by evening.
The academy continued to prosper over the next two years, and enrollment grew. Presence of both Northern and Southern students, however, provoked confrontations. When the Civil War erupted and Lincoln called for troops to put down the rebellion, the Southern students left to go home. Many of the Northern students enlisted in the Union army.
Cooling explained that the life of the Delaware Military Academy would come to an end following the commencement exercises of 1862. However, it would have a bright future — but not in Delaware.
Along with a group of prominent Pennsylvania residents, Hyatt petitioned the legislature in Harrisburg for a charter to establish a military college in West Chester. Gov. Andrew Curtin signed the act for the Chester County Military Academy on April 8, 1862, the name soon to be changed to Pennsylvania Military Academy.
Although the Delaware Military Academy had a brief existence, some of those who attended were prominent participants in the hostilities at the time. David Vickers of Camden, N.J., rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Union army. Zadoc Aydelotte, an officer in the 81st Pennsylvania, was mortally wounded at Fredericksburg.
Harry Root of Tennessee and William Bragdon of Georgia served the Confederacy. The best known alumnus of the academy was Lt. Henry “Harry” Robinette, 1st U.S. Infantry Regiment, who fought bravely and suffered a wound at Corinth, Miss., that contributed to his death three years later.
Hyatt was held in high esteem by his academy graduates, one later recalling, “The Colonel was a man of staunch character and of splendid ability. He was conscientious, earnest and progressive, and always an inspiring and elevating influence upon his students.”
In recent times, the Delaware Military Academy was reincarnated on Middleboro Road in Wilmington. In April, it celebrated its 11th year in existence; carrying on a tradition that is rooted in the Civil War era.
Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at email@example.com.