The strategy, tactics and horror of the Civil War have been thoroughly documented over the nearly 150 years since it came to an end. While most the writings have been about the men who fought the war, the role of women has received attention, as well.
Individual biographies and published collections, such as “Military Commanders and their Wives” by Carol Bleser and Lesley Gordon, and “Civil War Wives” by Carol Berkin, discuss leading ladies such as Varina Howell Davis, Julia Dent Grant, Mary Custis Lee, Jessie Benton Fremont, LaSalle Corbell Pickett and Elizabeth Bacon Custer.
One prominent woman from Delaware who served her country well but remained out of the spotlight was Sophie Madeleine DuPont. Born Sept. 18, 1810, she was the daughter of Sophie Madeleine Dalmas and prominent businessman Éleuthère Irénée DuPont, the owner of E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co. powder mills along Brandywine Creek in New Castle County — a vital supplier of gunpowder for the Union army during the Civil War.
When her first cousin Samuel Francis “Frank” DuPont returned home from a three-year cruise in the Mediterranean as a naval officer, Sophie became enamored of his adventurous tales and soon with Frank himself. Their engagement would follow, and they were married in June 1833 — but not until after this well-educated and independent-minded young lady of 22 was assured that her husband-to-be understood that she intended to be an equal partner.
While there are no extensive writings devoted to Sophie Madeleine DuPont’s life, Kevin J. Weddle includes information about her role in the marriage in his Samuel F. DuPont biography “Lincoln’s Tragic Admiral.” The newlyweds began life together in his family home, Louviers, before moving to a nearby farmhouse. As a devout Episcopalian, she helped lead Frank DuPont down this path until he eventually became a prominent member of the church.
Frank DuPont, who was often away on lengthy cruises, knew that Sophie was his anchor at home, especially because of her keen interest in his career, and being versed in national politics and foreign affairs. Unfortunately, Sophie seriously injured her back, which became a chronic condition that kept her bedridden for lengthy periods. Her illness may explain the absence of children in their marriage.
This mirrored another prominent woman of the period, Mary Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee, whose debilitating arthritic condition limited her mobility. Ironically, both Sophie and Mary sought relief from soothing baths in places like Warm Springs, Va. Mary, nonetheless, was able to bear seven children.
In 1855, a few years before the issue of slavery would cause separation between the states and a bloody conflict to erupt, DuPont saw his long efforts to rid the Navy of incompetent officers reach fruition, when Congress passed a bill to “Promote the Efficiency of the Navy.” Sophie shared Frank’s joy: “I can scarcely believe it. I dared so little hope it would, after the experience of past years.”
When, in 1857, DuPont actively pursued and received the plum appointment as captain of the powerful warship the Merrimack-class steam frigate Minnesota, he sheepishly explained to Sophie how happy he was, while fully aware the assignment would cause him to be on cruise for another two years — this time to China.
She resignedly responded, “I am glad my dear husband your professional feelings are gratified, and I trust our Heavenly Father has granted your wishes for some good purpose. I am willing to leave all in his hands.”
When the Civil War came and DuPont was successful in operations conducted along the South Atlantic coast, he received promotion to the rank of rear admiral. He wrote to Sophie, “I am called ‘Admiral’ now by everybody — funny, is it not?” He reminded her of his letter of appointment as a midshipman from President Thomas Jefferson, who hoped he would someday become one of the country’s “high admirals.”
Tragedy struck when DuPont’s attempt to attack and capture Charleston, S.C. — a heavily fortified city — failed. Disagreements with Navy Secretary Gideon Welles over tactics led to animosity against DuPont. Sophie sensed that his career was in jeopardy. She belatedly advised her husband, “I wish … you would write … the first emotions to me, [then] you would write calmly, collectedly to others.”
After Welles relieved DuPont from duty in the South Atlantic, disappointment and heartbreak took its toll on his health. His death came soon after the end of the Civil War, on June 13, 1865, with Sophie at his side. She would live on for another 22 years.
Weddle tells us that Sophie and Frank rest together in the DuPont family cemetery, not far from Louviers, their beloved home overlooking the Brandywine.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.