Civil War Profiles: ‘Seeing the elephant’ — Delaware on the Virginia Peninsula


Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan transported his Army of the Potomac, more than 100,000 strong, by ship to Fort Monroe, Va., at the southern extremity of the Chesapeake Bay between the York and James Rivers. His ambitious plan in early 1862 was to drive the much weaker enemy defensive troops 60 miles up the peninsula to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond.

The 2nd Delaware Volunteer Regiment was one small element of McClellan’s massive forces. The regiment’s formation dated from May 21, 1861, in Wilmington, for three-year’s service. It mustered in with 33 officers and 805 men.

In his history of the 2nd Regiment, John E. Pickett explained that Col. W. H. Wharton and Lt. Col. William P. Bailey commanded the unit. Initial training took place at Camp Brandywine near Wilmington. These active young men stirred up bad feelings within the surrounding community by foraging liberally to supplement their meager army diet. The disappearance of crops, animals and fruits led local farmers to bemoan their behavior.

Once uniformed and armed, the 2nd Regiment became part of Brig. Gen. Henry Hayes Lockwood’s brigade. A Camden, Del. native, Lockwood led his troops to Accomac County, Va., on the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula.

The objective there was to disperse Confederates who were busily forming companies of recruits to support the rebel cause. The anticipated clash was bloodless, however, as the Virginians, offering no resistance, either surrendered or escaped by boat across the Chesapeake Bay.

The next assignment for the “Crazy Delawares” — a sobriquet they would earn later in the war — was to march back northward to the towns of Georgetown and Seaford. Their mission was to disarm and arrest Southern-leaning militias that were believed to pose a threat to the Sussex County vicinity.

The 2nd Regiment aggressively dealt with Caleb Paynter’s company in Georgetown, as well as Edward Martin’s militia in Seaford. In less than a week, they confiscated hundreds of muskets, rifles, carbines, sabers and pistols, in addition to two cannons.

Having completed this task, the 2nd Regiment moved westward for garrison duty in Baltimore, which Pickett termed a “hotbed of secessionists.” It had been there, in April 1861, that the local citizenry attacked the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, which was passing through the city on its way to defend the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C.

From the Reed, McKay, Wade study “Delaware during the War Between the States,” we learn that, by June 1862, the 2nd Delaware had joined McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, which had fought its way up the peninsula and was poised to capture Richmond. It was there that these untried Delawareans would experience the conflicting exhilaration of “seeing the elephant” — soldier slang for engaging for the first time in combat under enemy fire.

McClellan’s intentions would suddenly receive a setback. As fate would have it, the defensive-minded Confederate commander Gen. Joseph E. Johnston suffered a severe wound, forcing his retirement from the field. In his stead, President Jefferson Davis appointed Gen. Robert E. Lee, who immediately adopted an aggressive strategy toward McClellan’s army.

In what became known as the Seven Days’ Battles, Lee went on the attack and drove the Union army away from the Confederate capital and pinned it back against the James River. It was during this quick turnaround that the 2nd Delaware engaged in the struggle at Savage’s Station, Glendale and bloody Malvern Hill.

The 2nd Regiment’s first exposure to live fire took place while on duty near the York River Railroad. Pickett quoted Pvt. James Miller: “We … would always draw a shot or more, and many a poor fellow got winged as he crossed [the railroad].”

Following this initiation to combat on the Virginia Peninsula, the proud 2nd Delaware placed battle honors on their regimental flag. In addition to the locations mentioned above, inscribed on the banner were Gaines’ Mill, Peach Orchard and White Oak Swamp.

Although McClellan suffered a stinging defeat during the Peninsula Campaign at the hands of Lee, the 2nd Delaware took pride in being the last infantry regiment to leave the field of battle. Their difficult assignment was to cover the withdrawal of other Union troops.

The 2nd Delaware Regiment would follow this exposure to the ordeal of warfare with active and costly participation in the Army of the Potomac’s major battles. During these campaigns, the troops would become known as the “Crazy Delawares,” for their aggressiveness and valor in combat.

Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.