The political and social complexities within the state of Delaware in the mid-19th century mirrored those within the country at large. Societal trends in the northern county of New Castle bore resemblance to the state of Pennsylvania. Life in the southern county of Sussex, on the other hand, was more in tune with Alabama or Mississippi.
Although the institution of slavery was gradually moving toward extinction in Kent and New Castle in 1860, it nonetheless hung on tenaciously in Sussex. Of the remaining 1,800 Delaware slaves, 75 percent labored in the southernmost county.
The 1860 presidential election also drew a response at the polls in Sussex favoring Kentuckian John Breckinridge, the one candidate who supported secession of the slave states from the Union — and against the so-called “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln. Breckinridge and another pro-slavery candidate, John Bell from Tennessee, garnered 82 percent of the Sussex County vote, while Sussex Countians demonstrated their disdain for Lincoln with a mere 671 votes or 15 percent.
How those in Sussex lived their lives during that time period would best be described as a bare-bones existence. Historian Harold Bell Hancock identified income disparity: New Castle residents paid over $220,000 in taxes in 1863, while those from Sussex totaled just over $9,000.
New Castle was aggressively developing business and industry, and 50 individuals reported a yearly income of more than $10,000. Sussex was content to plod along with outmoded methods of agriculture, and not one person’s income reached that level. Representative of this gap was New Castle spent twice as much as Sussex on education, and their school year was twice as long.
Isolation was partly the reason for these conditions. The railroad did not arrive in the southern part of the state until 1860. Prior to that, according to a Sussex resident, it was “a slow age — an age of oxen, sandy roads, big farms and crude machinery.”
Politically, Sussex was heavily Democratic, with interests that paralleled those of the Southern Democrats. This was manifested by a desire to perpetuate the institution of slavery and to limit by statute opportunities in the state for free blacks to improve their lot.
U.S. Sen. Willard Saulsbury and his two brothers Eli and Gove, who also were influential Democratic politicians, were born in Sussex. They raised powerful voices in political circles on behalf of the county’s interests.
A portion of what became known as the “reverse underground railroad” ran through the western side of Sussex County with the town of Seaford as the hub. The March 1946 issue of Maryland Historical Magazine described how men who wanted to enlist and “contraband goods” destined for support of the Southern Confederacy passed through this area of “safe houses” and secret passwords.
About 40 percent of Delawareans who fled the state to serve in a Confederate uniform were from Sussex. Unable to muster enough men to form all-Delaware units, these soldiers served under the banners of Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas.
Although recent research questions the authenticity of this claim, a historical marker in Seaford proudly announces that Leonidas Polk attended Seaford Academy prior to the Civil War. Born in North Carolina, Polk was an Episcopal bishop who served as a lieutenant general in the Confederate army. Association with the Seaford Academy, however, led to Polk’s name appearing on the monument dedicated to Delaware Confederates at the Marvel Museum in Georgetown.
The location of the Confederate monument in Sussex County is indicative of the strong Southern sentiments in this area of the state. The Delaware Grays, Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp #2068, based in Seaford, sponsored its installation and dedication in 2007.
Former Delaware Gov. William Henry Harrison Ross (1851-1855) held strong opinions about slavery and the Southern way of life. He owned a sprawling plantation in the Seaford area and 15 slaves.
Author James Diehl explains in “Remembering Sussex County” that Ross feared that federal authorities would arrest him for his pro-Confederacy leanings. To avoid becoming one of Fort Delaware prison’s most prominent inmates during the Civil War years, Ross went abroad to seek refuge in England.
Sussex County remained geographically part of the Union during the Civil War, because Delaware did not secede. Given a choice, however, the people in this remote southern part of the state might well have cast its lot with the area of the country it most closely resembled — the Confederate States of America.
To visit the Confederate Monument, call the Georgetown Historical Society at (302) 855-9660, and for information on the Ross Mansion & Plantation, call (301) 628-9828.
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 email@example.com.