Civil War Profiles Delaware during the Civil War: A Southern, Northern or border state?


Bruce Catton’s “American Heritage History of the Civil War portrays the United States” as a divided country in 1861. Of the 34 states in existence at that time, 19 were free states in the North and West, and 15 were Southern slave states. The rest of the country was made up of territories.

Prior to the Civil War, Delaware was considered to be part of the South, since it was below the Mason-Dixon Line and it had a slave state.

It was sometimes classified as a border state, along with Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland, because they were Southern slave states that shared a border with the North. These four states that did not secede from the Union, but, nonetheless, could have gone either way.

However, Catton chose to identify Delaware as a Northern state, rather than a border state. He said this was true because Delaware was never a serious threat to secede, because slavery had declined and was no longer a major factor in the economy.

Looking at the history of slavery in Delaware, beginning in 1790 there were about 9,000 slaves that made up about 15 percent of the total population of the state. By 1800, this number had dropped to about 6,000, and in 1810, it was down to just over 4,000 slaves. By 1820, there was a slight blip up to 4,500, then it dropped to some 3,300 in 1830 and 2,600 in 1840.

In 1850, the number of slaves kept falling, to 2,300. Then, just prior to the Civil War, it was just less than 2,000, and most were located in the southern part of the state, in Sussex County. The total at this time was a little more than 1 percent in an overall Delaware population of 112,000.

From 1790 to 1860, slavery among the black population in Delaware dropped from 70 percent to just 8 percent, while African-Americans as a percentage of the overall population stayed fairly constant within the state.

Several factors caused the decline of slavery in Delaware: the Philadelphia Meeting advised Delaware Quakers to free their slaves; opposition to slavery increased among religious groups, especially Methodists; agriculture practices changed (such as wheat replacing the more labor-intensive tobacco as a major crop); state laws governing slavery were revised; and efforts at emancipation grew both at the state and national level.

From this information, we can say that Delaware was certainly not a Southern state during the Civil War, and, as Bruce Catton pointed out, it was not a border state like Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland. Instead, it should be classified as a Northern state, since it was never a serious threat to secede from the Union because slavery was almost extinct prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Thomas J. Ryan lives in Bethany Beach and is the former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.