Civil War Profiles: Burton, Cannon & Saulsbury: Delaware’s wartime governors

Date Published: 
September 5, 2014

During the four tumultuous years of the Civil War, 1861-1865, three men held the reins of government in Delaware. It was William Burton’s fate to be in the office of governor when secession was under consideration at the outset of the war. William Cannon won election replacing him to lead a divided state in 1862. And Gove Saulsbury ascended to the governor’s seat upon Cannon’s untimely death as the war ground to a halt.

A Sussex Countian by birth, Burton graduated from Pennsylvania Medical College in 1810 and practiced medicine in Lewes before moving to Milford. A former Whig, he joined the Democratic Party and ascended to the governorship in 1858.

Reed, McKay and Wade point out in “Delaware during the War Between the States” that Burton exhibited mixed views about the North-South divide — mirroring the attitude of many Delawareans. While ostensibly an anti-secessionist, he called for a convention to consider secession from the Union. However, the legislature failed to act on his request.

Burton appointed stalwart Unionist Henry duPont as a major-general of the state militia. When DuPont directed the arms of potential Confederate militia companies within the state be confiscated, however, Burton revoked his order. Despite this, military authorities disarmed Southern-leaning militias in Seaford, Laurel, Georgetown and elsewhere in the state.

Burton less-than-wholeheartedly approved the formation of the 1st Delaware Regiment in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms against the seceding states and dragged his feet on providing incentives for men to join the Union army. And, prior to the 1862 gubernatorial election, Burton decided his chances for another term were slim and decided not to run.

William Cannon from Bridgeville, a former Democrat turned Republican/Union Party member, ascended to the governorship, defeating Democratic candidate Samuel Jefferson. Cannon was an astute businessman — one of the richest in Sussex County.

His election by a slim margin did not bode well for his administration. The presence of Union troops at the polls led to charges of intimidation and an illegitimate election. The Democrats who controlled the legislature opposed just about every measure the pro-war governor submitted.

The General Assembly’s rejection of a bounty for African-Americans who enlisted and a resolution of gratitude for Delaware soldiers in the field reflected that antipathy. The anti-Republican mindset manifested itself in the 1864 presidential election, in which Delaware voted for Democratic candidate Gen. George McClellan rather than Lincoln, who nonetheless was reelected.

Cannon would not live to see the Union victory over the Confederate army. Two months before its capitulation, he contracted a severe case of pneumonia, and he died March 1, 1865. Harold Bell Hancock points out in “Delaware during the Civil War” that Cannon’s strenuous pro-North policies and concerns that Republicans-supported equality of the races — anathema to Democrats — would result in Democrat control of the state for the next quarter century.

Gove Saulsbury, leader of the state senate and hard-core Democrat, succeeded to the governor’s seat upon Cannon’s demise. A member of a family political dynasty, he and brothers Willard and Eli wielded considerable power and influence: Willard as a U.S. senator, and former state senator Eli as a future U.S. senator.

Following in the footsteps of Burton, Saulsbury — born in Mispillion Hundred, Kent County, in 1815 — graduated from Pennsylvania Medical College with a medical doctorate. He started a practice and lived just off of the Green in Dover, later becoming president of the Delaware Medical Society. Saulsbury’s political career began during the war, with election to the state senate in 1863. He soon would be elevated to Speaker.

Hancock relates that, in his inaugural address as governor, Saulsbury drew a line between the races and stated “any attempt to obliterate that distinction is the result of either a blind fanaticism or a wicked and perverse infidelity.” He opposed the 13th Amendment, which ratified Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

An examination of the administrations and policies of Govs. Burton, Cannon and Saulsbury during the Civil War era reveals both the character and trepidation of a populace that found itself pulled in different directions. It affiliated with the North, which maintained a more progressive economic and social outlook, yet respected its traditional allegiance to the Southern way of life.

That divergence would manifest itself over the next century, as the upper portion of the state would be lured into the orbit of dynamic growth and progress. The preference of the lower counties would be to hold dear their Southern heritage in a more laid-back, rural environment.

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 pennmardel@mchsi.com.