Civil War Profiles: The education of Quaker brothers in wartime

Date Published: 
August 29, 2014

Albert Smith, treasurer of the Wilmington Savings Fund Society, and his wife, Elizabeth, lived with their six sons in the upper floors above the bank at the corner of Eighth and Market streets. They were Quakers and part of Wilmington’s old-line English aristocracy.

During the past decade prior to the outbreak of hostilities between the states in 1861, the population of Wilmington had grown by 50 percent — mainly with immigration from Germany and Ireland. As Robert F. Crawford explains in the 1984-1985 issue of Delaware History, the Irish especially were perceived as lacking “refinement” because of their heavy drinking, Catholicism and strange accents. Nonetheless, these immigrants offered a cheap labor supply in this manufacturing boomtown.

Life changed, however, when the North and South went to war. The two older Smith brothers, Rodman and Linton, joined the 4th Delaware Infantry Volunteers — Rod as a lieutenant in June 1862 and, a year later, Linton, as an assistant surgeon (having studied medicine for a year). Linton was bored at first, informing his mother “the Army of the Potomac seemed to have little to do other than standing guard.”

Since it was not uncommon for Union officers to employ blacks, the Smith boys hired three servants. As Quakers, Rod and Linton were sensitive to the slavery issue and described how large numbers of slaves were escaping to the Union lines. It was an eye-opening experience for Linton, because the contrast of the “well-scrubbed” blacks he had known in Wilmington to the “masses of poverty-stricken blacks streaming from the south was enormous.”

In the military caste system, lines were drawn between officers and enlisted men, and extended to blacks, as well. Intermingling was discouraged. One of the favorite pastimes for the enlisted was gambling, which the officers shunned.

As an army doctor, Linton experienced the difficulty of dealing with soldiers on the sick list with typhoid fever, pulmonary ailments, dysentery and diarrhea, compounded by “contrabands” (escaped slaves) in camp who came to him with their ailments. He had no steward to assist him, his medical supplies were sparse, and knowledge of how to treat these diseases was limited at best.

Ethnic issues arose with Rod’s promotion to captain of Company C, an Irish unit, which was “not exactly the kind I should have selected, but [there are] some good soldiers among them.” He had difficulty accepting the tough Irish, with their heavy brogue, and was homesick for the refinement of “a tea table in a civilized land with a clean white cloth and bread, with spoons and forks … where you could take a nice hot cup of tea.”

The boredom of guard duty gave way to marching long distances that saw men who “fell out and died from overheating and exhaustion.” Given that black servants marched right along with the troops, Rod’s and Linton’s respect for them grew considerably.

A highlight for Linton was attendance at a fair at the Patent Office in Washington in March 1864, where he had the opportunity to shake hands with President Abraham Lincoln and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

After he assumed command of the entire Union army, Grant began his campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces, which led to the siege of Petersburg, Va. The Linton brothers’ unit, the 4th Delaware, was engaged, along with the rest of the army, in trench warfare that lasted nine months.

In August 1864, Rod came down with a case of jaundice that made him “as yellow as a pine board.” He went by ambulance train back to Wilmington to recover but was able to return to his unit by September. Linton spent most of his time at field hospitals, caring for the wounded.

Another eye-opening experience for Rod came when he was now “messing [eating] and sleeping with a Roman Catholic. But, “he eats meat on Fridays, and is not too bigoted to go to Protestant worship occasionally.”

When Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, Linton and Rod rode into Richmond to view the burned-out areas. In their last letters, they were “quite well and happy at the prospect of being home at an early date.”

The Smith brothers from a staid Quaker Delaware family had survived harsh wartime conditions, and close interaction with other ethnic, religious and racial groups. Crawford believed “they had matured in a manner that would have been impossible had they remained in Wilmington for the duration of the war.”

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.