The legacy of Gov. William H. H. Ross

Date Published: 
February 28, 2014

The Nanticoke River and its tributaries flow through historic Seaford, Del., once the home of William Henry Harrison Ross. Delawareans remember Ross as the former state governor, and many have visited his home, which still stands imposingly on 20 of the plantation’s original 1,398 acres.

On this property, which is open to the public, the only known slave quarters in Delaware sits adjacent to the Victorian Italianate mansion. Other outbuildings include a granary, stable, smokehouse, corn cribs and a “honeymoon cottage.”

According to the Seaford Historical Society, the Ross property is the only site in Delaware that depicts plantation life during the Civil War period. Visitors to the mansion learn about slavery as it existed in Sussex County. On guided walks around the grounds, they also view the various structures that played an integral part in the operations of a large plantation.

Ross served as governor from 1851 to 1855. As a slaveholder, he was sympathetic toward preservation of the institution. In her study on Democracy in Delaware, Carol E. Hoffecker explained that Ross believed that a majority of the citizens in Delaware supported the slave states, even though slavery may have been nearly extinct in Delaware.

Author James Diehl points out in “Remembering Sussex County” that Ross considered his “crowning achievement was convincing the Delaware Railroad to extend southward into Sussex County in the 1850s. … He even built his very own railroad station near his home in Seaford.” It seems Ross was well-educated and lived the good life on his “massive plantation in Seaford … [where] he was best known for his love of show horses.”

Ross and other slaveholders in Delaware feared the worst after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860. Harold Bell Hancock recorded in his political history of Delaware during the Civil War that Ross requested and received arms from like-minded politicians for a pro-South militia company that he sponsored in the Seaford area.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Ross reportedly received “a large shipment of weapons, which it was said he intended to forward to Virginia.” Secessionists in Sussex County had established a clandestine route for shipping contraband goods to the newly-established Southern Confederacy via the Nanticoke River and the Chesapeake Bay.

William H. Williams wrote in “Slavery and Freedom in Delaware” that Ross was accused of being a ringleader of roving gangs that “intimidated, harassed and assaulted members of the free African-American community” in Sussex County. A Union officer eventually identified the need for federal protection for blacks in the southern part of the state.

Diehl explained that Ross knew he would be “a target when Union troops began cracking down on men they considered to be traitors.” As a result, Ross thought it expedient to leave the country for England, given that Delaware politicians decided to reject secession and remain within the Union. Another factor leading to his departure was that his son Caleb had joined the 9th Virginia Cavalry.

Having spent a year in Europe, Ross returned home. In the meantime, Caleb Ross had contracted typhoid fever and died while serving with Gen. Jeb Stuart’s forces. Hancock described Ross “as abusive as ever,” and longed for intervention on behalf of the Confederacy by England and France to bring a speedy victory. His wish, however, would not be fulfilled.

Regardless of how former Gov. Ross’s political views are looked upon today, he enjoys a legacy in Sussex County, given the preservation of his home in Seaford. Those who are interested can take a virtual tour of the mansion and grounds by going on the Seaford Historical Society website at www.seafordhistoricalsociety.com/index.cfm?ref=42198.

There, you will find photos of the exterior and interior of the mansion, as well as of the outbuildings and activities that take place. The website also contains information about the Seaford Museum and other historical locations in the county. In addition, upcoming events are listed, and information provided about tours and summer camps for “Kids and Students.”

Spring is not that far away, and this is a good time to plan a visit to one of Sussex County’s tourist gems. There is something special about driving through the entrance gate to the Ross Plantation and immediately being transported back into life as it existed in an earlier century.

For more information call the Seaford Historical Society on (302) 628-9828 or send an email inquiry to info@seafordhistoricalsociety.com.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective” (available at Bethany Beach Books or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.