Martial law declared in Delaware

Date Published: 
August 15, 2014

When Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North in 1863 culminated in a bloody battle near the small town of Gettysburg, Pa., fear spread throughout the region. To prepare for the worst, the federal government declared martial law in nearby states.

The commander of the military department that included the state of Delaware, Maj. Gen. Robert C. Schenck, issued a proclamation on July 3, 1863, stating a need to defend against “armed rebellion, threatening invasion from without, and secret traitors plotting against public safety.”

Although civil government was suspended, state, county and city authorities were permitted to discharge their duties, as long as they did not interfere with the power of the military authorities. Citizens were to stay in their homes or pursue their “ordinary avocations.”

The proclamation, cited in the War of the Rebellion Official Records, prohibited “seditious language or mischievous practices tending to the encouragement of rebellion.” Persons engaging in such behavior should expect “to be dealt with as the public safety may require.”

Schenck assigned Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler to enforce these regulations in Delaware. Of primary concern was protecting the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad and the DuPont gunpowder mills along Brandywine Creek, as well as other manufacturing enterprises in northern Delaware.

Wasting no time, Tyler arrested two men for “treasonable language,” including William Bright, a real estate agent from Wilmington, and sent them to the prison at Fort Delaware. Bright was charged with corresponding with Lee, and encouraging him “to attack the unprotected shipyards, machine shops and powder works” in the Wilmington area.

Another person snared in the web of martial law was the Rev. Isaac Handy, a clergyman from Virginia visiting Port Penn in New Castle County. Historian Harold Bell Hancock wrote that Handy was arrested after commenting “he did not regard the [U.S.] flag as any more than a rag, for it belonged to a government of tyranny and oppression.” He paid a steep penalty for this transgression, by spending the rest of the war at Fort Delaware.

During this emergency, Gov. William Cannon called up two 90-day regiments. Tyler ordered the 5th Delaware to Fort Delaware to help guard the prisoners and deployed the 6th Delaware along the line of the railroad.

Hancock recorded that Sophie Madeleine DuPont informed her husband Adm. Samuel F. DuPont that these enlistment requirements siphoned off workers, causing the powder mills to stop running. Some 200 men responded, including two DuPont nephews who signed on as captains in the 5th Delaware.

The emergency soon dissipated, following the Union victory over Lee’s forces in Pennsylvania and Lee’s rapid retreat back to Virginia. This appeared to have a dispiriting effect on Delaware dissenters, because Tyler reported to Schenck’s headquarters “not a word disloyal to the Government has been heard from anyone.”

Tyler was not certain what was taking place in the lower counties of Kent and Sussex, and planned to travel there with Cannon “to examine personally into the state of things there.” His inspection trip is not documented in the records; however, they likely found greater resistance to the federal government, given both counties predominantly favored the Southern cause.

Since the Delaware troops were called into service at harvest time, Tyler furloughed those who could be spared — because these men “are suffering great loss” being away from their farms. The war would continue for two more years, but the Delaware home front would not be threatened again.

Wilmington diarist Anna Ferris, reflecting the popular feeling, placed the ordeal into context: “For almost three weeks we have lived in a state of excitement, suspense & fear from the rebel invasion… [but now]…we hope the horizon is brightening & draw a deep breath of relief.”

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.