April 12th, 1861, the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, officially starting the Civil War.
Delaware was a slave state, but ended up supporting the Union forces in a four-year conflict that claimed the lives of more than 600,000 people.
How did the First State’s status in the Civil War change during the conflict?
How did battles, fought hundreds of miles away, impact lives in Delaware?
To answer these questions, local cultural institutions are opening up their collections, and historians are hoping to spark dialogue as the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War is commemorated.
“Delaware really is a border state in the truest sense,” Delaware State University Professor of History & Political Science Steven Newton, PhD said about that era. The population of free African-Americans outnumbered slaves, 11-to-one. Newton says Delaware still was a slave state, “where the culture and economy of southern Delaware were more tied to Maryland and the South, and the economy of northern Delaware tied into Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”
“150 years ago today a lot of people in Delaware were scared out of their minds,” said Hagley Museum and Library Reference Archivist Lucas Clawson. “The reason for that is they had no idea what was going to happen next. Delaware really sat on the fence as far as the Civil War went.”
“Oath of Allegience to the Republic: The du Ponts and the Civil War”
A look inside Hagley Museum and Library’s Civil War exhibit
Clawson is curator of an exhibit at Hagley, “An Oath of Allegiance to the Republic: The du Ponts and the Civil War.” It illustrates how Delaware’s ties to the industrial North won in the end, thanks in large part to Henry du Pont, a leader in the fledgling Republican Party, head of the Delaware militia, and a man with a vested financial interest: the DuPont company produced almost half of the gunpowder purchased for use by the Union forces during the Civil War.
“Henry du Pont was absolutely, positively adamant that no gunpowder got into the hands of Southerners,” Clawson said.
Ambassadors for the secessionist movement lobbied Delaware to join their cause. Newton says the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana sent representatives to Delaware to address the General Assembly and speak to the Governor. There were a few in Delaware who were sympathetic to the South, but Newton says an overwhelming percentage of Delaware citizens supported the Union once war became inevitable.
Civil War 150th Anniversary – Events & Resources in Delaware
Major Events, Special Tours, Exhibits:
EXHIBIT: “OATH OF ALLEGIANCE TO THE REPUBLIC: THE DU PONTS AND THE CIVIL WAR”
Hagley Museum and Library
Presented by Wilmington Trust, Hagley’s new exhibit, will examine the roles of several du Pont family members, the E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., and the local community in response to the Civil War. Learn More.
NEW WEBSITE LISTING COMMEMORATION EVENTS & HAPPENINGS
State of Delaware and the Delaware Heritage Commission
The new website serves as the statewide hub for Civil War-related events and other resources. It provides information on upcoming Civil War‐related events, lectures, and exhibits throughout Delaware, as well as links to organizations involved in the 150th anniversary commemoration. Learn More.
HISTORICAL COLLECTION RELATING TO THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
Delaware Public Archives
This new online resource provides a wide variety of documents and photographs, showcasing the rich history of Delawareans during the American Civil War. Learn More.
TOUR: FORT DELAWARE DURING THE CIVIL WAR
Delaware State Parks
Fort Delaware, the Union fortress dating back to 1859, once housed Confederate prisoners of war. It was originally built to protect the ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia. Visitors take a 1/2 mile ferry ride from Delaware City to Pea Patch Island. A jitney provides transport from the island dock to the granite and brick fortress. Here, costumed re-enactors take you back to the summer of 1864. Learn More.
Fathers, and sons, went off to war. There is documentation that some sons from Delaware fought on opposite sides.
The conflict initially was good for the state’s economy. In addition to the manufacturing of gunpowder, Wilmington factories produced knapsacks, clothing, shoes, rail cars and ironclad warships. Although no Civil War battles were fought on Delaware soil, Clawson says the war, in effect, cost lives in Delaware as the making of gunpowder was dangerous and there were some deadly explosions.
Perhaps there is no better reminder of the Civil War era in Delaware than Fort Delaware at Pea Patch Island. Now a place where families’ picnic and youngsters scamper among the ramparts, Fort Delaware was not built to serve as the Civil War prison that it became.
“It really is Delaware’s only Civil War site,” said Laura Lee, interpretive program manager and historian at Fort Delaware State Park. She tells park visitors that the fort was originally built to protect the important developing ports of Philadelphia and Wilmington.
“Fort Delaware was built to keep people out, not keep people in,” Lee said.
As the Union and Confederate armies captured more and more prisoners, Fort Delaware became the place where they were held. “At the beginning of the war prisoners were exchanged, North for South,” Lee said. It was not always an even trade. Captured officers and commanders were worth more than soldiers. Also, the South would refuse to keep a captured soldier if he was black.
During Fort Delaware’s four-year tenure as a prison camp, there were nearly 33,000 prisoners. The most prisoners on the island at any one time was shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg in late 1863, with nearly 12,000 inmates.
In other parts of the state, the conflict adversely affected family life on the farms as those who tilled the fields and planted the crops were sent hundreds of miles away.
Director of the Delaware State Archives in Dover, Stephen Marz says for many Delawareans enlisted into the military, it was their first time outside of the state. The Archives maintains tens of thousands of photographs and documents from that period, including many personal letters which provide a glimpse into the apprehension families and soldiers felt when they received a call to duty.
The Civil War: Five Delaware Soldiers’ Stories
The new exhibit on display at the Delaware Public Archives in Dover
“It’s like with any battle: how do you get the crops grown, where are the people to help in the farms and in the areas if you’re taking all of our young men to go off into battle,” Marz said.
Some of the letters, as well as artifacts, weapons and medical instruments are part of a current exhibit at the Archives, “Delaware and the Civil War.”
From being issued their military clothing to having their photos taken for the very first time, Marz says the experience of going to battle during the Civil War accurately parallels the experience of today’s military going to far-flung places around the globe.
“You have to remember 150 years ago, many of our individuals that were in the state were very parochial,” Marz said. “They lived in a certain area, that’s where their families and their loved ones were from. And as this war began and they were enlisted or drafted into service, they had to leave those particular areas and go to various big cities and forts and get new acclimation to a host of different individuals, from all over different parts of the states.”
“It affected Delaware life in every aspect of the culture – it affected the agricultural, it affected the industrial, it affected everything,” said Delaware State Archives Outreach Manager Tom Summers. “Everything had to be done differently now because of the war.”
”Even though not everybody went to fight the war, it changed life on the home front as well. “
Summers likes to highlight a letter in the Archives collection that he believes truly reflects Delaware’s stance during the Civil War period. It was written by Governor William Burton, early in the war:
“I’m not sure if the state is going to go with the north or with the south. Most of our commerce is with the north but a lot of the sympathies are with the south.”
Professor Newton notes that Delaware was the conduit along two underground railroads: the traditional one that passed through the Camden – Wyoming area that allowed slaves to escape to the North, and a second one that developed during the war, “to allow rebel-minded secessionists to slip south and join the Confederate army.”
“In many ways,” Newton said, “Delaware was a border state that had the good fortune to not be directly in the path of the war.”