Delaware in the Civil War
is now CLOSED.
These pages are for reference only.
Portions of HSD's Civil War collections
are on display in Distinctively Delaware.
Delaware History Museum
505 Market Street
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We all acknowledge that Delaware is a small state, but there are key moments in America's past when "little Delaware" has stood at the forefront of the unfolding historical drama. The latest exhibit at the Delaware History Museum, Delaware in the Civil War, tells the story of one such period. The Civil War tore Delaware apart just as the United States of America as a whole was torn asunder. Delawareans anxiously watched the storm clouds of war grow ever darker throughout the fateful election year of 1860.
Geographically and philosophically, the second smallest state found itself caught up in the hostile debate that pitted north against south, abolitionist against slaveholder, and nationalist against states-rights advocate.
Slavery remained legal in Delaware and some Delawareans wanted to keep it that way. Others thought that it was an outdated institution that would die if left alone. A minority of Delawareans thought slavery was morally wrong and should be immediately abolished.
Most Delawareans agreed that war should be avoided at all cost. The majority hoped and prayed that a compromise could be reached that would satisfy both north and south. But if, such a compromise could not be reached, many -- perhaps the majority -- of Delawareans favored letting the Southern states secede and form a new country rather than fight a civil war to uphold the Union. The few Delawareans who were ardent abolitionists supported a war to end slavery. Fewer still thought that the Confederate cause was so just as to be willing to fight for it.
When war came, Delaware stayed in the Union, announcing that the first state to join the United States of America would be the last to leave it. Yet its citizens remained divided in their loyalties. Partisan feelings ran so high in Delaware that no major election could be held in the state without the supervision of federal troops at polling places. The war tore apart towns, old friendships, and even families, as Delawareans learned firsthand what a "house divided" really meant.
Delaware in the Civil War shows both the divided loyalties and the heroic efforts made by Delawareans, especially young men, for a war fought almost in its own backyard. It is also an exhibition unusually rich in the artifacts of the war and of the period. The Historical Society was founded in 1864, just as the Civil War drew to its merciful end and many of the early donations to our collections were Civil War-related. Over the years, the Society has amassed the greatest collection of Civil War-Delawareana. Most of this collection is currently on display in the exhibit Delaware in the Civil War .
Some of the treasures on display have not been seen in many years. One such artifact is the original lottery wheel used to draft young Delawareans into army service. The wheel still contains the name cards of young men who had registered for the draft. Other objects in the exhibit include medical and surgical equipment -- a grim reminder of the horrors of the 19th century; battlefield uniforms of Delaware soldiers and sailors; the weapons of war -- including common and rare guns, jewel-encrusted presentation swords, and even a cannon; haunting photographs of soldiers and their letters home; drawings and letters from prisoners at Fort Delaware; and the magnificent model-house raffled (and won by a Delawarean) at Philadelphia's Great Central Fair in 1864.
Among the most rare and unusual items in the exhibition are the huge regimental flags carried by Delaware's troops during the war. Each regiment carried these banners to identify its position during battle. Most of the flags had their names and symbols painted on silk and were already in poor condition by the end of the war -- often due to the ravages of battle. These delicate artifacts have rarely been displayed, but they offer an interesting glimpse into the paraphernalia of wartime a century ago. The single largest flag is not, however, a Delaware regimental flag, but a captured Confederate flag. It was made by taking apart a "Stars and Stripes" and reassembling it as a "Stars and Bars." If you look closely, you can see the holes where stars were taken off.
By far the most unusual and exciting display within the exhibition is the soldier's camp scene. Visitors are invited to enter into this part of the exhibition to "touch" to their hearts content. You may explore and compare an officer's tent and an enlisted man's tent, both filled with various accoutrements of camp life. There is also a box of clothing for young people to handle and try on for size and comfort. This is a rare opportunity for modern-day museum goers literally to become part of an exhibition and thus a part of history itself!
Delaware and the Civil War was made possible by a generous grant from DuPont. The exhibition will run through January 1998, but do not wait to see it! It is worth repeat visits, particularly on family Saturdays.
History comes to life each Saturday in the exhibition galleries through our Family Saturdays programs. Each week, soldiers and costumed civilians entertain visitors with a variety of programs ranging from a talk by President Lincoln to songs of slavery to demonstrations by surgeons, soldiers, and cooks.
Highlights of our programs have included visits by Reverend Handy, a minister imprisoned at Fort Delaware, and interpreter Valerie Boyer who entertained guests on several occasions with her beautiful voice and excellent stories and songs of the plight of African Americans before and during the war. Both President Lincoln (aka Tom Herlihy) and U.S. Grant (aka Sam Shoemaker), shook hands and kissed babies on different occasions. If you have not yet been to the museum to see these reenactors in action, make plans to come soon. And if you have been, come again. Each week, there is something or someone different and wonderful!
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