Civil War Profiles – African-Americans in 19th-century Delaware

Black History Month prompts a review of significant historical events affecting African-Americans in Delaware during the Civil War era. This includes antebellum years, the North-South conflict of 1861-1865 and Reconstruction.

During the early 19th century, Delaware legislators passed laws to restrict the rights of blacks. They could not vote, hold a political office or testify in court against whites.

Resentment at white control of religious services led black members to form the Union African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington in 1805. Churches became a central part of African-American lives.

Economically, the only jobs available to most blacks were as laborers or domestics, and those who could not pay their debts could be auctioned into slavery for a number of years. The one bright note was the ownership of property on the part of blacks grew in the decade before the Civil War.

So-called “black codes” were instituted as early as 1726 to control the behavior and activities of free blacks in Delaware. These codes banned blacks from owning guns or swords, and prohibited the sale of alcohol to blacks, and marriage between blacks and whites was illegal.

In 1860, the Delaware population totaled 112,216, of which only 1,798 — or less than 2 percent — were slaves. At the outset of the Civil War, slavery was close to being extinct, for a variety of political, religious and economic reasons.

Farmers found it cheaper to hire blacks than to keep them as slaves. Legislation restricting the exportation of slaves into the Deep South for considerable profit was an important reason slavery was on the decline.

Three times prior to the Civil War, the General Assembly voted on a bill to abolish slavery, and each time it failed: in 1792, then again in 1803 and 1847 — the latter two times by just one vote. Yet, even though slavery was nearly extinct, the State refused to abolish slavery up to and through the Civil War.

The Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Delaware was a prime thoroughfare for escaping slaves from other Southern states. Conductors of slaves on the UGRR included Samuel Burris, a black man born free in Willow Grove, and Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave from Maryland.

At the time of the Civil War in 1861, many blacks saw a way to gain entry into the political process through military service. Their opportunity came when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, which permitted blacks to join the army and navy.

Nearly 1,000 Delaware blacks enlisted in U.S. Colored Troop units, principally the 8th, 22nd, 25th and 32nd USCT, formed in Philadelphia in 1863-1864. Although records for Delaware blacks are incomplete, USCT units in general averaged a 20 percent casualty rate.

While Delaware was not directly involved in the Reconstruction of the Southern states following the Civil War, the laws passed during that period had an impact on the lives of African-Americans in the state. The Democrats — the party in power — were determined to keep blacks in their pre-war status.

After the Civil War, when Congress passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments — providing blacks freedom, due process and voting rights — most Democrats and some Republicans in Delaware rejected the concepts outright, especially in Kent and Sussex counties. Throughout the Reconstruction years in Delaware, Democrats found ways to prevent blacks from voting, especially by manipulating the tax law of 1873.

In 1875, Congress passed a Civil Rights bill that gave equal rights to all citizens, but the Delaware Democratic legislature put into effect a law that essentially nullified the congressional bill. Nearly 100 years passed before those barriers began to break down.

The historical lesson is that a nation based on freedom and equality was a concept not yet achieved. A large portion of the population was not free and equal.

Despite sustained resistance and handicaps that blacks had to deal with over the years, they managed to overlook the difficulties and went about their lives without being disgruntled or disillusioned. Rather, they kept the faith, and remained loyal to Delaware as the place of their birth and their home state.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him at, or visit his website at