Millsboro farmer goes to war

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities between the North and South in 1861, the armed forces of the United States totaled just over 16,000 men. These “regulars” had to be greatly supplemented to create the huge armies that confronted each other during four years of combat.

The Civil War Trust’s website points out that, by war’s end, more than 3 million Northerners and Southerners had taken up arms — almost exclusively as “volunteers.” Included were more than 14,000 from the state of Delaware.

In his study of the common Civil War soldier, historian Bell I. Wiley described the average Yankee or Rebel soldier as a single, white, native-born, protestant farmer who was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 26 years old.

Samuel Coffin, a farmer from Millsboro, Del., only partially fit this mold when he trekked up to Wilmington, where Lt. Caleb Churchman accepted his enlistment for three years in the 1st Delaware Cavalry on Nov. 10, 1862. At the time, he was married with a 4-year-old son, was atypically tall at 6 feet, 1 inch, and the army listed him at various times as 28 or 34 years of age (while his descendants believe he was probably 31).

Although his unit was stationed in Wilmington, Coffin was fortunate to be “on detached service at Georgetown” for unspecified reasons, from March 2 until sometime in April 1863. This located him close to his family.

Coffin’s descendants still live in the Millsboro area, but little has been passed down within the family about Samuel’s activities during the Civil War. His service file at the National Archives, however, reveals that he participated in an event of some repute at Westminster, Md.

On June 29, 1863, a 1st Delaware Cavalry detachment of about 95 men was guarding the Western Maryland Railroad, an important communications and supply center at Westminster. Unknown at the time, they were lying in the path of Confederate Maj. Gen. “Jeb” Stuart’s force of some 4,500 cavalrymen moving up from the south to rejoin Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army of invasion in Pennsylvania.

An earlier column (in the Nov. 2, 2012, edition of the Coastal Point) described the bravery of these totally outnumbered Delawareans who, under the leadership of Capt. Charles Corbit, charged into the lead elements of Stuart’s brigades in a vain attempt to delay the seizure of this transportation route.

Most of these daring combatants were driven away or captured, the latter including Samuel Coffin. A cursory description of what occurred appears in Coffin’s record: “Captured at Westminster, Md. June 29 ’63. Released on irregular parole by Maj. Gen. Stuart CSA at Dover, Pa. [on] July 1 ’63.”

Prior to being released at Dover near York, Pa., Coffin and the other 1st Delaware Cavalry prisoners witnessed another clash of arms when Stuart ran into a much stronger Union cavalry force under Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick at Hanover, Pa., on June 30. This one-day interlude further delayed Stuart’s effort to reach Lee’s main army and negatively impacted the Confederates’ chances for victory during the battle at Gettysburg that began on July 1.

Upon Samuel’s “parole” or release at Dover, he was “ordered to duty by Maj. Gen. Schenck,” commander, 8th Army Corps in Baltimore.” Probably because of his ordeal and capture, he received permission to go on leave and presumably returned to Millsboro to visit his wife and young son.

Samuel became sick and spent January and February 1864 in a Wilmington, Del., hospital. Bad luck continued when the army docked his pay $20 to pay for a Colt’s pistol he lost and later $3.25 for some lost “ordnance stores” — hefty penalties considering a private’s pay was $13 per month.

In the latter months of 1864, Coffin accompanied the 1st Delaware Cavalry on “picket and outpost duty” along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and guarding the Potomac River fords in Maryland from Georgetown up to Point of Rocks.

The 1st Delaware continued to protect the B&O Railroad in the early months of 1865. The war soon ended, and Samuel mustered out of the army on June 30, 1865.

Coffin passed away at a fairly young age of 51, in 1883. His son Willard, however, lived to the ripe old age of 98. His energy and productivity during those years is evidenced by his fathering 20 children, the last at age 61. Willard passed this longevity to his 19th child, son Howard, who is alive today at 93.

The farmer from Millsboro, Samuel Coffin, was one of the many Delawareans who answered the call when their country needed them. Undoubtedly the highlight of his service occurred on June 29, 1863, when he followed company commander Capt. Charles Corbit and the unit flag in a courageous attempt to make a stand against a much stronger foe.

Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker, and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at

Be sure to check out Thomas Ryan on WHYY's Delaware First segment on the Civil War.