- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

To Delawareans of the mid-19th century, it was a serious question: “Are we part of the North or part of the South?”

At the time of the Civil War, Delaware was not only a “border state,” it was a “between” state. Situated on a peninsula dividing the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean from the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware was bordered on the north by the industrialized North. In fact, the northern county of New Castle, with its gunpowder factory, eventually became an essential part of the Northern arsenal.

On the south and west, however, Delaware shared borders with the agricultural South — Maryland and Virginia. As a “border state” during the prewar years of debate on the slavery issue, with slaveholders concentrated in the two lower counties, Delaware felt the pressure.

Of the state’s three counties, northern New Castle leaned toward the North in its sympathies. The middle county of Kent and the southern one of Sussex, mainly agricultural, were more sympathetic to the South, especially when it came to the divisive questions of whether slaves were “property” and whether the federal government had a right to limit a man’s hold on his own property.

On the question of whether states’ rights included secession from the Union, however, Delaware united solidly against it.

Spokesmen for these positions were the three Saulsbury brothers, one a lawyer and U.S. senator (1859-1871); one a lawyer, newspaper owner and editor; and one a doctor who also was a member of the Delaware State Senate (1862) and later governor during Reconstruction (1865-1871).

The brothers spoke with one voice when it came to reverence for the federal Constitution. They found there ample evidence that states had rights over which the federal government had no control, but they found no provision to allow a state to remove itself from the rest of the United States.

Legally, the brothers stood with the Union; emotionally, they were in sympathy with the South.

Gove, the doctor, was the eldest. He was a stern but fair man who felt that whatever decision he had come to by careful study and consideration was right. He had a thriving medical practice and plenty of time for consideration as he drove his horse and buggy around Kent County on house calls.

Eli, the middle brother, was late in coming to the study of law. His physical inability to stay with farming drove him to books, his second love. He avoided “trifling, vicious literature,” and enjoyed studying. His brother Willard was already set up as a lawyer, so Eli read law in that office and then passed the bar. When the Democrats of Delaware needed a newspaper, Eli took naturally to publishing one, and his editorials reflected the opinions of the “Saulsbury Faction,” as the brothers came to be called.

Willard, the youngest, was gregarious and a spellbinding orator. In the days when public entertainment and enlightenment largely came from the spoken word, a man who was good-looking, of commanding stature and gifted with a good speaking voice and a certain way with words found an attentive audience. It didn’t matter whether he spoke from the pulpit, in a courtroom or at public gatherings; his voice and his ideas carried weight.

In his law practice, Willard most often defended the accused and usually won. At age 30, he was appointed attorney general of Delaware. At 35, he was elected to the U.S. Senate by the General Assembly.

Whatever his duties and whenever possible, he was an inveterate traveler through the two lower counties of Delaware. There he listened to and spoke with everyone he met. Men talked to him freely about the things that mattered most — crops, weather, difficulties getting goods to market, and prices. It was said he had been at least once in every village and hamlet in those counties and that before he died at least 50 Sussex County children had been named Willard in his honor.

He was a politician whom local folks knew and trusted. If he said the Union should let the South secede peacefully (because those states surely would come back later of their own accord), that’s what the local folks would say, too. However, when it came to war — well, what are you going to do if young men won’t listen?

His distress was shared by former Gov. William Ross: In 1861, Ross wrote to a friend that his son, Caleb, and three other young men had enlisted in the Confederate cause. He thought he would be accused of sending them, so he quietly left the country and stayed away for a year.

One Saulsbury kinsman joined the Confederacy, as well. On a monument in the Saulsbury home burying ground, he is memorialized: “William C., b. 1835, son of Margaret Ann and James Saulsbury, entered the Confederate Army and was never heard from again.”

The fact that Delaware did not secede probably indicates that it had listened to the Saulsbury Faction. The argument, as Willard noted, came down to the practical fact that secession inevitably would be followed by subjugation by the North before help could come. Also, he gloomily prophesied, even if help did reach the Confederacy, those states would be eaten out of house and home. That was the kind of reasoning hotheads could understand. Thus, the three counties of tiny Delaware came together with the other states that fought to preserve the Union.

Esther Friend lives in Lewes, Del.


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