In July 1862, United States Senator James A. Bayard wrote to his son before leaving Washington for the summer recess describing the political atmosphere in the United States. “We are living under a petty but ruthless tyranny,” he said, “and God knows what folly this admin and its members are not capable of….It is sad, very sad, to think and feel how low the nation has fallen, and how little reason, knowledge of civil liberty, or high tone sentiment or even humanity of feeling is left.” He lamented that the American people were “ready for any folly barbarism or brutality those leaders chose to perpetrate.” The past year-and-a-half had been a brutal stretch for civil liberty in the United States, and Bayard could sense that things would continue to worsen, particularly in his home State of Delaware. He was correct.
The history of Delaware during the War years is little known, but the actions of the Republican Party in the State expose the ruthless tactics the Party was willing to undertake to root out and destroy political opposition. There is a reason Bayard called the Republicans in Congress and in Delaware “reptiles.” They wrecked the election process, violated civil liberties, confiscated mail, and subverted republican institutions for their own partisan gain. The clearest example would be the November 1862 invasion of the State by the United States military with the sole purpose being to influence the elections for both State and federal offices. This event had the consent of both State Republicans, including the candidate for governor and the Republican congressional delegation, and the Lincoln administration, including Abraham Lincoln himself.
Delaware Republicans, namely Congressmen George P. Fisher, feared “Southern sympathy” in the State would lead to defeat in the upcoming elections and thus began to petition the Lincoln administration to take action. Fisher, for whom Lincoln had “a warm feeling and a high regard,” wrote the President on 14 August in reference to the November election. Since he had received only a “plurality” of 247 votes in 1860, he wanted the Lincoln administration to keep Delaware troops at home to vote in the election. These 500 to 1000 votes, he thought, would strengthen Republican chances of carrying the State. Additionally, Fisher asked Lincoln to postpone drafting troops in Delaware until after the election and urged the administration to strip Democrat Governor William Burton of all appointment powers over the volunteer and militia unites of the State. Fisher believed this would save State Republicans from the “fury of our enemies.” Lincoln agreed to most of his requests, and stated he was “painfully surprised” to hear of his concern over the matter. He closed his letter by assuring Fisher that he wished for his success “as much as you can wish it yourself.” Lincoln’s assurances of support would not be enough to placate Fisher and other State Republicans, and by October Delaware Republicans secured Union troops to help influence the election.
The results of the “little” elections in October terrified Delaware Republicans. Democrats swept most local offices in the State, and Republicans feared an impending Democratic victory in the November election. False reports that Southern sympathizers from Maryland would be brought north to help influence the November election, and that hostile Democrats crowded polling places in Kent and SussexCounties moved quickly through Republican channels. Fisher and Republican gubernatorial candidate William Cannon continued to solicit help from local military officials to put down this Democratic resurgence and help place them in office. In mid-October, between one hundred and one hundred and twenty United States cavalry “paraded” through the State, attended political meetings, cheered for Republican candidates, and insulted the Democratic candidate for Congress, William Temple, and other members of his party, including Bayard. The cavalry remained in the State for two weeks, and most Democrats concluded that the troops arrived to spread alarm and produce “intimidation among the Democrats.”
On the Sunday before the general election, Fisher and other Republican officials attended a meeting in Milford, Delaware to discuss the prospects for military occupation on election day. Fisher wanted to petition the federal government for armed intervention in the elections, and the others in attendance agreed that troops were necessary to prevent a Democratic victory. When Fisher’s request for troops was initially denied by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, gubernatorial candidate William Cannon took matters into his own hands by personally asking Colonel James Wallace (a slave-holding Republican partisan) of the Maryland Home Guards to enter the State on election day. This group had previously been in the State disarming and arresting anti-Republican militia units. Cannon’s move was highly irregular, for this request would normally be made by the State Executive, a position Cannon coveted but did not yet occupy. Stanton eventually complied with Fisher’s demand, as did Wallace, and days before the election, 1200 troops arrived in Kent and SussexCounties. The troops were divided into units of between forty and sixty men under the command of Provost Marshals and distributed to polling places throughout the State. The Provost Marshals were considered “active and violent partisans of the Republican party,” and were appointed without Governor Burton’s authority. In fact, Burton had been given no indication of the impending military invasion by the federal government.
The military presence intimidated voters across Kent and Sussex Counties. Soldiers stood with drawn sabers at the voting window in Georgetown, while Democrats were charged with fixed bayonets in Dover. Some prominent Democrats were required to take an oath of allegiance before voting, and in many cases, Democratic ballots were replaced Republican ballots. Troops arrested and incarcerated Democrats suspected of being disloyal, or those who refused to take the oath, and drove many voters from the polls. Republican officials claimed that troops were necessary to prevent disorder among voters, but when questioned about the subject during a legislative investigation following the election, few Republicans could recall any instances of violence that would have necessitated federal intervention in the State. Troops had been introduced, in the words of one prominent Republican, to prevent being “beaten badly” at the general election.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, the troops did not have the desired effect. Cannon was elected governor, but Fisher lost his seat to William Temple and Democrats gained control of the Delaware Legislature. Following the election, future Delaware Governor Gove Saulsbury formed a committee to investigate the military occupation. After the testimony of over one hundred citizens, most of whom thought “that troops were not necessary on the day of the election, either to preserve peace or ensure a fair election,” Saulsbury concluded that the Lincoln administration should be branded “in infamy and everlasting disgrace” for the introduction of troops into “one of the feeblest states in the union, for no other purpose than to determine the result of her local election,” for involving the country in a destructive civil war, for suspending the writ of habeas corpus, for suppressing free thought and free speech, and for depriving many of life and liberty.
Saulsbury’s report is available for free online, but outside of a few State historians, no one knows it exists and it has rarely been cited in academic works. It is a sweeping indictment of the Lincoln administration, particularly in regard to the usurpation of power by the executive branch. If no other event damns the Lincoln administration, the military invasion of Delaware in 1862 should certainly pierce the supposedly impenetrable armor of the Lincoln myth. One can only hope. (A portion of this essay is reproduced from my dissertation at the University of South Carolina, A Lonely Opposition: James A. Bayard, Jr. and the American Civil War)