Monday, May 2, 2011

The Battle of the Mermaid, Part I

Mermaid Tavern
 Anyone who hasn't spent the past few years under a news-impenetrable rock has surely noticed an up-tick in partisan political rancor in this country. Hard as it may be to believe, though, what we have today pales in comparison to what the political atmosphere was like for much of the 1800's. Unsurprisingly, some of the worst episodes took place during the greatest political crisis this country has ever faced -- The Civil War. Since we have recently observed the sesquicentennial of the start of the war at Ft. Sumter, SC, I though this would be a good excuse to revisit the closest thing Mill Creek Hundred saw to a Civil War engagement -- The (so-called) Battle of the Mermaid.

While we now think of the battle lines of the 1860's as being drawn between North and South, or between the Union and the Confederacy, they were not the only divisions of the day, especially in a border state like Delaware. Whereas Lincoln and the Republican Party controlled Washington, in Delaware the Democrats held the Governorship and the state legislature. And because of his now iconic stature (and statue) in history, it's easy to forget that in 1862, Lincoln and his party were not universally loved in the North, and especially not in Delaware. The nation then was even more politically divided than today, with even less trust between parties. And while the Democrats (who were against the war and were pushing for negotiations with the Confederacy) held political power in Delaware, the Republicans controlled the federal government, and, just as importantly, the military. In different ways, this presented potential problems for both parties in the congressional (and in Delaware, Gubernatorial) election of 1862.

The Republicans, for their part, were fearful that with so many of their members away from home in the army, the "stay-at-home Democrats" would do anything they could to steal the election away from them. Given the political climate of the time, this was not an unreasonable fear. To try head off any Democratic interference at the polls, local Republicans requested that federal troops oversee the election and keep it fair. That probably would have been a good idea, had the army been a neutral force. However, as previously stated, the army was firmly controlled by the Republicans, and it, or at least some of its members, was intent on making sure that Lincoln's party came out on top. This sets the stage for the election, which took place November 4, 1862.

Most of what we know about the incidents surrounding the election comes from a report published the following year by a joint committee of the General Assembly, based on eyewitness testimony. And while it's an interesting read (relatively speaking), it's far from an independent review. The tone of the Democratically-held GA towards the Federal government can be neatly summed up by this passage from the introduction to the report:
 Influenced by party considerations alone, the Federal administration, disregarding the limitations upon Federal power plainly written in the Constitution of the country, has been guilty before the whole country of invading one of the smallest States of the Union, not at the instance and request of the constituted authorities of the State, but at the solicitation of corrupt and unscrupulous neighborhood politicians. If this administration had done no previous wrongful act; if its history had been marked by a strict regard for constitutional obligations; if it had not unnecessarily plunged the whole country in ruinous civil war; if it had built no bastiles; deprived no man of his liberty; suspended no writs of habeas corpus; muzzled no presses, nor invaded the right of free thought and free speech, this single act of invading one of the feeblest States of the Union, for no other purpose than to determine the result of her local election, is and ought to be sufficient to brand it with infamy and everlasting disgrace.
No, the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln were not universally popular at the time, even in the North. As you see, Democratic officials here considered the actions of the Federal troops to be the equivalent to an invasion of the state, and they were not happy about it. They were determined to get to the bottom of what happened, and this report was the result. So what did happen? The quick answer seems to be that in several locations around the state, Federal troops patrolled near polling places and passively or actively discouraged voters from voting for the Democratic ticket. One such place where this happened was Mill Creek Hundred's polling place, the Mermaid Tavern on Limestone Road. In the next post, we'll find out exactly what transpired on that November day, and take a brief look at some of the local residents involved in the altercation.


  1. Wow, I guess, The First State, The Blue Hen State, The Diamond State all looked better on letterhead than One of the Feeblest States in the Nation.

    Glad to see you're up and running, thanks again Scott.

  2. Yeah, "The Feeble State" had as much of a chance as did "Delaweenies" (it's a reference to an old Taxi episode). And yes, I am back up and running. I had some stuff going on recently (like no one else does, I know), but I'm now back to a more normal flow. Second part of the post should be up later today. Thanks everyone for sticking around.