Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Battle of the Mermaid, Part II

Lt. David Buckingham
In Part I of this post, we set the stage for the events of November 4, 1862, somewhat grandiosely referred to as "The Battle of the Mermaid". To briefly summarize, while the Republican Party held power in Washington, the Democrats controlled Delaware. Local Republicans requested that Federal troops (also under Republican control) monitor polling sites to head off the anticipated Democratic shenanigans (technical 19th Century political term (OK, maybe not)) during the election. One such place this occured was MCH's polling place, the Mermaid Tavern on Limestone Road.

The unit involved in the altercation at the Mermaid was Company E of the Fourth Delaware Regiment Infantry Volunteers. The 4th Delaware was raised earlier that year by prominent Wilmingtonian Arthur H. Grimshaw, and had for several months that summer been encamped at nearby Brandywine Springs. They had recently moved to Camp DuPont on Lancaster Pike near the DuPont mills, and Company E contained a number of MCH residents, probably why it was assigned to patrol here. The company's captain that day (one of two they had) was Cpt. John C. Harper, who probably was a MCH resident, too.

Sometime that morning, the soldiers marched up Limestone Road past the Mermaid, singing an anti-Democrat song, then turned around and came back to the tavern. The soldiers gathered around the porch of the Mermaid, and for a time there were no problems. Then, Cpt. Harper began to take charge of the situation and ordered several men to stand back (whether they were civilians or members of his company is unclear), saying that he wanted to be sure that no illegal votes were cast. Also, it seems that he pushed back local resident Jesse B. Ball, and raised his sword towards him. At that point, Ball withdrew his revolver, pointed it at Harper, and told the officer that he would kill him if he were to try to strike him with his sword. This prompted Harper to draw his revolver, and the Lieutenant present ordered his men to advance upon the porch, muskets and bayonets fixed.

Thankfully, when all was done, no shots were fired (even though several other soldiers had drawn their sidearms as well) and no one was injured. Five men, however, were detained for several days by the troops before being released without so much as a hearing. The five detainees were Jesse P. Ball, Andrew Schultz, Joseph Abbot, Isaiah Ball, and Samuel Little. Jonathan Catlin was said to be on the "wanted list", but was warned before reaching the poll and returned safely home. Needless to say, all these men were known Democrats. The three men whose testimony of the incident was taken in Dover the following March -- Milton Steele, Aquila Derickson, and James Springer -- were also likely Democrats.

It's interesting to note that Francis Cooch, writing almost 70 years later, puts a slightly different spin on the incident. In his telling, it was the "wicked Democrats" who were attempting to prevent the soldiers from voting, but, as he noted, all the soldiers eventually got to vote. In actuality, it was only the Republican soldiers who all got to vote. In the General Assembly report published the following year, it was documented that a number of Democratic soldiers were prevented from voting. In fact, known Democratic soldiers were denied permission to leave camp to vote. Of course, it's not all that surprising to hear this side of the story from Cooch, since he was told the tale by Richard Buckingham. Richard Buckingham was a sergeant in Company E, and his brother David was the lieutenant who ordered his men to advance on the voting citizens. They were the sons of Alban Buckingham (whose house was on the NW corner of Corner Ketch and Pleasant Hill Rds), and David would later be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics in February 1865.  To be sure, though, no one was completely without fault in the Mermaid incident. However, the Democrats were ultimately on the wrong side of history in the 1860's, so it's natural that they would end up as the guilty party.

While I'm sure about the identity of the Buckingham brothers, I'm slightly less sure about their Captain, John C. Harper -- but I have a pretty good guess. Census records indicate there was a John C. Harper, age 30, who lived (in 1860) with his father (also John) just south of Corner Ketch, north of Paper Mill Road. If this is the same man, it makes it all but certain that he knew all the participants (especially Jesse B. Ball, who lived less than a mile away) pretty well. This John C. Harper was a doctor, and moved to Stark County Ohio not long after the war.

The men in uniform were not the only participants in the story that we know a little about, either. The three men whose accounts of the day were recorded in the GA report all resided very near to the Mermaid Tavern. Aquila Derickson lived in the large white house just south of the tavern, and was already the subject of his own post. James Springer's house still stands on the south side of Mendenhall Mill Road, in (what I think is) the neighborhood of Mendenhall Village. Milton Steele had them both beat, though, for proximity to the "battle site" -- he actually lived in the Mermaid. It's really not surprising that these three men were called to testify about the events of the day. All three were very local residents. Two were respected men from established families (Derickson and Springer) and one lived in the hotel in question.

We also know a bit about the five men detained by the soldiers, and the one man who almost was. And this should not take any regular readers by surprise, but they all somehow connect to previous posts (sometimes it's easier to think of MCH more as a spread-out small town). First up is the man at the center of the initial altercation, Jesse B. Ball. If it sounds from the narrative like Ball is someone who is not intimidated by potentially volatile situations, it's probably because he wasn't. Jesse Ball happened to be the proprietor of a tavern/inn. Namely, the tavern in Corner Ketch, that may or may not have once been known as the Corner Kedge. And bear in mind, the inns of that period were more like a truck stop than a motel of today. Ball had probably dealt with many tough characters in his time, so a young Captain with a sword was unlikely to faze him much.

Three of the other men held by the soldiers probably arrived together at the Mermaid that day, since they lived and worked together a little to the west. Andrew Shultz (a Swiss immigrant who may have been Andrew Shock), Joseph Abbot, and Isaiah Ball (who may have been a brother of Jesse, and may have actually been Isaak Ball) were all farm hands in the employ of Joseph Eastburn. Yes, that Joseph Eastburn. The same Joseph Eastburn who was the second generation operator of the lime business along Pike Creek. So knowing what we know, even though the census lists the men as farm hands, it's likely that they actually worked quarrying and/or burning lime for the Eastburns. (Does it seem like we can't go two posts without coming back to this family?)

The last of the five taken into custody that day was the only one who may possibly be categorized as a casualty of the event -- 67 year old Samuel Little. Little (who was almost certainly related to Lora Little, possibly a great uncle), according to the testimony of Milton Steele, became sick after the ordeal of his arrest and, as of March 1863, was ill enough that he was not expected to recover. I have not found records yet of his death, but it's very possible that he did succumb soon after from the effects of his five-day confinement at the hands of the Army. If so, he was far less lucky that Jonathan Catlin, who was warned by Steele of his imminent arrest, and was able to return home without being apprehended. Catlin was the son-in-law of Justa Justis, and the home to which he returned that day was the one built by his father in law on Duncan Road, near Milltown Road. Six years earlier, Catlin had inherited the home after the passing of Justa's wife, Catherine.

All in all, the events of November 4, 1862 were fairly tame as riots go, but frighteningly close to violent for an election in a supposedly advanced country such as ours. Putting some background behind the major players of the day shows that this was not a stand-off between innocent locals and an "invading army". This was really an armed political confrontation between neighbors. I think it's safe to assume that everyone there that day knew each other -- probably pretty well. And while the political divides of today may seem extreme, I sincerely hope it never gets to the point where voters of any party need to face the barrel of a gun in order to exercise their right to vote.

1 comment:

  1. Two quick personnel updates/clarifications, courtesy of frequent informant Donna Peters. First, I was correct about the identity of the Captain in the story, John Chandler Harper. He was the guy I thought he was, and he was discharged from the Army a few months later, in Feb 1863 due to failing health. He obviously recovered, as he did move to OH, then later to MI, where he died in 1898.

    Secondly, an interesting note about the Buckingham brothers -- their mother, Mary, was the daughter of David and Elizabeth Eastburn. So, the three men arrested by David (Schulz, Abbot, and Ball) all worked for his uncle. And as a final connection, John Harper's sister married Oliver Eastburn, the Buckinghams' cousin. Again, MCH seems more like a small town, spread out.