Loyalties to the South force Gov. Ross to leave the country

December 8, 2023

Sussex was a conflicted county in the year leading up to and during the Civil War 1861-65.

While the Delaware majority in New Castle County were pro-Union that fought off attempts to secede and join the Southern states, a great number of Sussex residents were Southern sympathizers.

It resulted in strained relationships and turbulent political times.

During the war years, several county residents were arrested for aiding the Confederacy – for spying, blockade running, smuggling goods, and supplying arms and equipment.

There were heroes from Sussex County on both sides of the battlefields. And pockets of residents did whatever they could to support their side.

Sussex did play a role in the Civil War, but it's not one that history shines on. Because of its proximity to the Nanticoke River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay, Seaford became a smuggling center for shipment of supplies down the Nanticoke and across the bay to Virginia to the Confederate Army.

It's estimated as many as 2,000 Delawareans fought for the Confederacy, with the majority in Sussex County. The Delaware Grays Camp 2068 Sons of Confederate Veterans pay tribute to those soldiers and others who supported the South on their Confederate memorial in Georgetown.

Ross supports the South

There is no other one man who epitomized the state’s division more than William Henry Harrison Ross, a former governor who owned a large farm near Seaford and had 12 slaves working in his fields. According to research, about 2,000 enslaved people worked on Delaware farms, with about 1,500 in Sussex County.

Ross was an outspoken Southern supporter. One of his sons and his son-in-law fought for the Confederacy. His son, Caleb, joined the 9th Virginia Calvary in Ashland, Va., in 1861 and died that same year of typhoid fever.

As one of the richest men in Sussex, he had a lot to lose siding for the South in a Union state. Everyone up and down the state knew where he stood.

He realized that, and in 1861, he left his farm and lived in England until war's end in order to preserve at least some of his assets and prevent retribution. He left behind his wife, Emeline, and their 10 children.

Ross was born in Laurel in 1814 and worked a variety of jobs in his early years. In 1845, he moved to a farm near Seaford and constructed his unique home just before the Civil War broke out.

As one of the first Sussex farmers to grow large orchards of fruit trees, including peaches, he became a very wealthy man and a leader in the community.

He was a popular Democrat and served as the 37th governor from 1851-55. At the age of 36, he was the youngest man elected to the office.

He played a major role in reviving efforts to get the Delaware Railroad to put down rails in Sussex. And guess where the line stopped? At the Ross Farm depot.

Trains running daily to Philadelphia changed the farming economy, as farmers switched crops from wheat and corn to higher-priced tomatoes, strawberries, peaches and other perishables. Ross quickly became a local hero.

While in England, in a letter to a friend in 1861, Ross wrote that the United States was doomed, and the events of April and May 1861 demonstrated that the people had gone “stark mad”; he did not believe that recovery would occur until they were "irretrievably ruined."

In a letter to his wife, he wrote: “Not that I am guilty of any act against the government of the U.S., but I am considered to entertain opinions which are pronounced by some people as disloyal. For that reason I will remain out of the country, hoping that the American people may some day return to their reason when I may return in safety to spend the remainder of my days in a country ruined by the madness and fanaticism of its own people."

The war took a huge financial toll on Ross, as he had invested $62,000 in border-state bonds, which were worthless. 

When he returned from exile, he became a successful importer and manufacturer of fertilizer and farm supplies.

He died in Philadelphia and is buried in the St. Luke's Episcopal Church cemetery in Seaford.

The Ross Mansion

The Ross Mansion, purchased in 1976 and restored by the Seaford Historical Society, is a rare example of Italianate-style construction. The 20-acre farm includes a honeymoon cottage, granary, corn cribs and a stable. Next to the mansion is the only verified slave quarter in the state. The home, finished in 1859, was built by Ross and his family.

The mansion is open for public tours that are on hold presently as more restoration work is competed.

I have a strange connection to the mansion. Before much restoration was completed, the new Seaford Public Broadcasting Service had a studio in one of the rooms. Somehow I got talked into doing a live weekly news show. It was a terrible experience, because live TV is unforgiving. Plus the room wasn’t air conditioned and the studio lights made the temperature climb into the 90s for sure. I remember one lady I was interviewing who froze into a state of unrelenting fear and did not respond to anything. Her segment was supposed to last 10 minutes. I had to fill that time with drivel. Luckily, I’m sure only about 10 people watched the show. That was my first and last association with TV.

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Editor’s note: Part 2 of this column will discuss Sussex County Southern sympathizers who worked covertly to help the Confederacy.

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