Former Vice President Joe Biden’s past statements about busing, segregationist senators and Delaware’s history and demographics have come under a microscope now that he’s the leading contender for the Democrat presidential nomination.
Rolling Stone quotes a 1987 Philadelphia Inquirer story in which Biden says, among other things, “we (Delawareans) were on the South’s side in the Civil War.”
From the article:
The quotes go to the heart of his critics’ complaints about the former vice president, a septuagenarian whose nearly 40-year Senate career features many instances when his policies and rhetoric were out of step with today’s progressives. Biden has countered many of these criticisms by a record of working with civil rights leaders, his push for marriage equality and legislative achievements that include the Violence Against Women Act and an extension of the Voting Rights Act — but his record has come under attack from his 2020 rivals.
Strangely, whether Biden ever said this or not, nowhere in the article does the Rolling Stone reporter bother to question if indeed the statement about Delaware being part of the Confederacy is correct.
It is not.
Yet, in fairness to the vice president, the state’s somewhat divided loyalties during that period make things a bit more complicated.
Delaware was a slave-holding border state during the Civil War; public sentiment in parts of the state was certainly with the South. But as we explained last fall (on the occasion of Bing’s Bakery winning a “Best of the South” award in Southern Living magazine), Delaware was most definitely and officially on the side of the Union during the war.
In fact, Delaware citizens actually voted not to secede on January 3, 1861. More than 12,000 Confederate prisoners of war including Brig. General J. Johnston Pettigrew were ultimately held at Fort Delaware, many of them dying due to terrible conditions. Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad famously brought escaped slaves to Wilmington. And more than 800 Delawareans died fighting for the Union (Delaware’s total deaths were small compared to states like Pennsylvania (33,000) and New York (46,000).
An endearing, but unverified sentiment said to be uttered by the state’s governor at the time, William Burton of Milford (himself opposed to abolition), was that Delaware had been the first state to embrace the Union by ratifying the Constitution and therefore would be the last to leave it.
Our article cited a 2014 UD exhibition, “A State Divided”:
Delaware had a complicated identity in this era.
“During the Civil War, Delaware was one of five border states—in addition to Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and later West Virginia—slave states that remained in the Union but bordered states that joined the Confederacy,” curator Maureen Ceh wrote. “Delaware represented a microcosm of the nation as a whole on matters of states’ rights, slavery, and support for the Union cause. Although Delaware remained firmly in the Union, widespread division of Union and Confederate sympathies within the state caused considerable tension among the State’s population.”
Sadly and shamefully, on February 8, 1865, with the Union on the cusp of victory, Delaware voted to reject the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution and so voted to continue slavery beyond the Civil War.