Delaware Historical Society

Visit their website or Facebook, and read on for a feature story about one of their collections objects!

The Luck of the Draw

dhs-3Today, the glass-sided wheel looks innocuous, event pretty. But in 1863, it held the fates of hundreds of Delaware men. With the Civil War well under way and the Union armies in need of more manpower, the United States enacted its first national draft. All over the country, authorities spun wheels like this one and drew out cards bearing the names of eligible men (aged 20-45). In Delaware, a Union state where slavery was still legal, these names included those of white men as well as free and enslaved African Americans.

Original Civil War draft cards found inside the Delaware Historical Society’s wheel.

Many Americans objected to the draft, arguing that it favored wealthy men, especially those who could afford to pay a substantial “commutation fee” to avoid being drafted or hire a substitute to serve in their place. The alternatives, for poor black and white men, were to enlist or play the odds and hope that the authorities drew someone else’s name from the wheel.

dhs-1As a visitor to the recently renovated galleries of the Delaware Historical Society, you can find this draft wheel in a unique two-sided case. From one side, standing in the new permanent exhibition, “Delaware: One State, Many Stories,” you view the draft wheel in the context of Delaware’s history, as a part of the Union war effort. From the other side, within the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage’s “Journey to Freedom” gallery, you look at the same draft wheel as a testament to the experiences of African-American Delawareans (who, if drafted, would have to travel to another state to join one of the segregated regiments of the “United States Colored Troops”). From both sides, you can imagine the anxiety this wheel inspired 150 years ago.


Visit the Delaware Historical Society

Location: 505 N. Market Street, Wilmington, DE 19801

Phone: (302) 655-7161

Hours: Downtown Wilmington sites: Wednesday-Saturday, 11AM-4PM; Read House & Gardens: Wednesday-Sunday, 11AM-4PM (open at 10AM Saturdays).

Admission: Wilmington sites: $5-6; Read House & Gardens: $7 (senior, student, children, and military discounts).

Visit their website and Facebook!

Connections: The Civil War also impacted Delaware businesses, including the gunpowder manufacturer DuPont. At Hagley Museum & Library, you can watch the original DuPont gunpowder mills in action.

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