The Luck of the Draw
Today, 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.
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.
As 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).