Skip to main content

Greenville & Hockessin Life

Henry du Pont, Camp Brandywine and the outcome of the Civil War

Dec 06, 2023 12:02PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Gene Pisasale
Contributing Writer

Historians generally try to avoid discussing questions that begin with “What if…?” Yet one such question concerning a Delaware business and its top executive prompts a long list of queries which are both thought-provoking and fascinating to ponder. When the business under review is one of the foremost industrial concerns in America, it raises the discussion to a whole new level—and instills a sense of wonder at the vicissitudes of history which brought our nation to where it is today.
It is December 20, 1860. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln as President, adamant pro-slavery politicians in South Carolina announce that their state has seceded from the Union. The action sent shock waves throughout the entire nation—and spurred several other states in the South to follow South Carolina’s lead. Less than two months later, the newly formed Confederate States of America would eventually encompass 11 members who decreed that they would support and protect the institution of slavery and oppose any efforts to restrict its expansion. On April 12, 1861, rebels in Charleston, South Carolina put their words into action, firing upon Federal troops at Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War.
Henry du Pont was the second son of Eleuthere Irenee du Pont, the founder of E.I. du Pont de Nemours, which began in 1802 and became one of the largest producers of gunpowder in North America. Born August 8, 1812, it is ironic that Henry came into this world during a war—and later would have a profound impact on the outcome of another, much larger, conflict. He was educated at West Point and commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army in 1833. After one year of service, Henry agreed to his father’s request and joined the Du Pont Company. In the early 1800s, Du Pont‘s manufacturing operations were producing significant quantities of gunpowder. The firm was the major supplier for the U.S. Army in the War of 1812 and later in the Mexican-American War. 
In 1850, Henry became President of the Du Pont Company. With his conservative leanings, he later supported Lincoln for President. After the attack on Fort Sumter, Henry was outraged and let it be known that his company would NOT do business with the Confederacy, supplying only the Union Army. According to Lucas Clawson, Archivist at the Hagley Museum, du Pont told his own son: “…secession is treason to the government of the United States…” 
Henry knew that through subterfuge, rebels would try to acquire the high quality gunpowder which his firm produced, but according to Clawson, he “maintained a strict policy that no black powder would be sold or shipped to states in rebellion or to any customers whom he suspected were Confederate sympathizers. He held fast to this policy and made sure all of the company’s sales agents followed his directions…”
In wartime, ‘all bets are off’ so prized materials sometimes find their way into the hands of the enemy. It came to the company’s attention that some of its powder was being seized from abandoned Union military positions—and even from some sales agents, which infuriated Henry and his team. According to Clawson, Du Pont’s accountants estimated that in the year 1863—the height of the Civil War—Confederates gained control of approximately $110,000 worth of gunpowder. This loss was a severe one for the company and management had to make adjustments.
Personal political perspectives can influence the direction of a nation. The Hagley archives indicate that Henry despised all Confederates and felt they were never to be trusted or dealt with. Yet what might have transpired if… Henry was a Confederate sympathizer? Delaware was a slave state during the Civil War, along with Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, although those states did not secede from the Union. Despite Delaware voting on January 3, 1861 not to secede, many residents, especially in southern Delaware, owned slaves and supported the horrific practice. What if Henry had secretly aligned his company with those slave owners—and acted on his beliefs? The largest producer of gunpowder in America could easily have provided substantial supplies to the Confederates, at least surreptitiously, through clandestine channels, and affected the outcome of that nation-changing conflict.
On Kennett Pike (Delaware Route 52) at the intersection with Briars Lane in Greenville, Delaware stands a blue and gold historical marker. It reads: “CAMP BRANDYWINE- In the Civil War the first camp of this name was at Wilmington Fair Grounds for the First and Second Delaware Regiments. The same name was given this site in September 1862 for a camp of Pennsylvania troops sent to guard the powder mills. They were relieved by the Fourth Delaware Regiment the next month when the site was known briefly as Camp du Pont, then later as Camp Brandywine.” Without the protection of Federal troops, the Du Pont powder works could easily have been sabotaged or looted by rebel forces, changing the trajectory of the war.
Henry du Pont was not an “armchair observer.” Since 1846 he had held the post of Adjutant General of Delaware and in May 1861, Governor William Burton appointed him a Major General, in charge of all the soldiers in the state. Upon taking this office, Henry ordered every man of military age in Delaware to take an oath of allegiance to the United States—or else surrender his weapons, although the order was overruled by Governor Burton. Henry was one of many du Pont family members who supported the Union. His son Henry Algernon du Pont served under General Philip Sheridan and was awarded the Medal of Honor. Samuel Francis du Pont was a two-star Admiral and helped capture Port Royal, South Carolina. Congress named Du Pont Circle in Washington, D.C. in his honor.
Henry du Pont died on the same day of his birth—August 8—in 1889. In his 77 years, he helped to guide a nation through the most turbulent time in its history. His gravesite lies along with other family members in the Du Pont de Nemours Cemetery.  It is fortunate for our country that there were citizens like Henry du Pont who held a unique combination of attributes—business savviness and unbridled loyalty—at exactly the right time. Without them, the nation we know and love today could have turned out quite differently.

Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His 11 books focus mostly on the history of the Chester County/mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s latest book is Heritage of the Brandywine Valley, a beautifully illustrated hardcover book with over 250 images showcasing the fascinating people, places and events of this region over more than 300 years. His books are available on his website at and also on Gene can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Greenville & Hockessin Life's free newsletter to catch every headline