This ten-minute history of the Eastern Shore’s involvement in the American Civil War is drawn from the paper “The Eastern Shore of Virginia In the Civil War” by Matthew Ostergaard Krogh, published to the Faculty of Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University on April 28, 2006. The paper was contributed by reader Joeseph Corcoran. While this survey touches on top level themes contained in the paper, the Mirror highly recommends reading the entire paper, notably the critique of sources. Passages enclosed in quotes were taken from Mr. Krogh’s text in their entirety.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia did not host major military engagements; however, it did hold strategic importance. Given the high level of secessionist activity taking place in Accomac and Northampton Counties, there was the fear that these counties could influence and inflame the same feelings that were stirring in Maryland and Delaware. Gen. John Adams Dix, the Union commander of the Department of Maryland, wrote in an 1861 letter to Francis Blair of President Lincoln’s administration that “we are in the most danger on the Eastern Shore [of Virginia].”
Dix made a preemptive strike on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in late 1861.
Throughout the Shore, southern sympathizers were attempting to run Unionists out of the county although to no avail. The Commonwealth finally decided to hold a statewide session and Miers Fisher and William H. B. Custis, two Eastern Shore delegates, attended. Fisher voted to secede. Custis, of Accomac County voted against secession both times. Yet on May 23 most of the counties of Virginia, including Accomac and Northampton, ratified the Ordinance of Secession.
While secession on the shore remained tied to slavery, loyalties were also based on trade. Those that traded across the bay with Hampton Roads, or up the bay with Baltimore, leaned towards secession, while those that traded north with New York and Philadelphia sided with the Union. The Shore remained divided, with no geography being entirely secessionist or Unionist—except for the islands, Chincoteague, Hog and Tangier, which traded seafood extensively with Philadelphia and New York markets, remained firmly Union throughout the war.
The Counties and Slavery
In 1860, there were almost as many free blacks in Accomac as there were slaves – 4,507 slaves and 3,418 free blacks. With landed gentry making a small portion of the landscape, the planters would sometimes just free slaves, or in some cases, slaves with highly developed skills could make enough money to buy freedom. Boston, a free black community created in 1803 resulted as the legacy of a dead planter who freed his slaves in his will. Since there were fewer slaves, large scale planters could not cultivate expansive tracts of land; this created a culture of smaller farmers. Still, with 773, Accomac had more slave owners than Northampton. In Northampton, dominated by landed gentry, slavery was considered necessary to maintain the large-scale plantation operations, and as such, was much more embedded in the lower Eastern Shore.
39th Confederate Infantry
The Confederate 39th Virginia Infantry was a regiment of “800 men, divided into eleven companies of infantry, cavalry, and light artillery.” Camps were located near Drummondtown (Accomac Courthouse) and Eastville(Camp Wise and Camp Huger), Camp Lee, in northern Accomac, and Camp Johnson, in southern Accomac. While tasked with defense, the 39th never went on the offensive. They did serve on the mainland, having to break the Union blockade of the Chesapeake Bay using sloops, skows and canoes to do so.
In 1863 Gen. Benjamin Butler offered to organize a recruiting party to create a black regiment. In response, Gen. R. S. Canby sent the 10th United States Colored Troops to recruit men. Ex-slave Robert Dennis of Accomac enlisted with the 10th in July and served out the war. The 10th U. S. C. T. relieved the 1st Maryland at Drummondtown, Cherrystone, and Chincoteague Island.
Union officials also created enlistment points at Pungoteague, Jenkins Bridge, Franktown, Bayside, Pitts Wharf, and Drummondtown. “In March 1864, the unit left for Hilton Head where they “took part in an expedition up the Asheepoo River and to John’s Island. Several black Eastern Shoremen became noncommissioned officers, including three sergeants, and four corporals. Men from the unit fell at Chaffin’s Farm, and Petersburg.”
Fifteen of the original enlistees died from diseases such as cholera while on duty in Beaufort, South Carolina, and Brownsville, Louisiana.
With the need for more seasoned troops, yet still wanting to secure the Shore, in 1863 the Union opted to create another unit of loyal white Virginians on the Eastern Shore. Enlistees had a bounty for three years or the duration of the war.
Blockade runners were the only method of getting goods across the Bay to the Shore (and vice-versa). In most cases, this involved munitions such as muskets, rifles, ammunition, powder and pig iron, but also food. Union Naval vessels in the “York River captured the sloop Josephus loaded with corn, oats, eighteen chickens, and six bushels of clams.”
Runners also provided information in the form of newspapers, mail, and gossip. In this way Shore citizens kept track of family members and events. In 1863, “Emma LeCato, a young Accomac student, heard about the battle of Chancellorsville only six days after it occurred.”
The most valuable cargo was people. Passengers included disaffected Unionists, Southern refugees, Confederate soldiers, and businessmen. “A merchant named Samuel Hunter served the firm, Hopkins, Hull & Atkinson, of Baltimore. Hunter, only twenty-one years old, had been engaged in collecting bills for goods sold by the firm. He claimed to have traveled through the Shore when he was arrested by Union forces on the Potomac River.”
These runners were well-suited for the work. They depended on their knowledge of the creeks and shoreline to guide them. Most worked the water during the antebellum period and were intimate with the islands, creeks, bays, and marshes. Despite the service, “only the communities which blockade runners served gave them refuge, food, and supplies to continue their efforts.”
If confronted, most abandoned their boats and fled. They were almost always captured without a struggle—usually caught on land, not on the water.
Gilbert Marshall is considered the John S. Mosby of Shore runners. Several Union ships patrolled Pocomoke Sound around Saxis, yet they could not stop or capture Marshall and his band of runners. “In twenty-five foot canoes, they carried salt and food, although only on dark nights.”
Early in 1865, Union soldiers tracked Marshall down to a store in Saxis and “demanded that the owner give Marshall up or have his building burned.” Marshall surrendered, and delighted Union troops then “held a party in a local house with a chained Marshall as their guest of honor. Using the celebration to his advantage, Marshall convinced his guard to loosen his cuffs. While they did this, Marshall fought his way free, fled the house, and hid in a nearby icehouse.”
Marshall was never found and eventually left the island. The war ended shortly thereafter.
Oyster-dredging, which had become a bone of contention even before the war, continued to create hot spots along the Shore. “On March 3, 1864, Theodore Reed, a sea captain from Philadelphia, traveled south through the Chesapeake Bay with a seven-man crew that dredged oysters in Hunting Creek in Accomac County.” At the time, a Virginia statute empowered any oysterman possessing a license to arrest any “foreigner” dredging along the shore. Captain Reed’s ship was boarded by the Virginians, but on the way to Onancock, Reed “attempted to throw the oystermen overboard.” He got a gun away from one man, but was shot in the arm by another. “Two surgeons examined Reed’s wound and found it mortal. Reed died five days later.”
In July, 800 men of the 138th Regiment Ohio National Guard arrived to protect Cherrystone from Oyster poaching. The Ohioans had some fun, taking salt water baths and catching crabs.
Shore mosquitoes were a bit more than they bargained for. Pvt. George W. Bonsall wrote, “We could not very well remember that we were in Virginia if there was nothing to torment us.”
A distressed economy led to increased fighting and racial tensions on the Shore. In 1864 Federal officials placed much of the Shore under martial law. In November Lt. Col. White issued decrees regarding economic restrictions. “After revoking most permits, he decreed that formal public markets be formed at Drummondtown, Onancock, and Eastville. White declared residents desiring to export commodities were required to attempt to sell them first in one of the public markets. If locals could not dispose of their goods at a fixed price, Union officials agreed to issue them passes for fifty cents.
End of the War
Custis Parramore summed up the Shore’s engagement in the war, “We all marched out to protect the land from the invader – till the Yankees came down under Lockwood…then – we all went home again.”
The full text of The Eastern Shore of Virginia In the Civil War by Matthew Ostergaard Krogh, can be read here: https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/42581