History on the Honeymoon: Chincoteague in the Civil War

 Chincoteague and Assateague are famous for the wild ponies, particularly Misty from the popular children's book, but the islands also have a hidden Civil War history.  

Chincoteague and Assateague are famous for the wild ponies, particularly Misty from the popular children's book, but the islands also have a hidden Civil War history.  

For our honeymoon in August 2013, my husband, Eli, and I spent a week at Chincoteague, VA.  It was a no work, no stress, no internet/social media/phone week of relaxation, exploring Chincoteague and Assateague islands, and looking for ponies (the horse-crazy teenage version of myself went a little crazy on that one—I have been waiting to see the Assateague ponies since I was a little kid).

No work, no internet.  For a chronically busy person like me, that was hard; but it was very needed before launching into my first year teaching college classes and my last year of graduate courses.  But I would not be a Civil War nerd if I did not manage to find some history wherever I go.  So you can imagine how my ears perked up on a boat tour around the islands (where we saw baby dolphins AND ponies!) when our guide, who had lived there all his life, mentioned a Civil War cemetery on Assateague island.  When we got back to the car I immediately texted a friend who happened to be doing an internship there, but she knew nothing about the cemetery.

 From the road you can not even tell that this dune is a cemetery (unless you are looking for it).  Can you spot the one visible grave?

From the road you can not even tell that this dune is a cemetery (unless you are looking for it).  Can you spot the one visible grave?

So the next morning after sitting on the beach at Assateague and watching the sun rise over the ocean, I dragged Eli with me to go find this cemetery.  The mosquitoes were out bad that morning and we literally got eaten alive, but following the instructions of our tour guide from the day before we parked illegally (oops), climbed over the guardrail, and walked into the cemetery.

The cemetery was almost unnoticeable from the road.  Because it is on a dune very close to the water separating the island from Chincoteague, the water and shifting sand had obliterated all essence of an established cemetery.  Most of the grave markings were gone, replaced by official looking plaques marking the location of graves.  It certainly did not look like a Civil War cemetery.  But there was one Civil War-style headstone marked by an American Flag with the words “Thos. Watson, Co. A, Loyal Eastern VA. Vol.”  I was so excited, but the mosquitoes were covering both of us, so I snapped a few pictures and raced back to the car.  Out came the phone again, and I searched the unit listed on the headstone.  Turns out Chincoteague had an interesting history of its own during the Civil War.

 Official plaques have replaced the original headstones, destroyed by the water and shifting sand of the shore.

Official plaques have replaced the original headstones, destroyed by the water and shifting sand of the shore.

In 1861, Chincoteague declared itself still loyal to the United States, even though the rest of Virginia had voted for secession.  Their biggest concern was the seafood markets in the North that they relied on for their livelihood.  On July 4, 1861 a group of roughly 400 men from the barrier islands in Maryland and Virginia signed a petition of loyalty to the Union and sent it to the U.S. Navy along with information about the use of Chincoteague Bay and other local waterways to smuggle arms to Confederate sympathizers.  The receiving officer did nothing with the information until it came to the attention of the President and his cabinet in early September.

At the end of September, eight small boats were spotted approaching the Chincoteague Inlet.  As alarm bells rang in town, 94 armed men from the island took up positions along the docks and watched as the small boats marked the channel with lanterns so two sloops and a large schooner could safely enter the inlet.  By the morning of September 29th, it was clear that the ships were Confederate (the British flag that originally flew from the schooner, the Venus, had been replaced by the Confederate flag), and a group of loyal men took an oyster sloop to Hampton Roads to warn the U.S. Navy.

This time the Navy responded by sending the USS Louisiana with 90 men commanded by Lt. Commander Alexander Murray.  On October 5th the two ships engaged in what is known as the Battle of Cockle Creek.  Federal crews attacked and boarded the Venus and she was burned to below the water line and sunk.  The two sloops were captured and taken as prizes of war to Norfolk.

The Louisiana remained at Chincoteague until December 1861, when she was sent elsewhere.  Union soldiers were periodically stationed at Chincoteague, mainly in 1863 and 1864, but there was no more fighting near the island (outside of a few unionist-confederate incidents between residents of the island and mainland).  At times Maryland militia were used, as well as a regiments of African-American soldiers, but the local residents also formed up into the Eastern Shore Volunteers to guard their home.

 One of the few headstones still standing in the cemetery, the grave of Thomas Watson reveals the island's Civil War past.

One of the few headstones still standing in the cemetery, the grave of Thomas Watson reveals the island's Civil War past.

The Eastern Shore Volunteers was the unit Thomas Watson was involved in.  Born in Chincoteague, the 22 year old sailor enlisted with the group in March of 1864.  Beyond that there is little information about the man, not even a date of death on the headstone.  But even with very little information, the discovery of this one grave opened up a neat, little story about Chincoteague.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.   (all photos taken by author)