Battle of Cockle Creek
The Battle of Cockle Creek was a minor engagement off the waters of Chincoteague, Virginia during the American Civil War.
It was fought on October 5, 1861
Chincoteague's Wartime Position
In 1861 the citizens of Chincoteague voted 138-2 to remain loyal to the Union. The island had little need for slaves because of its poor cropland and its economic survival depended on trading seafood with the north. It was the only part of Virginia to remain with the Union. A few protests broke out, several houses flew the Stars and Bars, about three men enlisted in the rebel army, and sympathizers put out the lighthouse, which was quickly relit. Despite this, no lasting scars on the island occurred. Today, even many islanders do not know about Chincoteagues place in the Civil War. John Whealton, an influential island man, persuaded the islanders to remain in the Union. After the vote, Confederate sympathizers nearby organized a company to subdue Whealton and the islanders. Early one morning Whealton's well-equipped company left on flatboats to meet the Conferderates in the middle of the Chincoteague Sound. After an exchange of many harsh words and a brief conflict, the invaders were driven away with a signficant loss to themselves but without the loss of a single islander.
Despite Chincoteague's sound loyalty, it was surrounded by Confederate sympathizers in Virginia and Maryland. The surrounding Chincoteague Bay, Sinepuxtent Bay, and Pockomoke River served as routes to Maryland and Delaware. The rebels were using these waterways to smuggle arms into the two border states. They also had plans to use the waterways as a path to the Delaware Bay, there they would prey on Union shipping entering and leaving the bay by privateering against them. At the center of these plans was the schooner Venus. On July 4, 1861, 418 men from the barrier islands of Maryland and Virginia met at Chincoteague to celebrate the 85th Anniversary of American Independence. All who were present signed a draft prepared by Dr. George Schereer which pledged support for the United States against her enemies. Captain Edward Whaley, Sr., a War of 1812 veteran, shouted, "I will defend the old flag to my last drop of blood, against the lazy, slave-holding aristocrats and their lackeys in Richmond."
On July 5, the draft and letters addressed to the commanding officers of the U.S. Navy at Hampton Roads was dispatched aboard the sloop "Jenny Sharpley." These letters gave details of the importation of arms through Chincoteague Inlet and up the Pocomoke River to rebel sympathizers; it also requested the right of the islanders to ship oysters to Northern ports and asked for protection by the U.S. Navy.
The Jenny Sharpley arrived at Hampton Roads and quickly went to the flagship. Two islanders delivered the packet to Flag Officer Stringham, who questioned them. He seemed to ignore the letters, but was enraged at the fact that they had managed to break through the Union Blocking Squadron and had been able to board the ship without being challenged by any of his officers.
The men were fed and sent on their way back to Chincoteague, with a pass through the blockade. Their request was ignored for months, but the American Flag continued to fly over the Island, despite growing Confederate forces at Accomac.
On Monday, September 2nd, President Abraham Lincoln was meeting with some cabinet officials when Treasury Secretary S.P. Chase handed him a letter marked "Confidential Copy." The letter was addressed to Flag Officer S. H. Stringham, North Atlantic Blockading Squadron; it read as follows:
Sir: I must bring to your immediate attention the plight of the loyal citizens of the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. I was informed by my brother, in a letter posted at Snow Hill, that you were delivered intelligence which warned of the running of arms to rebels in that area. The Union cannot afford to lose the rice and bean crops from that area, nor can we afford to lose the inland routes between lower Delaware and Chincoteague, if navigation is cut on Chincoteague or Sinepuxent Bays. I mean in no way to sound disrespectful to you, Sir; however, if that area is to be preserved, immediate protection for the loyal residents should be forthcoming, quickly.
—Edward Donaldson, Commander, U.S. Navy
The Secretary of the Navy jumped to his feet and exclaimed - "If no action is pending then Stringham will be replaced." General Winfield Scott suggested that the U.S. Army send several thousand troops immediately for the relief of these loyal fellow Virginians.
On Thursday, September 19th, Captain L.M. Goldsborough relieved Captain Stringham as flag officer. On the evening of September 24, eight small boats were spotted rowing toward Chincoteague Inlet from the mainland. The alarm bell was rung in front of W.H. Watson and Company warehouse, and 94 armed men from Chincoteague responded. They took up positions along their warehouses and docks. It was discovered that the purpose of the boats was not to invade Chincoteague, but to mark the channel with lanterns, so that two sloops and a large schooner could enter the inlet.
By dawn, the three ships had anchored in the bay near Cockle Creek. At dawn,a British Flag that had been flying from the schooner was replaced by a Confederate one. There was much activity around the schooner and the name "Venus" was pointed out on her transom. On the afternoon of the 25th, an oyster sloop commmanded by Edward Whaley, Jr., and crewed by William Lynch, John Jester, Henry Savage, and Robert Snead set off to warn the U.S. Navy.
This time they were escorted to the flagship, U.S.S. Minnesota, in guard boats and presented to Captain Goldsborough. The men told their story and ate with their host in the great cabin of the ship. Four sailors from the Minnesota, armed with rifles and cutlasses, accompanied the men back to Chincoteague with the pledge of immediate aid to the islanders.
On the evening of September 30, Lt. Commander Alexander Murray of the U.S. Navy arrived off the shore of Chincoteague with 90 men in the U.S.S. Louisiana.
They were signaled from shore, and a sloop arrived alongside with the four seamen and Chincoteague Islanders, who offered to pilot her in.
On the mainland plans were being laid to convert the Venus into a privateer of ten guns. The cannons were aboard as were 1,000 stand of New England rifles, shot, and three tons of powder. The 135 ft. schooner, with her broad beam and shoal draft, was ideal to command and prey on shipping entering or leaving the Delaware Bay. It is evident that her first target would be the Yankees across the bay in Chincoteague.
At 9 a.m. on October 5, the boats of the Louisiana attacked the Venus with howitzers. The steamer was piloted through the inlet and opened fire with her 32 pounder on the rebels. An enemy force of 300 cut off two of the Navy boats, and they boarded the Venus for protection.
The heavy fire from the Louisiana cut the rebel defenses to ribbons, and the sailors set fire to the Venus, which burned down to water level before sinking in Cockle Creek. The Venus' rifles and cannon were salvaged in early December, 1861. Her gear and mundane items are likely still buried in her rotting hull, which has yet to be discovered. The two sloops were captured and taken to Norfolk as prizes of war the same evening.
The Louisiana remained at Chincoteague until late December. On the 8th of December, 4,000 Union troops secured the lower shore for the Union. Winfield Scott is said to have ordered up Chincoteague oysters and Bermuda onions at the hotel opposite the War Department.
The watermen of Chincoteague were issued 21 passes for their ships to supply oysters to the northern ports. The story of their loyalty spread throughout the North. It is likely that this battle made Chincoteague oysters famous as they are today. Although a minor skirmish, The Battle of Cockle Creek eliminated the threat to the Delaware Bay and strengthened Union control over Maryland's Eastern Shore and the Pockomoke River. For some time a black regiment defended the island, but the islanders forced them to leave on count of oppresiveness. Despite the lack of defense, Chincoteague was never again in danger of attack during the war
I will defend the old flag to my last drop of blood, against the lazy, slave-holding aristocrats and their lackeys in Richmond.”— Captain Edward Whaley, Sr., War of 1812 veteran
Video of Cockle Creek