Eastern Shore Blockade Runners - by Elizabeth Leah Reed

Eastern Shore Blockade Runners

© 2006 by Elizabeth Leah Reed

NOTE: This piece is excerpted from a family book about my Hopkins, Tyler, Crockett, and Johnson ancestors of Tangier and Smith islands and Onancock, Virginia.

In all the wars--Revolutionary, War of 1812, and the Civil War--the independent people of the Virginia's Eastern Shore were never completely subdued by occupying forces. They knew how to get along with whoever had immediate power--British, picaroon, or Yankee--but they also had strong loyalties which prompted defiant acts. They went about their everyday business in the sunlight, but when the sun set, the cover of night would bring forth the blockade runners. During the Civil War, with the early occupation of the Eastern Shore, Federal blockades on the Chesapeake Bay were put in place to stop the flow of supplies to the Confederacy by water. But the Federal troops and ships could not stop the flow of goods into Virginia by way of Virginia's Eastern Shore blockade runners.

During the Civil War, as supplies flowed into the south, many Virginia blockade runners got their goods to Baltimore, using phony licenses to pose as Maryland vessel owners. Some goods traveled along the coast, some down the Chesapeake Bay, and some down the Delmarva Peninsula over land to Accomac. From there, the supplies for the south crossed the Bay in small schooners and row boats, leaving from one of the inlets, including Pungoteague and Onancock, to York and Rappahannock on the western shore, where wagons would take the goods to Richmond (Mills:74-75).

"Those who engaged in blockade running usually crossed the Chesapeake in small canoes when the nights were dark and weather conditions such that they were less likely to be intercepted by the blocking fleet of the U.S. Navy. . . ." These "small canoes," as the local watermen and mariners called their sailing schooners, skiffs, and workboats, ranged from 20 to 40 feet and were powered by sail. The skill of these mariners is remarkable, for running the blockades was dangerous business and required sailing through dark and storms. In the four long years of the war, only one life was lost (Mears:531).

During the Civil War, only one regiment, the 39th Virginia Regiment, was formed on the Eastern Shore, and numbered some 800 members by the fall of 1861. Comprising infantry, cavalry and artillery units, the poorly equipped regiment had only successful engagements--three short battles with Federal troops in the summer and autumn of 1861 to defend staging areas for blockade runners at Cherrystone Creek, Holden's Creek and Wishart's Point (Barnes). (See Barnes here. )

About the first, the Baltimore Sun reported (August 5, 1861) that the Federal ship at Cherrystone was met by persons "who hauled their cannon to the shore in carts and fired on the vessel."(Mears:63) As 8,000 Federal troops settled themselves in the churches and schools of the Eastern Shore in December 1861, these Rebel forces melted away, first to Northampton County, and then by running the Federal blockade to escape across the Bay (Barnes).

One of the first blockade runners was a 16-year old boy from Onancock, George Scarborough. In the winter of 1861, with Yankee troops all around, he crossed the Chesapeake Bay in a small boat to enlist in the Confederate Army. Through a snowstorm and storm-tossed waves, to get through the Federal blockade to reach the western shore, young George offered not only himself but also much needed supplies to the Southern Cause (Barnes, Miles & Miles CD).

From the beginning of the invasion, General Lockwood: "deemed it necessary to station guards at all the creeks, rivers and inlets . . .numerous vessels having lately run the blockades and giving aid to the enemy in the shape of provisions, etc." (Mears:576). Throughout the war, guards also were posted along the telegraph line down the Shore and at suspected staging areas for blockade runners. Running the Union blockade was the only real resistance offered by Eastern Shore residents during the Federal occupation (Barnes).

Because the suspected blockade runners were subject to frequent house searches, they sunk their boats in creeks and hid their oars and sails in the woods. They were even known to hide sails in the baby's crib. The Federals required the sailing craft to be licensed and to not leave or enter the creek except during daylight hours (Nock footnote 12:260).

Held at the Old Capital prison in Washington in February 1863 with other captured blockade runners were Dearborn, Isaiah, and Samuel Johnson, surely relatives of the Prominent Thomas Johnson of Onancock. In the same report, John S. Boggs applied for a license for the schooner Fashion. This boat was mentioned by Nock as being owned by Stephen Hopkins (Mears:402, Nock:144).

Thomas T. Johnson, who owned the wharfs next to the Hopkins store in Onancock, was a property owner and farmer, also ran blockades. He was known to have brought cargoes of goods and medicines to Richmond where he "held court" at the Spotswood Hotel. He was said to have made a great deal of money in this trade (Yesteryears).

Included in an accounting of Federal expenses in May 1864 was an item for "capturing blockade runners." Requiring licenses and mandating inspections did little to stop the boats from hiding in the marshes and traveling at night to take food and supplies to the western shore of Virginia to help the southern cause.

Special Order No. 73 issued at Eastville, Virginia in October 21, 1864, gives permission:

to Stephen Hopkins and Thomas T. Johnson of Onancock to run packets from Onancock to Baltimore, subject to the rules and regulations of Lieut. Strong, assistant provost marshal. [sic] A fee of fifty cents per head upon all passengers carried on packets will be paid by the owners to Lieut. Strong, assistant provost marshal [sic] (Mears:436).

Another order that same year established markets in the major towns on the Shore, including Onancock, to ensure that food would be priced fairly before being exported. By this time "hucksters and speculators" were selling foods at exorbitant prices, and the authorities were worried for those who had to purchase their food. Boats leaving the harbor were charged a $3 clearance fee and one percent export fee on goods. Lists recorded by Mears of those paying taxes on merchandise, however, include neither Hopkins nor Johnson.

Despite all the rules, regulations, orders, and laws, the blockade running continued. One successful launching point was the innocent wharf at the Atlantic Female Academy on Central Branch in Onancock. (Nock:175). In March 1864, a special order required shops to close at dark and imposed a 9 p.m. curfew on the people of the Shore. By May 1864, the order was given to shoot wherever blockade runners were found conveying goods, spies, or mail to or from the rebel lines. Again in February 1865, an order was issued to board all vessels and check the papers to be sure that no one is defrauding the government and to catch all blockade runners (Mears:375, 390, 372).

But blockade running could not be stopped and continued until after the surrender of Robert E. Lee in April 1865, when the Federal blockade was disbanded. It is reported that those who ran the blockades were quite comfortable from the financial rewards of their activities.



_____. Yesteryears. Eastern Shore News, December 26, 2001:B4. Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 5, 1905.

Barnes, Alton Brooks Parker, Pungoteague to Petersburg. Vol II, The Civil War 1858-1865. Privately Published 1994.

Barnes, Brooks Miles, Miles, Barry W. & Miles, Moody K. Civil War Soldiers of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. 2005. CD.

Mears, James, E. Eastern Shore in the War of Secession and Reconstruction. Privately Published, 1957.

Mills, Eric, Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War, Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1966.

Nock, Anne B. Child of the Bay. Norfolk, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Co. Inc., 1992.