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Oyster Wars of the Lower Chesapeake Bay

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Oyster Wars of the Lower Chesapeake Bay

The War of 1882

Oyster Pirates
Oyster Pirates
Cameron's volunteer troops, equipped with three days' rations, an "abundance of ammunition," and three 3-inch rifled guns, left the dock around 1A.M. on Saturday, February 17, 1882. Governor Cameron himself accompanied them on board the Victoria J. Peed, along with his staff of officers who made themselves comfortable in the after cabin while the remaining men made do in the scarce bunks on board. Already, local authorities had placed a battery of long-range Whitworth guns at the mouth of the Rappahannock and a company of the Richmond artillery was presumably en route to the scene. All hoped that the oyster dredgers would surrender peacefully when confronted with a show of force more concrete than the vague threats and legal procedures that had gone before.

But there were more immediate concerns. Shortly after the steamers left the dock, they encountered high winds and rough seas which made their northwesterly journey up the bay unpleasant, and the two steamers lost sight of one another. The Peed, under the command of General V.D. Groner, arrived first at the mouth of the Rappahannock around 4 A.M. and sighted a fleet of seven oyster schooners. The steamer Louisa, much smaller than the Peed and thus more susceptible to the weather, finally arrived around 7 A.M. The crews of the oyster fleet, spread out between Stingray and Windmill Points, seemed to be completely unaware of the two steamers' purpose. To further allay suspicions, the Peed took the Louisa in tow, in an attempt to make the dredgers think that the Louisa was a disabled vessel receiving assistance.

The Dredge Comes Up From the Deep Like a Mining Cage of Steel
The Dredge Comes Up From the Deep Like a Mining Cage of Steel
Both vessels approached the oyster fleet, and at a distance of two miles from their prey, the Peed let the Louisa swing loose and take an offensive position to keep the vessels from escaping. According to the Norfolk Virginian of February 19, 1882, at about one mile abreast of the first oyster boat, General Groner, on board the Peed, "ordered the men to fire a volley of musketry and one solid shot across the bow of the nearest schooner. . . " The boat surrendered immediately. The vessels Annie and Alice and J.C. followed suit. When the J.C. was first attacked, the crew was engaged in hauling up a dredge,"and in the distance to those on the Peed it looked as if they were preparing to fight." The impression was wrong, however, and each vessel surrendered after one warning shot. The crews "appeared to be completely taken by surprise, and in many instances panic stricken by the sudden descent of the military." The Philip Kirkwood sped away, however, apparently bound for safer waters. The Peed immediately began pursuit, leaving the captured vessels with the Louisa, and though the Kirkwood had a three-mile lead and favorable winds, the Peed managed to capture her thirty-five miles and eighteen solid shots later at the mouth of Back River near Poquoson. According to the Norfolk Virginian of February 19, 1882, Governor Cameron "trained the guns on the Peed several times and fired them himself, and some of his shots were remarkably effective." Yet when the Kirkwood finally surrendered and the crew came aboard, Captain Crockett of the Kirkwood protested his ignorance of any wrongdoing and proved that he had not lost his sense of humor when he told General Groner: "I don't know what all this means. I was bound to Norfolk and heard guns firing, but I thought

they were firing at ducks; didn't know they were firing at me till one o' them air shots come near my head (The Norfolk Virginian, February 19, 1882)."

Meanwhile, back at the Piankatank, the Louisa had managed to capture the Fashion and the E.D. Chandler, the sloop Hamburg, and the schooner Mary Tauline. All surrendered promptly with few warning shots fired. The Peed arrived at around 7:30 P.M.

At 11 A.M. the next day, General Groner turned over the captured vessels and their crews to Mr. Sands Smith, sheriff of Mathews County. The sheriff, with a posse of about fifty armed citizens, marched the prisoners five miles to the county jail at Mathews Courthouse, the military having furnished the citizens with guns and ammunition which were to be used in case the prisoners grew unruly. The Peed and the Louisa left the Piankatank around noon, returning to Norfolk in the late afternoon. The raid on the "oyster pirates" had been a success, and even Cameron's political opponents begrudgingly praised his efforts.


Continue to: The Aftermath

 

 

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