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Oyster Wars of the Lower Chesapeake Bay

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Oyster Wars of the Lower Chesapeake Bay

The Second Oyster War

Oyster Tongers
Oyster Tongers
And so the Second Oyster War began. At 4 P.M. Tuesday afternoon, February 27, 1883, a lone tug left the Boston wharf in Norfolk, headed north. Although no one remarked on it at the time, witnesses would later recall its departure in detail and speculate accurately that its mission was to warn the dozens of illegal dredgers operating in Virginia waters that the governor was again developing an itchy trigger finger. Later that evening, Governor Cameron, again assisted by General Groner and Captains Gilmer and Nash, readied the Norfolk Guard and the Light Artillery Blues for another go at the pirate dredgers. The news came as a surprise to many of the militia, some of whom were watching the musical Virginius that evening when they received orders to report for duty. However, at 10 P.M. the two companies marched fully equipped from their armories to the Boston wharf where they, along with representatives of the New York Herald, the Norfolk Evening Ledger, and a stowaway from the Norfolk Virginian embarked on the steamers Pamlico and the trusty old Peed. Their objective: Smith's Point near the mouth of the Potomac River, where numerous dredgers had been operating illegally for the past several months. In fact, it had been rumored that many of those so engaged were "some of the parties whom he had captured on the previous expedition and pardoned after they had been sentenced to the penitentiary." In the Norfolk Virginian of February 28, 1883, Cameron vowed that "he was determined to enforce the law, and that he would see that on this occasion that there was no escape should he succeed in capturing any of those now engaged in violating the laws."

The two steamers left together at midnight, but the Peed stopped at the wreck of the Treadwell just a few miles up the Bay as a ruse. The Pamlico continued north, and in an eerie replay of the previous expedition, ran into rough weather just three hours into the trip. Around 3 AM the Pamlico, which carried no ballast, began pitching violently. According to the Norfolk Virginian of March 1, 1883, the main cabin was in turmoil, where "colonels, generals, privates, civilians, swords, chairs, bayonets, blankets, spittoons, coal scuttles, &c., were tumbled about and mixed together fearfully." The after cabin fared worse when "a violent lurch of the Vessel overturned a red hot coal stove and scattered the burning coals everywhere." Captain Gilmer and Lieutenant Lee threw the offensive stove overboard, but not without injury. Both Lee and a private of the company received burns from the hot coals. To make matters worse, many of the men began to get seasick. It was an inglorious start to the mission, and the presence of so many members of the press guaranteed that every embarrassing moment would be captured in print.

Although sources had reported fifty or sixty dredgers operating off of Smith's Point, when the Pamlico arrived just before 8 A.M., there were only eight oyster schooners in sight. The lone tug from Norfolk had apparently accomplished its mission. Though disappointed, the captain directed the Pamlico to bear down on the fleet, which immediately began to scatter. Upon their flight, the men on the Pamlico opened fire with musket and cannon, and though the men armed with muskets "had a picnic [they] didn't bring any gore." In all,"Twenty-four cannon shots were fired and some 300 musket shots....[but] No vessel was hit, though some close shots were made." None of the oyster schooners fired back, and only one was captured. The Palo Alto out of Criswell,

Maryland was unable to outrun the Pamlico, although her captain and mate escaped into Maryland waters in a row boat. The frightened seven-man crew surrendered without incident.


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