The Eastern Shore of Virginia Is Rich in Civil War History

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The first attack with an ironclad boat during the Civil War.

By Linda Cicoira — The Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack, also called the Battle of Hampton Roads, occurred on March 9, 1862, during the Civil War, and was history’s first duel between ironclad warships. 

It was the beginning of a new era of naval warfare. And a report about it was sent to Washington, D.C., from Cherrystone, in Northampton County, 157 years ago.

According to “True Tales of the Eastern Shore,” by the late Kirk Mariner, in the early months of the war, communication between leaders, in Washington, and servicemen at Fort Monroe, in Hampton, and the Norfolk Navy Yard, in Portsmouth, was slow “because dispatches had to be sent by boat up the Chesapeake to Annapolis or Baltimore, then overland by telegraph.”

“Among some military planners the need for a telegraphic link was a leading motive for the occupation of the Virginia Shore,” Mariner wrote.

These are among the facts visitors to Accomack and Northampton counties could learn once the area becomes part of a Civil War trail program. So far, narrative signs are being planned for Onancock and Parksley.

Before the war, the two counties were like many other rural farm communities. There was no U.S. Highway 13 back then. There was no railroad. Bayside and seaside roads were dirt. Barrels were used to ship potatoes. Slave ownership and free blacks were recorded. Hundreds of people, black and white, “were working the land, chopping the wood, gathering and storing the ice, fishing the waters, cooking the meals, spinning the yarn, and providing the peaceful hum of profitable industry that supported the good life on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in 1850,” the late Doris Alder, wrote in her book, “The Neglected Decade: The 1850s on the Eastern Shore.”

Within a month after the Union army occupied the two counties, plans for a telegraph line were finalized. Construction began from Wilmington, Del., Jan. 15, 1862, “and proceeded rapidly for the Union’s Signal Corps could string wire about as fast as a man ordinarily walks,” Mariner wrote. 

Workers passed through Accomac, which was then called Drummondtown, on Feb. 4. They reached Eastville a few days later. By Feb. 13, the line was 158 miles long and landed at Cherrystone. Union commanders began sending their dispatches by steamer to Cherrystone instead of to Maryland. “What before had taken overnight could now be transmitted in less than two hours,” Mariner reported.

From Cherrystone, “the most daunting part of the task still lay ahead” as the rest of the line was set to pass 20 miles under the Chesapeake Bay from Cherrystone to Back Creek, in Hampton. A light cable was the only thing available and it was feared it would only last a few months. At a cost of $300 per mile, it was shipped from New York and was put in place in three weeks.

The amount is equivalent to about $7,459 per mile today or a total of $149,180.

Meanwhile, the Union abandoned Norfolk and Portsmouth, after setting fire to the Navy Yard to make it useless to the rebels, Mariner wrote. The Confederates were able to salvage the Merrimack, which had burned to the deck. They rebuilt the boat and plated everything above the waterline with iron. It “tore into the wooden ships of the Union fleet anchored near Newport News easily sinking the ‘Congress’ and the ‘Minnesota.’”

“The news reached Washington on March 9 … was there a single Union vessel which could withstand the ironclad? What was to keep the Merrimack from sailing up the Potomac and bombarding Washington itself?” Mariner asked.

Then the Union’s new warship entered the Chesapeake Bay. The Monitor was also coated in iron “but smaller and swifter and a much more difficult target.” Soon, the Monitor and the Merrimack were in battle near Newport News. The same day, the telegraph link was completed and carried news that the Merrimack had damaged the southern ironclad.

“From that day until the end of the war, many of the Union’s most important military dispatches were routed through Cherrystone,” wrote Mariner. “Though geography had dictated that the Eastern Shore of Virginia would be out of the direct line of action, its proximity to one of the most important theatres of the war gave it a vital role to play in the conflict.”