Civil War Profiles: The Battle of Cockle Creek near Chincoteague


The Harlan & Hollingsworth Co. of Wilmington built vessels for the Union navy during the Civil War. It was one of the foremost shipbuilding enterprises in the United States at that time.

Prior to the war in 1860, the firm received a contract to construct a steamship for hauling cotton in the shallow waters of coastal marshes. Completed in December, it launched as the Louisiana.

When conflict erupted between the states in 1861, the U.S. Navy converted the iron-hull craft into a gunboat armed with four howitzers and an 8-inch gun. She began operations in the waters off Virginia and North Carolina.

As historian Fred Seth writes in his forthcoming book on Harlan & Hollingsworth’s role during the Civil War, Lt. Alexander Murray took command of the ship now designated the U.S.S. Louisiana. Ships of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, such as the Louisiana, were effective in forcing Southern authorities to deploy troops, desperately needed on the battlefield, to protect these vulnerable ports.

Early in the war, the ship engaged in an exchange of fire with the Rebel ship C.S.S. Patrick Henry off Newport News, Va. The Louisiana’s first serious combat action took place in Chincoteague Inlet. The Chincoteague islanders had remained loyal to the Union, in spite of Virginia’s decision to join the Confederacy.

In a referendum conducted following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861, the residents of Chincoteague voted almost unanimously not to secede from the Union. Chincoteague’s loyalty was generated in part by economic necessity. The primary market for its lucrative oyster business was in Philadelphia. Only Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay matched Chincoteague’s unwillingness to support the secessionists.

One of the major concerns for U.S. naval authorities was smuggling of illegal goods into these Virginia waters for use by the Confederates. Supplies, including weapons, and potential recruits for the military came into Accomack County from New York to Chincoteague Inlet, and down the Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore into the Pocomoke River.

The U.S.S. Louisiana received orders to bring a halt to this smuggling. When the ship arrived in Chincoteague Inlet, it received a hearty welcome from the island residents, who viewed its presence as protection from hostile Rebel sympathizers.

When Murray learned that local Rebels were outfitting the schooner Venus for the smuggling trade, he maneuvered his ship into Chincoteague Bay. On Oct. 5, 1861, two boats launched from the Louisiana began taking heavy fire from about 300 Confederates.

The Union boats, supported by the ship’s big guns, scattered the Confederates and captured the Venus. They burned the schooner in Cockle Creek, which gave the battle its name.

Two days later, the Louisiana captured another Rebel schooner, the C.T. Carrison, near Wallops Island. The combined events essentially ended Confederate operations in the Chincoteague area.

As the story — perhaps apocryphal — goes, when the Union general in chief, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, heard about the victory at Cockle Creek, he decided to dine that evening at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. In celebration, he ordered Chincoteague oysters.

Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History & Military Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books, with a five-star rating on Amazon.com. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.