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Chasing ‘pirates’ in the Chesapeake

“Twas off the Rappahannock’s mouth,

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About the break of day.

We saw with sails all gleaming white,

The Pirate Dredgers lay.”

The Oyster Wars of the lower Chesapeake Bay, waged against out-of-state “pirates” by Virginia Gov. William Cameron in 1882 and 1883, are the stuff of lore and legend. Organized as a show of force, the first skirmish involved a small but zealous fleet of law enforcement vessels led by Cameron. Armed with 3-inch cannons and muskets, it attacked seven dredgers off the mouth of the Rappahannock River, between Stingray Point and Windmill Point, in the winter of ’82. Several vessels were captured, but unfortunately for Cameron and his campaign only one turned out to be a pirate.

In late February 1883, the Norfolk Guard and the Light Artillery Blues embarked on the steamers Pamlico and Peed, headed for Smith’s Point on the Potomac River. Cameron was determined to enforce the law against “foreigners” oystering in Virginia waters.
Things went wrong from the beginning. The Pamlico began to roll and pitch as the weather and seas worsened, and, as one contemporary wrote, soon “colonels, generals, privates, civilians, swords, chairs, bayonets, blankets, spittoons, coal scuttles” were being tossed about together down below. The stove turned over. The aft cabin caught fire. People grew seasick.
When the Pamlico finally arrived, there were eight pirate schooners in sight, and they quickly scattered as the flagship opened fire with cannon and musket. One of those vessels was the Dancing Molly, abandoned but for the captain’s wife and two daughters. Faced with capture and the loss of their ship, the brave trio raised the sails and desperately sought to escape. Under fire, the women sailed downriver to the Chesapeake, to Maryland and to freedom, accompanied by the cheers of those watching the drama unfold along the Virginia shore.


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