Just how vulnerable the Federal supply line in the Chesapeake Bay could be during the Civil War was demonstrated in convincing fashion on Sept. 20, 1863 when Confederate raiders based in Mathews started attacking Union shipping.
In just a few days, a ragtag band of Southern mariners sailing in two small boats -- and armed only with cutlasses and revolvers -- captured more than a half dozen vessels in the waters near the Eastern Shore. And so easy was the job of boarding and taking these lucrative prizes that both sides knew the pace and ambition of the attacks would only grow stronger if the Federal gunboats attempting to police the bay and rivers could not find a solution.
Even before the so-called Confederate Volunteer Coast Guard came back with its first trophy, they'd cut the submarine telegraph cable between Fort Monroe and the Eastern Shore and left the Smith Island lighthouse too damaged to function.
Working closely with local people who lived in and around Horn Harbor on the southeastern tip of Mathews, they found the perfect base from which to launch quick, undetected raids on the waters where the bay narrowed. They also could disappear almost immediately in the virtually countless inlets and coves that marked one of the longest and most complex shorelines on the bay, making any pursuit by Federal gunboats almost hopeless.
That's why the Union response mounted only two weeks after Confederate Acting Master John Yates Beall's flurry of attacks was designed to not only find and capture the raiders but also teach the people of Mathews who had helped an unforgettable lesson.
Mobilizing a fleet of nearly a dozen gunboats drawn from both the army and navy as well as all across Hampton Roads, the Federals blocked not just Horn Harbor but also the East and North rivers as well as every major inlet between New Point Comfort to the south and the mouth of the Piankatank River to the north
There they waited and watched while a expedition of infantry, cavalry and artillery marched from Gloucester Point and sealed off the Mathews neck, then carried out a ruthless search intended to capture Beall and cow his civilian supporters.
During their relentless three-day-long sweep, the Union men destroyed more than 150 vessels and seized nearly 100 cattle as well as other food supplies believed to be intended for shipment to Richmond. Beall and his men narrowly escaped to Dragon Run in the night after filling their boats with sand and sinking them near the shoreline in Horn Harbor.
When the Union men came to search the home of Sands Smith, however, he killed one soldier with a blast from his shotgun before the remaining barrel misfired. Tied up, beaten and dragged behind a carriage, he was summarily hanged and his shallow grave marked as that of a "bushwhacker."
The Richmond newspapers screamed in protest at Smith's hanging, which didn't prevent Beall and his men from returning a few weeks later.
But after their capture on the Eastern Shore on Nov. 14, the raids from Mathews stopped. Only the memories of the Union show of force and Smith's execution remained to mark the brief triumph of the Confederate Volunteer Coast Guard a few weeks earlier.
Look for a more detailed story on the Confederate raiders and the Union expedition from Yorktown to Mathews in early October.
-- Mark St. John Erickson