The Unionists of Chincoteague; Fremont in Hot Water; Lincoln Nearly Arms the Slaves

Monday, October 14, 1861

Chincoteague Island, Virginia is mostly remembered for the legend of a Spanish galleon transporting horses that wrecked off the coast in the 1750s. The horses supposedly swam to the island, became wild and are there to this day. That, however, is probably just a myth. Though there are no wild horses on Chincoteague, there are wild horses on Assateague Island, just to the north. Rather than descending from the Spanish shipwreck stock, it’s more likely that they were brought over by farmers from the mainland in the 1600s, hoping to avoid paying taxes.

Since 1835, the islanders partook in “pony pennings,” which thinned the heard by swimming some of the horses through the shallow water to the mainland. By 1861, this practice was almost a festival day.1

When Virginia held its popular vote for secession, only one island resident, Joseph Hill, voted in favor of leaving the Union. He died shortly thereafter. The residents of Chinoteague erected a large flagpole with a bell on top of it and flew a gigantic United States flag that could be seen from the mainland.2

With the timely death of Joseph Hill, it would seem that the whole of Chinoteague’s 800 or more citizens were for the Union. This wasn’t quite true. On September 18, a Union Naval commander informed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “Island of Chincoteague, I know is loyal; R. Mason is a bad man.” He was referring to Randall Mason, who was “very active in giving information to secessionists.”

The commander enclosed a list of similarly bad men from the nearby area. Apparently the entire police force for Chinoteague and a few of the mainland towns was pro-secessionist, the constables were described as “very violent.” As were Fred Lewis, Joshua Hudson and Joseph Haulston (who was apparently a captain of something).3

On this date, 806 residents of Chincoteague Island gathered around the tall flagpole and swore the oath of allegiance to the Union.

We do solemnly swear, or affirm (as the case may be), that we will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that we will serve them honestly and faithfully, without any mental reservation, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever; and that we will obey the Laws and support the Constitution of the United States. So help us God.

The oath was written up and signed the following day. 4

__________________

Fremont in Hot Water

Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas had traveled from St. Louis to Tipton and back again to see for themselves the condition of General John C. Fremont’s Army of the West. When they reached Tipton (on the 13th), Fremont gave them a tour of his best equipped division. Though they were the best troops, Cameron quickly saw that they were in no condition to move against the enemy.

They were also fortunate enough to meet General David Hunter, who was earmarked by President Lincoln to supersede Fremont if Cameron thought it best that he (Fremont) step down. Hunter told them that there was great confusion within the army and that Fremont was “utterly incompetent,” ordering Hunter to march his scattered force of nearly 10,000 without rations, wagons or sufficient arms. Of his 100 cannons, procured by Fremont from Europe, only 20 were functioning properly. Hunter also recalled that Fremont got a cut of the money from the purchase of the guns.

Though Hunter was second in command, he had never been consulted by Fremont and knew nothing of the commanding General’s plans for the coming campaign.

In light of this and of the questionable and illegal expenditures discovered on the 11th, Secretary of War Cameron issued orders to Fremont. Surprisingly, Fremont was not being fired.

Cameron had the power and authority granted to him by President Lincoln to replace Fremont with Hunter. Instead, Cameron did two things. First, he showed Fremont Lincoln’s order to replace him with Hunter. Fremont immediately begged Cameron to give him a chance to show the true power of his Army of the West. Cameron assented, but also informed General Fremont that things needed to change.

It was then that Cameron directed Fremont to halt payment on all contractors’ debts and use the money instead on taking care of the army itself. All bills were to be sent to Washington for investigation.

He was also ordered to stop making payments to officers he commissioned. Fremont was infamous for creating paying military jobs for his friends, such as “captain of engineers” for a local musician he enjoyed. All appointments had to, from this point onward, be approved by Lincoln.

For now, Fremont was being reigned in.5

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Lincoln Nearly Arms the Slaves

The Assistant Secretary of War, Thomas Scott, wrote to General Thomas Sherman, concerning the question over what should be done with escaped slaves. While he referred to the Confiscation Act and left much to Sherman’s own discretion, Scott also made an incredibly bold statement.

The Assistant Secretary instructed that Sherman was to avail himself “of the services of any persons, whether fugitives from labor or not, who may offer them to the National Government.” Not only that, but he was instructed to “employ such persons in such service as they may be fitted for — either as ordinary employes, or, if special circumstances seem to require it, in any other capacity, with such organization (in squads, companies, or otherwise) as you may deem most beneficial to the service.”

When the instructions were read to President Lincoln, however, he realized that fitting out the former slaves in military organization would cause quite a political uproar. With his own pen, he added the line: “This, however, not to mean a general arming of them for military service.”6

Lincoln may have put the lid on this issue for the time being, but before the year was out, he would have to deal with it again.



  1. Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands by Brooks M. Barnes, University of Virginia Press, 1999. []
  2. Scribners Monthly, April 1877. []
  3. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p234-235. []
  4. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p336-337. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p543-545;547; 532. []
  6. Abraham Lincoln: a History by John George Nicolay and John Hay, 1914. []
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The Unionists of Chincoteague; Fremont in Hot Water; Lincoln Nearly Arms the Slaves by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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4 thoughts on “The Unionists of Chincoteague; Fremont in Hot Water; Lincoln Nearly Arms the Slaves

  1. Loved the Chincoteague/Assoteague information. Jaime and I honeymooned there in 94! And took in surrounding historical locales. Yeah romance, that’s me!

    1. Did you guys ride the giant wild mosquitoes around? I used to go to Assoteague almost every summer, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to Chinoteague. I guess I’ll have to add this to the list.

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