Chestertown 1861 — “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”
(Ok we’re sitting on a dock on the Chester River, not Chesapeake Bay, but I love Otis Redding.)
The Eastern Shore of Maryland was not a battlefield of the Civil War. But the war did touch life there once in a while. This story reflects two old sayings, often reproduced in abbreviated form:
“War is Hell. Even when you don’t have to wear a corset”
“They also serve, who only stand and wait, on a dock in Chestertown”
I went to college in Chestertown, MD, and during a couple of rainy weekends, read everything I could find about the town in the old days, in the digital archives of old newspapers. This is one of the stories I ran across. And be forewarned, this tale is compiled from period newspapers, chock-full of inaccuracies, speculation and outright fabrications.
Sometimes a historian feels entitled to an educated guess.
In college, I was taught to call it a hypothesis.
So, on Tuesday, July 9, 1861, I am hypothesizing, there was a crowd of passengers on the dock in Chestertown, waiting for the Chester, the regular ferryboat from Baltimore, and getting more and more irritated.
Because the ferryboat was not coming to Chestertown that day.
It was, instead, chasing pirates.
That day, the Chester was at its dock in Baltimore with a full head of steam, ready for its routine trip to Chestertown, when the Provost Marshal of Baltimore suddenly commandeered the craft, and directed it to Fort McHenry.
Nobody at the fort had seen any action since 1814, and anyway, everyone likes a boat ride, so it was not hard to persuade a company of gunners to climb aboard, and bring a couple of 24-pounder cannons with them.
The heavily-armed ferryboat then steamed off to Chesapeake Bay looking for a schooner full of pirates.
Leaving the Chestertown passengers cooling their heels on the dock, wondering where their ride had gotten to, and if the entire Civil War was going to be like this.
The people they were chasing, who the soldiers considered pirates, were considered by others to be, in fact, privateers and patriots.
They had already captured four ships, they were armed and dangerous… and their leader wore a dress.
I found the story not in a history book (although I’m sure it’s there, somewhere, as another strange footnote to the Civil War) but reading old newspapers online, looking for news of Chestertown. So this is not a fact-checked history, but mostly a tale drawn from the often-unreliable journalists of the time.
The story begins, as do so many stories of weirdness and woe, with two Marylanders.
One of these Maryland gentleman-adventurers was named Richard Thomas.
Raised on a plantation in St. Mary’s County that was once owned by Lord Baltimore, his father was the Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, and his uncle had been governor.
A West Point dropout, Thomas claimed to have served as a mercenary in China and Italy, under the name Zarnova.
He returned to America, and rather than enlist in the Confederate army, which limited your fashion choices to gray or butternut, he decided instead to serve as a secret agent.
During this story, he would be known as Madame Zarona. Or Madame LaForce, or Serano, etc. the newspaper accounts disagree; some reporters just called him “The French Lady”.
The second man was from Baltimore, and was a genuine seadog.
George Nichols Hollins began as a midshipman in the War of 1812, serving under Stephen Decatur, and rose through the ranks. He seems to have been somewhat impulsive, as shown by “The Bombardment of Greytown”.
In 1854, he was captain of a sloop-of-war off the Miskito Coast (Nicaragua) when Americans in Greytown complained of mistreatment.
Hollins responded by bombarding and destroying the town.
This seemed just a bit of an overreaction to some people, and created a bit of a diplomatic fuss, since the town was under British protection, but just then the British were busy dying of cholera in the Crimean War, and it blew over.
The Evening Star, a Washington, D.C. paper, described Hollins as “pompous” and “notoriously weak in the upper story”, but this could just have been sour grapes, because by then, he’d resigned from the U.S. Navy to join the Confederates.
It was ironic that in his younger years, Hollins had fought the Barbary Pirates, and would now begin his new naval career by becoming one, at least from the Union point of view.
The plot Thomas and Hollins came up with was simple.
The St. Nicholas, a steam-powered paddlewheeler, was making regular runs from Washington to Baltimore, carrying passengers & freight, and supplies for US Navy ships.
They would seize the ship, and use it to approach, board, and overpower the Pawnee, a Union warship patrolling the Potomac.
The Pawnee was built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and is usually described as a ten-gun sloop-of-war, although one source lists it as a much more disreputable-sounding “second class steam sloop (screw)”.
It had been bombarding Confederate shore batteries and blockading the river. In May, the ship steamed up the Potomac to Alexandria, Virginia, and demanded its surrender. (This was the same day that Col. Elmer Elsworth got shot there, taking down a secessionist flag –the first Union officer to die in the war).
Thomas and Hollins approached Governor Letcher of Virginia with the plan of attack. The operation called for revolvers, carbines, cutlasses, and a full-skirted dress with crinolines and hoops.
I have been unable to discover a really satisfying description of the dress, so this will require another historical hypothesis.
“Pagoda” sleeves over engageantes were popular that year, and mauve and purple were still au courant, but speaking as a professional historian, I believe a Confederate secret agent would choose a gown in “magenta”. It was one of the brand-new chemical dyes, and named for the Battle of Magenta, during the Italian War of Independence.
Somehow this seemed important to me when I looked it up. I don’t remember why. But I thought maybe you’d want to know.
Governor Letcher liked the plan to seize the irritating Pawnee, was apparently OK with magenta, and advanced $1000 to hire a crew.
Thomas and Hollins were behind enemy lines, and needed to quickly assemble a band of desperate rogues and cutthroats.
But luckily, they were in Baltimore and knew some guys.
Actually, it was undoubtedly an easy place to recruit – this was only two months after the Baltimore Riot (a mob attacked soldiers passing through on their way to Washington) demonstrated the temper of the city. Southern sympathizers called the riot the “Pratt Street Massacre” and when the soldiers finally shot some of the mob, this was the source of the “patriotic gore…That flecked the streets of Baltimore” in Maryland’s state song.
On June 28, 1861, sixteen of the Confederate conspirators boarded the St. Nicholas, disguised, depending on the newspaper account, as “passengers”, “mechanics”, or “New York Zouaves”.
Except for Thomas, who was now disguised as Mme. Zarona, a French fashionista, and by some accounts, was flirting with the ship’s officers from behind a Spanish-style fan.
At first, it was still not clear to me why he was wearing a dress.
But he was portraying a fashionista, and the ruse was to justify hauling a load of steamer trunks onto the ship, supposedly loaded with the latest Paris fashions.
Apparently no one noticed that a box of French hats felt a lot like a crate full of revolvers.
At some point during the voyage, Thomas changed into a Zouave uniform — very possibly more spectacular than the dress.
Zouave uniforms (based on those of French colonial soldiers in North Africa) usually involved red pantaloons, an embroidered blue jacket – – and you got to wear a fez, too!
Thomas opened up the trunks, distributed pistols and cutlasses to his band, and locked the ferryboat’s crew in the hold.
The Confederates were now ready to board and capture the Yankee warship.
But the target of this exercise, the warship Pawnee, was gone.
If they’d asked, the Confederate Secret Service Bureau could have revealed the Pawnee’s movements to the privateers. Governor Letcher ran a string of spies, and the head of the Confederate Secret Service, in fact, was from Baltimore County. 
Or, alternatively, the Confederate raiders and secret agents could have…just picked up a newspaper.
During the Civil War, the movements of warships were listed in the paper, just like any other shipping.
Apparently the secret agents did not read the Baltimore Daily Exchange that day, which reported a fight the day before at Mathias’ Point.
During the fighting while Union forces attempted to erect a shore battery, the captain of a gunboat had been killed. The Pawnee was carrying his body back to the Navy Yard.
So instead of stalking the Yankee warship, the dread rebel privateer St. Nicholas paddled off toward the Rappahannock.
On the way, they captured three civilian ships: the Monticello (3500 bags of Brazilian coffee), the Mary Pierce (200 tons ice), and the Margaret (270 tons coal).
The Confederate war machine now had the capability of making a lot of hot coffee, or alternatively, iced coffee.
The Governor of Virginia, delighted, and possibly highly caffeinated, promoted Hollins to commodore, and Thomas to colonel. The ferryboat freebooters had a big parade in Richmond, and everybody got to wear Zouave uniforms.
All this happened in June.
So all through this tale, you’ve been wondering, if you’ve paid attention, why were the Chestertown passengers waiting around on the dock in July?
Apparently, Thomas/Zarnova/Madame X decided to repeat the stunt. According to one account, he was onboard the Columbia, sister ship to the St. Nicholas, but was recognized by the St. Nick’s captain, who had been released by the Confederates and was returning home as a passenger.
But according to the NY Daily Tribune, Colonel Thomas/Madame X was caught by a police officer, who’d boarded the Mary Washington, looking for one of the rioters who had attacked the Sixth Massachusetts soldiers marching through Baltimore in April. The policeman recognized Thomas & some of his men, stopped the boat at Fort McHenry, and got a company of soldiers to arrest the Confederates.
It took an hour’s search to find Thomas. He was hiding in a large bureau drawer in the ladies’ cabin.
He really did seem to have a thing for women’s clothing.
Thomas and his men were treated as pirates, rather than POWs, and were sent to prison.
The southern press complained of the “villainous and inhuman” treatment of Confederate privateers.
(They’d been sent to Philadelphia.)
A Memphis paper reported them as being held in damp, dark cells for felons, often in double irons; they were entitled to rations costing sixteen cents per day, but a Union officer was quoted as saying they managed on a nickel. Governor Letcher of Virginia reportedly threatened to subject Union soldiers to the same treatment, and at some point, the privateers were released.
Thomas headed for France and stayed there for the duration.
After Thomas’ arrest, the Chester (the ferryboat-turned-pirate-hunter) was pressed into service to look for a schooner that was reportedly hanging around with the rest of the raiders onboard.
But I don’t know if they ever found it.
Or when they finally picked up the Chestertown passengers.
Or if they had to give the cannons back.
The Civil War fostered many huge leaps in military technology. Aerial observation, electronic communications, ironclad warships with turrets, breech-loading weapons, landmines, etc. But was also one of the last gasps for cavalry charges with sabers and plumed hats…and also for privateers.
After the Crimean War, the Europeans had banned privateering, and country after country, even the Ottoman Empire, signed on. Queen Elizabeth I had graciously smiled upon Drake and Raleigh, and all the gold they’d looted from the Spanish, but Victoria was not amused. In the 19th century, somehow privateering (and having the Queen have to share the prize money), just didn’t seem very…Victorian.
But even if An Englishman Would Not Do That, the British shipyards were happy to build the CSS Alabama and other commerce raiders for the Confederates.
Lincoln and his successors were not amused by this, and after many years of Exchanging Stiff Notes, and finally, international arbitration, Gladstone actually coughed up fifteen million dollars so he didn’t have to listen to any more gripes.
(There were commerce raiders in WWI, but they were ships of the Imperial German Navy, not privateers working on spec.)
Back in the 1850’s, the U.S. was asked to sign the ban on privateering, but in those days, our fleet was still dwarfed by those of the European powers, and folks still remembered the successes of the Baltimore clippers during the War of 1812. And all that lovely prize money.
Secretary of State William Marcy, a good New York lawyer after all, wanted the U.S. to keep its options open. His response echoed Geo. Washington’s admonition to avoid Large Standing Armies, and powerful navies. He told the international community, that this ban on privateers sounded very expensive, as we’d have to purchase a Great White Fleet somewhere, and we’d have to think about it.
And we still are. Thinking it over. The U.S. has never signed the ban, so technically, we’re still free to seek letters of marque and reprisal, put on a dress, and go seize a ferryboat.
 Have you actually read the original lyrics of the Maryland State Song? Kind of amazing. The state of Georgia gets a fantastic tune by Hoagy Carmichael, and Maryland gets a 2nd-hand Xmas carol with propaganda — which rhymes “bravely meek” with “shriek”.
I really resent someone contaminating “O Tannenbaum” with this crap. OK, “gore” and “Baltimore” do rhyme, sort of, and Baltimore/gore is still a very appropriate association, but seriously, what an artless anthem of negativity to teach school kids. Like the rowdies killed in the “Boston Massacre”, Baltimore’s “anointed throng” was basically a bunch of thugs attacking people with rocks. Maybe I sound a bit opinionated.
 At the NSA’s Cryptologic Museum, they have a Confederate “cipher cylinder” the agents used to send coded messages.
(I’ve been to the museum, but cannot reveal to you where it is.)
(OK, it’s in Annapolis Junction.)
(On Route 32, behind the Shell station)
(and it has a gift shop!)
Most of the photos of old steamboats, Hollins, and Adm. Dahlgren, and the A. R. Waud sketch of the Pawnee, are from the Library of Congress. I was unable to find the Chester, but these pictures give you an idea of the age of steam and paddle wheelers.
P. S. Putting cannons onto a ferryboat was not quite as crazy as it sounds. In 1861, the U.S. needed to blockade Southern ports and capture the Mississippi, but only had a handful of ships. The Navy began frantically building warships. They could build a complete ship in an amazingly short time. The “Liberty ships” of WWII got it down to five days, but they had prefab sections. During the Civil War, the Northern shipyards up and down the Eastern seaboard, including Maryland, built serviceable warships from scratch in three months. These “90-day gunboats” were then sent on blockade duty.
But in the meantime, the Union bought and converted hundreds of civilian ships — clippers, schooners, barks, whalers, tugs, stern-wheelers, side-wheelers, screw steamers, paddle frigates, steam sloops, etc.
The list of ship types gives you some idea of the floating menagerie assembled by the U.S. — one of the most diverse navies ever assembled.
Former civilian vessels were used as mortar boats, tenders, dispatch boats, tugs, coalers, survey boats, pilot boats, transports, etc.
Some had iron plates or heavy timbers slapped on the sides, and became gunboats. The Confederates even sent “Cottonclads” into combat, using huge bales of cotton in lieu of armor.
Ferryboats and tugs were powerful and sturdily built, and apparently were favorites for conversion to warships.
Newspaper articles available via LOC about the privateers:
3/21/61; 3/28/61 Evening Star (Wash DC); 4/20/61 Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, OH); 4/21/61 Nashville Union and American (Nashville, TN); 4/20/61 The Daily Green Mountain Freeman(Monpelier VT); 4/22/61 The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA); 7/2/1861 The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA); 7/2/1861 Evening Star (Wash DC); 7/2/61 The National Republican (Wash DC); 7/2/61 The Daily Wabash Express (Terre-Haute, IN); 7/2/61 The Daily Exchange (Balt., MD); 7/6/61 The Daily Exchange (Balt.MD); 7/9/61 New-York daily tribune; 7/10/61 The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, MD); 12/23/62 Staunton Spectator (Staunton, VA); 8/14/62 Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis, TN)
|The Washington Times, October 6, 2007 Saturday, TRAVEL; THE CIVIL WAR; D03, 2339 words, Rebel raider disguised in hoop skirt, By Richard P. Cox,
SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES