Chincoteague was, at the start of the Civil War, a fishing village on a small island on coastal Virginia. It didn’t need slaves, but it did need customers for its seafood, and that meant that they needed access to northern towns. So Chincoteague became the only Virginia town to vote to remain with the Union after Virginia seceded in 1861.
I didn’t know any of this when we decided to make a brief visit to Chincoteague in June. We were in the mid-Atlantic to visit family and friends and I decided on a side-trip to see the wild ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague.
The sign on the door of the Bike Depot, the shop where we were going to rent bicycles to ride around Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, declared the mosquito the official bird of Chincoteague and warned that mega protection was necessary. I’d lived in Virginia for most of my life, so I knew mutant, biting bugs grew on its marshy coast in summer and knew that not clothing nor the most toxic of chemicals would keep them away. The chemicals just made them bigger and meaner.
We rented the bikes anyway and rode across a causeway onto Assateague Island and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. We got into the refuge on our National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass (the best deal in the US for history tourists who are US citizens or permanent residents — $80 per year for those under 62, and $80 for a lifetime pass for those 62 and older), but it will cost otherwise.
There are miles of trails to ride around the refuge, and we burned a few extra calories trying to outrun the caravan of mosquitoes that followed. The only place on the island we got relief (other than inside a building) was the beach, which had a breeze strong enough to keep the bugs away.
The inside venues were a visitor center (with one of the most helpful rangers ever) and a lighthouse. Assateague Island is a 37 mile barrier island, with southern one-third of it belonging to Virginia and the northern two-thirds to Maryland. The Assateague Lighthouse is on the Virginia side of Assateague Island, just a few minutes drive from the town of Chincoteague. The original was finished in 1833, with a taller and more powerful (light-wise) version completed in 1867. We climbed the 175 steps for an expansive view of the surrounding area. And no mosquitoes.
From the top of the lighthouse, we could see miles of the surrounding area, including Cockle Creek, where an 1861 battle that set the Confederates against Union Chincoteague had taken place.
A few months after the people of Chincoteague declared their intention to remain with the Union, Confederate sailing vessels entered Cockle Creek, near the Chincoteague Inlet. These included the schooner Venus, and two sloops. A group from Chincoteague managed to get a boat out and sailed to Hampton Roads, about 100 miles south, to inform the US Navy. The Union responded by sending the USS Louisiana, an iron hull steamer. On October 5, the Louisiana and Venus engaged. Venus was burned and sunk, and the sloops were captured. The engagement became known as the Battle of Cockle Creek.
I’ve seen many lovely tourist photos of the ponies wandering the beaches, but they weren’t there for us that day. We decided to try again the next day on the Maryland end of Assateague.