December 9, 2007

Civil War Battle Links Two Local Civic Leaders

LAST WEEK'S STORY was about a young Union sailor, Thomas Farrell, who served on the federal blockade steamer Quaker City, and John Fentress, captain of the Princess Anne Cavalry, who helped guard the shoreline near Cape Henry.

On June 24, 1861, the commander of the Union blockade ship Quaker City sent a message to his flag officer detailing an incident in Lynnhaven Bay, in which a defector from the Norfolk navy yard waited on the beach to be rescued.

"I immediately dispatched an armed boat under charge of Acting Master Mather to bring him off, but which was fired upon before reaching the shore by a large body of mounted troops, who rushed from a concealed rendezvous in the woods.

"I regret to inform you that James Lloyd, ordinary seaman, was wounded, I fear mortally." Furthermore, a later dispatch said, the would-be defector was captured.

A couple of months after, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, a weekly that came to prominence during the Civil War, carried a detailed sketch of the scene. It shows the Quaker City opening fire on the shoreline. From the woods near the beach, an explosion of gunfire erupts. And in the water, pulling for the ship, is the rowboat.

It's a remarkable illustration of one of the few skirmishes - and few shots fired in anger - in what was to become Virginia Beach during its long history. Also remarkable, if not mind-boggling, is that descendents of two of the antagonists long have known and worked with each other in local civic affairs.

Barbara Ferguson, granddaughter of Thomas Farrell, has long lived in Virginia Beach and has served as Princess Anne representative on the Planning Commission. Gary Fentress, great-great-grandson of Capt. Fentress, is the Beach's deputy city attorney, who was then counsel to the commission.

"I was quite amazed to find out that we had this connection," Fentress said as I met him in the parking lot of the Beacon Building on Virginia Beach Boulevard. He showed me a folder of documents from the period, including the illustration you see here.

As for the Union sailor, after his stint on the Quaker City, Farrell joined the Army and volunteered for a reconnaissance mission to make maps and report on Confederate defenses on the Virginia Peninsula. Wearing civilian clothing and a straw hat, he slipped behind enemy lines and drew sketches of Polegreen Church, believed to be an important rendezvous point.

After several other assignments, he served as aide de camp to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the siege of Vicksburg, Miss. There he sketched the defenses and directed artillery fire. He was twice wounded but completed his mission. For his efforts, he was promoted to captain at age 20. After the war and the death of his wife and son, he remarried and had five children with his second wife, Ellen. The last of those children was Ferguson's mother.

The Quaker City went on to capture other would-be blockade runners and after the war was returned to commercial service. Lavishly refitted in New York, the steamer embarked on a highly touted transatlantic cruise, carrying an ambitious young humorist who was calling himself Mark Twain.

His first major book was "Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrim's Progress," described as "being some account of the steamship Quaker City's pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land, with descriptions of countries, nations, incidents & adventures as they appeared to the author." The trip was "From New York to Palestine and back, through France, Spain, Italy, Monocco (sic), Russia, Turkey, Egypt, &c, &c, a distance of over twenty thousands miles by sea and land."

"It was to be a picnic on a gigantic scale," Twain wrote in the introduction. Sadly, the Quaker City ended its service with the Haitian navy, and was lost at sea off Bermuda.

But the memory lingers. Fentress says that Ferguson showed him a newspaper account of the skirmish on the beach, and he confirmed that the cavalry captain was his distant relative. He quotes her as saying, "You're not going to believe this: My grandfather was on that boat. They were shooting at each other."

Paul Clancy, [email protected] These were some of the stories reported by local papers the week of Dec. 9:


Architectural consultants for the city of Virginia Beach unveil a $26 million plan for beautifying the resort strip. Proposals from the report include plans to build an "Ocean Center," which would be built over Atlantic Avenue and have an ocean pier, shops and restaurants somewhat like Norfolk's Waterside.

Anthony Haskins, a 20-year-old Army private from Fort Hood, Texas, defeats defending lightweight champion Pernell "Sweetpea" Whitaker in the U.S. Amateur Boxing Championships in Indiana.

The Virginia Beach Police Department acquires Tasers, which look " like something from the 'Star Wars' movie." They resemble flashlights and produce an electrical charge that can immobilize a person with muscle spasms.


A winter storm produced 1 to 4 inches of snow in parts of Virginia and North Carolina. A record temperature of 16 degrees is recorded in Norfolk.

A Christmas shopping story declares that little girls are being "lured into a life of domestic drudgery." The bestselling toys for girls are miniature appliances, including stoves, vacuums, even a washer that uses actual water. A store clerk comments that there is little interest in dolls or fairytale books.

The Mardi Gras Festival Committee invites the Norview High School Band to march in the Rex Parade, considered the high point of the festival, on Shrove Tuesday in February 1958.


The Franklin Land and Lumber Co. officially transfers a 350-acre tract of land, from Bower's Hill to Deep Creek in Norfolk County, to the Southern Homestead Corp. for $60,000. The land will become an immigrant settlement.

Phillip Levy & Co., on Church Street in Norfolk, advertises genuine German dolls with long, flowing hair and closing eyes for 33 cents in a Christmas shopping promotion.

- Compiled by Kimberly R. Kent, news researcher

Paul Clancy, a former staff writer for The Virginian-Pilot, is the author of two recent books, "Ironclad: the Epic Battle, Calamitous Loss, and Historic Recovery of the USS Monitor" and "Historic Hampton Roads: Where America Began."

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