Monday, August 27, 2018

The Confederate Blockade of the Potomac River

     In the hazy light of a hot summer morning you can see the rippling shoreline of Maryland from the abandoned Confederate gun emplacements.  This is history in the raw, a place called Possum Nose, a long abandoned and forgotten Civil War site on the Potomac River.  Earthworks, once built to protect cannons, watch the river blankly, while overgrown trenches await a Union attack that will never come.  The remains of a powder magazine and scattered hut sites can be found in the deep woods, but these are the only reminders that Washington was once held hostage.

Even before Virginia became part of the Confederacy, Northern Virginians realized the opportunity they had to “strangle” Washington by erecting land batteries on prominent points along the Potomac.  The decision to do so was finally reached in August 1861, while the Union Army lay paralyzed after its defeat on July 21, 1861 at Manassas in the first major land engagement of the war.  A strong battery was built at Evansport, at the mouth of Quantico Creek, some thirty five miles south of Washington, on what is today the Quantico Marine Corps Base.  Smaller batteries were erected at Possum Nose and Freestone Point, also in Prince William County.  In all, there were thirty seven heavy guns placed along the river supported by five infantry regiments.  The Confederates also used a captured steamer, the C.S.S. City of Richmond, berthed in Quantico Creek, to terrorize smaller craft on the river.

If a strong force of Union ships had been patrolling the Potomac at the beginning of August, it would have been impossible for the rebels to construct or maintain gun batteries on the banks of the river.  Once the three rebel batteries supported by troops were dug in, however, it was considered to be almost impossible to capture the positions by assault.

Washington was shaken.  The Capital was proud of its busy wharves, where twenty new warehouses had been constructed.  With the completion of the first Confederate battery, trade began to suffer.  The once busy wharves fell idle.  Trade came to an abrupt halt.  Shortages developed and prices soared.  Occasionally a ship would run the Southern blockade, but only the little oyster pungies docked with any regularity.

 The Confederate defenses effectively closed the Potomac River.  All ships carrying U.S. government shipments were directed to go to Baltimore to unload.  Those ships not carrying government stores which attempted to run the batteries were subjected to a hail of fire for a distance of about six miles.  Even the fastest ships could be kept under constant fire for almost an hour.  Unfortunately for ships trying to run the Confederate gauntlet, the river’s deepest channel swerved close to the Virginia shore just at the point where rebel batteries were mounted.

The Confederate blockade was so successful during the fall and winter of 1861-1862 that a foreign correspondent reported that Washington was the only city in the United States which really was blockaded.  The blockade became so frustrating to the North, both in terms of morale and diplomatic embarrassment, that President Lincoln issued a direct order for action, “Ordered, That the Army and the Navy cooperate in an immediate effort to capture the enemy’s batteries upon the Potomac.”

 Lincoln’s order was never carried out, for on March 9, 1862, General Joseph E. Johnston ordered a general retreat of Confederate forces to defensive positions further south, along the Rappahannock River, to forestall a Union drive on Richmond.  Within two days the batteries were evacuated and the C.S.S. City of Richmond burned in Quantico Creek.

     Some evidence of the blockade still exists.  A restored site can be seen at Freestone Point in Leesylvania State Park.  Evidence also remains at Possum Nose.  These un-restored earthworks remain in excellent condition.  The largest, overlooking the river from a seventy five foot hill with cliff-like banks, housed three guns.  Smaller emplacements flank the main battery.  Behind the batteries, running the entire width of Possum Nose, are winding rifle pits.  The Fifth Alabama Infantry Battalion and one company of the First Tennessee were stationed at Possum Nose and hut sites are still visible. 

     Despite the growth of Northern Virginia in the last century, many little known Civil War sites dot the countryside, haunting reminders of that tragic war.

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