Rebels destroying the C&O Canal from Harper's Weekly, July 30, 1864

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The C&O Canal during the Civil War

With this being the first post of this blog, I figured I'll attempt at giving a brief history as well as an idea of why the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was important during the Civil War and how it was affected. Here goes..

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal came about as a result of the years of work done by the Patowmack Company, under the direction of George Washington, to create a canal along the Potomac River that would become America's gateway to the west. Washington's company constructed several canals that skirted around the areas of the Potomac that were inaccessible by boat, like at the Great Falls or Harper's Ferry. These smaller canals allowed boat traffic to move upriver to supply goods and transport settlers westward while bring goods from these western areas to market in Washington, D.C.'s neighborhood of Georgetown. In 1824, the land holdings of the Patowmack company were transferred to the newly charted Chesapeake and Ohio Company. Construction of the C&O Canal began on July 4, 1828 with a groudbreaking ceremony attended by President John Quincy Adams, who called the canal "The Great National Project". Initial plans called for the canal to stretch from Georgetown to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, connecting the Ohio River with the tidal waters of the Potomac at Georgetown.

The first section of the canal between Georgetown and Seneca, Maryland was opened for use in 1831. As construction crews neared Harper's Ferry, a narrow strip of land came under scrutiny when both the canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad laid claim to it as well as the right of way. Only after a contentious court battle did both sides agree to share the land. The canal reached Harpers Ferry and opened at that location in 1833. By 1836 the canal had reached Shepherdstown, Virginia and a mail delivery service was created to serve from Shepherdstown to Georgetown. In 1839, the canal approached Hancock, Maryland and in 1850 in reached Cumberland, Maryland. By the time it reached Cumberland, the B&O Railroad had already made the canal a thing of the past because it had reached Cumberland nearly eight years earlier. With exploding debt, the company decided not to continue on and Cumberland became the western terminus of the canal, which stretched over 180 miles from Cumberland to Georgetown.

When war came in 1861, operations on the canal went on a war footing with all supplies being carried from the west were used to power war industry in Washington and it was also used to transport soldiers when the railroads could not transport them. With it being on the border of the northern and southern states, it quickly became known that with a war on Union soldiers would be posted a various points along the canal and Confederate raiding parties would periodically appear. Surprisingly, Union strategist at first decided that the canal should be lightly guarded because of the belief of a strong secessionist feelings along the canal's route. This belief would quickly change.

The first major military operation that directly affected the canal would be Stonewall Jackson's Bath-Romney campaign in December 1861 and early January 1862. Based out of Winchester, Virginia, Jackson set out with his small army with plans to disrupt operations along the C&O Canal and B&O Railroad and destroy Dam No. 5 on the Potomac. Dam No. 5 was of great importance because it was one of several dams that forced water into the canal. If Jackson could destroy the dam, the canal would dry up for the time being and disrupt the movement of goods, primarily coal, from the western mountains to industry in D.C. Major Roger Dabney, at the time a soldier in Jackson's command, said, "No force would be adequate to to rebuild in the amidst the ice and freezing floods of winter.", if Confederate forces could breach the dam.

Confederates attacking Dam No. 5
Jackson's attempts to destroy the damn began on December 7, 1861 when he dispatched the 27th Virginia, under Major Elisha Paxton. Paxton's regiment, supported by artillery, arrived at the dam just before sunset of the 7th and shelled Union pickets that were guarding the dam. The surprised pickets fled and Paxton's men quickly went to work on the dam. Around 11 p.m., Union reinforcements in the form of the 13th Massachusetts arrived and drove off the Confederates who were in the Potomac hacking away on the wooden timbers of the dam. The next morning, a lively artillery duel and skirmish began but Paxton quickly found that enemy was, "so sheltered in the canal- from which in the mean time they had drawn off the water- that is was found impossible to dislodge them." With Union soldiers raining small arms fire down on his men from the shelter of the canal, Paxton was forced to abandon his endeavor and he reluctantly retreated back to Martinsburg, Virginia. Following Paxton's failure, Jackson himself would lead a larger force about the week before Christmas in an attempt to destroy the dam. On December 18, 19th, and 20th, Jackson's men went to work on the dam but strong Union reinforcements kept Jackson's men under pressure. Eventually, Jackson's men managed to open a break in the dam and seeing this as a success, Jackson called off his attempts and later stated that he had "reason to believe that the recent break in Dam No. 5 will destroy any vestiges of hope that might have been entertained of supplying Washington with Cumberland coal by the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.” Jackson would return in early January, popping up with his small army near Hancock, Maryland. His men skirmished with Union pickets and when he reached the shores of the Potomac, Jackson ordered his artillery to bombard the town to distract the Union garrison as he searched for a suitable crossing to get into Maryland and capture the town. The bombardment last two days and when Jackson failed to find a crossing, he retreated and advanced on Romney. The bombardment caused little damage.
Following Jackson's assaults, the canal experienced a period of relative quiet when Robert E. Lee decided to carry the war into Maryland in the late summer of 1862. When Confederates began crossing the Potomac, units spread out destroying canal boats, raiding lock keeper's homes, and breaching the canal. D.H. Hill's division was even entrusted with destruction of the Monocacy Aqueduct but a local lock keeper managed to convince Hill's men it was just as easy to breach the canal and halt traffic than to blow up the aqueduct. When the Union 5th Corps pursued Lee's retreating army to the ford below Shepherdstown, Virginia, Union forces were savagely beaten back by the Confederate rear guard. Those Union troops who hadn't crossed, took cover in the dry canal bed and fired across at those Confederates pursuing the defeated comrades. Many of those men who survived and managed to get back into Maryland, huddled in the safety of the canal bed, including the rookies of the 118th Pennsylvania.

When Confederate forces retreated deep into Virginia, workers began making repairs to the canal and traffic began to resume all along the canal. The following summer of 1863, the canal again saw  Confederate forces tramping across the canal and destroying canal boats, breaching the canal, and again raiding lock keepers homes and shops. When these same Confederates retreated to Williamsport following the defeat at Gettysburg, the Potomac was to high to ford so these same men had to wait for the river levels to lower. When they finally did lower, Lee's engineers stripped the wooden planks from buildings along the canal and lumber from a Williamsport lumber yard to construct a makeshift pontoon bridge to get his army back to safety. When the Confederates again retreated back deep into Virginia, workers went back to repairing the canal. But unlike the previous fall, Confederate pickets and partisans laid down occassional musket fire down on the workers preventing them from completeing their work in a speedy fashion.

In 1864, Confederate raids by the likes of Major General Jubal Early's 2nd Corps, John S. Mosby's partisan rangers, and other Confederate raiders caused damage to the canal unlike ever seen before. The berms of the canal continued to be breached, canal boats burnt and now the homes of the workers began to be destroyed and aqueducts began to recieve heavier damage. When the raiders would finally leave, those who worked on the canal pleaded with the government for protection, but little help was sent so the workers had to fend for themselves.

Following the war, the canal went back to business as usual and those workers who served on both sides of the war began to heal the wounds that had made during the war. The war had nearly bankrupted the canal company as a result of damages from the war and hindered transport of goods. When the canal got back on its feet, a period of prosperity occured like never before. The company began to pay off its debts, make improvements to the canal to make traffic move quicker, and even gave its workers a pay raise. Despite this prosperity, the canal would experience several floods and economic hardships during the last half of the 19th  and early 20th Centuries. These would cause the Canal company to collapse and in 1889 the B&O canal took over operations and after one last big flood, the canal was shut down in 1924. In 1938, the U.S. Government purchased the canal and began improving it and in 1971 it was made a National Historical Park.

As you can see, the canal was heavily influenced by events occuring along its path during the Civil War. It was a major transportation route for supplies and troops. It was a safehaven for those Union men who were fighitng off Confederate forces. While today the canal is remember as one of America's most preserved 19th century canals, its Civil War history cannot be ignored. At every attempt, Confederate forces rained havoc down on the workers of the canal and the canal itself, nearly bankrupting the Chesapeake and Ohio Company. So the next time you decide to walk along its towpath, take some time to remember those worked  and those who fought to defend it during those four years of turmoil between 1861-1865.


1. Mike High. The C&O Canal Companion. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,1997

3. Walter S. Sanderlin. “The Vicissitudes of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal during the Civil War”. The Journal of Southern History. Vol. 11, No. 1.(Feb. 1945)


  1. I had no idea the Canal had a role in the Civil War.. I grew up in this area! I feel like kids should learn more about this.. maybe you could do something about the lack of education on this area.

  2. Could you please site your source for the image on the top of the page? Thanks!

  3. The image can be found in Mike High's "The C&O Canal Companion" on page 37. It can also be found on the, a website with every edition of Harper's Weekly from 1861 to 1865.