Our panel of Civil War experts returns to A House Divided to mull more questions during the war’s 150th anniversary. Our latest question: What is the most important but overlooked story of the Civil War?
The most important, yet overlooked, story of the period did not happen in the Deep South, or the Western Theater, or the Atlantic, but very close to Washington. From October 1861 to March 1862, the Confederates effectively blockaded the U.S. capital with artillery batteries that closed off the Potomac River to Union ship traffic while allowing supplies to cross the Potomac to Virginia from Confederate-sympathizing Charles County in Maryland.
The Confederates had earlier thought to build their batteries at Mathias Point, just upriver from the current Route 301 bridge, but they abandoned that effort because it was too far from a supply base to support infantry forces. Instead, they worked frantically, and in secrecy, during August and September 1861 to build batteries between the Occoquan River and Quantico Creek, with the biggest batteries at Evansport and Shipping Point, near current-day Quantico, and Cockpit Point, just north of Quantico Creek. The batteries were supported on shore by two Confederate units stationed in Dumfries, each of which would became famous later in the war: the Texas Brigade and Wade Hampton’s Legion.
Ready for action and opening fire in mid-October, these Confederate batteries forced the Union Navy to redirect all ship traffic out of the Potomac and to use Baltimore instead of Washington, much to the embarrassment of President Abraham Lincoln, his Navy and his Army. By that time, never-ready-for-action Gen. George B. McClellan refused to send Union land troops down the southern side of the river from Alexandria to dislodge the Confederates. In protest of what he considered Lincoln’s meddling, he dispatched a division to the Maryland side opposite the Confederates, where they could do the Confederates no harm, nor the Union any good. The Union soldiers noticed that there were few men around in the Maryland homes and assumed that the women were widows, only to discover later that the ladies had husbands who were very much alive and had gone South to fight with the Confederacy.
It was curious. The North had blockaded the Southern ports, and the South had used its artillery to blockade Washington, where supplies withered and prices soared, as the overwhelmed Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was its only supply link with the rest of the world. This condition lasted through December, January and February as Northern impatience with McClellan’s intransigence built.
The breakthrough finally came March 9, 1862, but not from any Northern action. In February, Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave Gen. Joseph Johnston permission to pull back from Centreville, Dumfries and the Potomac River. Wasting no time, Johnston burned his supplies, exploded extra ammunition and moved farther south in the direction of Fredericksburg, giving up the blockade.
Waite Rawls is president and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy.
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