Archaeological Dig Unearths Hopes for a Civil War Museum

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By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

Windswept and rocky, the knobby point overlooking the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in present-day Potomac provided a strategic lookout but little shelter for the Union soldiers who fortified the spot in 1862.

Beginning that winter of the Civil War, soldiers of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry are believed to have guarded this Montgomery County site on the C&O, then an important commercial route parallel to the adjacent Potomac River. From their perch, Northern soldiers attempted to keep Confederates from crossing the Potomac from Virginia into Maryland.

Off duty, soldiers went down the slope and away from the bluffs to a roughhewn encampment built of logs covered in dirt and shaped in the form of a Greek cross.

Such an encampment was known as a blockhouse, a common site along the C & O during the war. Nine such fortifications punctuated a 25-mile stretch of the Potomac between Great Falls and the Monocacy River.

Inaccessible and wild, the Potomac site has languished, a little-known, off-trail excursion in Montgomery's Blockhouse Point Conservation Park, just off River Road. It was rarely visited, except for the occasional Civil War historian or relic hunter who knew the path from the private horse farm abutting the park.

Then, just a few years ago, a group of archaeology enthusiasts came ready to break a sweat in pursuit of long-forgotten history. An ongoing archaeological dig at Blockhouse Point park, led by county archaeologist Jim Sorensen, has uncovered Civil War-era buckshot, clay pipe bowls, a bayonet part and other artifacts.

The dig has shed light on daily life in a Civil War soldiers' camp and pushed to the forefront the idea that Montgomery should have a Civil War museum.

A museum to accompany the dig site is desired because there really is no place in the county to go to appreciate its Civil War history, said Don Housely, retired chairman of the Wheaton High School history department and a dig volunteer.

The long-range goal is to have an authentic site where students can learn about Civil War-era Montgomery, Housely said.

Full commitment to a museum is up to the County Council, which has not scheduled any action on the issue, but the county has been purchasing parcels of land adjacent to the park, said archaeologist Sorensen, of the county Park and Planning Department.

The county has been acquiring the property from a private horse ranch called Callithea Farm. The farm, just across from the intersection of River Road and Signal Tree Lane, is on land adjoining Blockhouse Point park. The museum, or any building, cannot be built in the park, a county conservation area where permanent structures are not permitted.

The county has purchased about 80 percent of the land that would be needed for a museum and is expected to own the full tract in the next year or two, Sorensen said.

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