If you were a child in a boating family on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal 150 years ago, war would never be far from your thoughts. Why? Because your days — and nights — were spent along the boundary between the Union (North) and the Confederacy (South) as the canal followed the Potomac River’s Maryland shore.
As you walked on the towpath beside the mules pulling the boat or you did chores in the boat’s small cabin, you would pass the camps of Union soldiers. You hoped they would do their job well and keep Confederate raiders from crossing the Potomac to damage the canal.
Sometimes at night you would be awakened by pounding hoofbeats on the towpath. You would hold your breath, hoping they didn’t stop. Hoping it wasn’t Confederates who would steal your mules — or even burn your family’s boat. Hoping it wasn’t a Union officer saying the army needed your boat to move troops or to be part of a floating bridge.
And always there was the fear that Confederates would make a cut in the canal bank so the water would flow out. Or that they would sink boats to block the waterway so no traffic could pass. If your family couldn’t deliver its cargo, no money would be earned. How would you manage then?
Today, the C&O Canal National Historic Park is a beautiful natural area, and the towpath is the perfect place to walk or bicycle. But in the early 1860s, the canal played an important part in the Union war effort. Long, narrow boats brought hundreds of tons of coal the 184 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, to Georgetown to fuel the Navy’s steamships. The boats also delivered grain to feed horses and make bread for soldiers. That was why the Union protected the canal — and why the Confederates tried so hard to destroy it.
In December 1861, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s men tried several times to destroy one of the dams that was important to operating the canal. First the Confederates bombarded the dam with cannon fire; later they waded into the freezing water and hacked at it with tools.
After they withdrew, the Union defenders helped canal workers repair the dam. To the relief of boating families and the U.S. government, the entire canal reopened. Coal would be delivered, and the boaters would be paid.