Blockading the Potomac

BLOCKADING THE POTOMAC

By Doug Coleman

civil-discourse-sneden-cockpit-pointOn of the immediate problems presented to newly seceded Virginia was to secure her waterways from Federal incursion. The first shots fired in Virginia were at the little-known battle of Gloucester Point on the York River. The Confederates were in the process of constructing a fort there, which when completed would command the river channel. On May 7, 1861, the Federals sent a steamer to stop further construction. The USS Yankee approached within 2000 yards to discover a battery of six pounder field artillery protecting the point. The Confederates fired two shots across the steamer’s bow and were answered by six shots, all of which fell short in the river. The Confederates responded with ten shots, all of which missed. With all these misses, one wonders if the combatants were really trying to hurt one another. A couple of weeks later, the Yankees would invade Alexandria and people would die on both sides.

The Potomac had its batteries as well. On May 8, 1861, the Confederates began construction of a battery on Aquia Creek to protect the rail terminus there. It soon mounted 13 guns and then was reinforced with a second battery on higher ground. On May 29th, the gunboat Thomas Freeborn showed up to duel the batteries, slightly wounding one Confederate gunner. Thomas Freeborn returned the next day, backed by the Anacostia and Resolute, shelling the Confederates for several hours, again with little effect. On June 1st, these three gunboats were joined by the Pawnee. They hammered the shore for five hours, firing 500 rounds. No Confederates were hurt, though they did lose a horse and a chicken. Thomas Freeborn and Pawnee were hit and required repairs, but no sailors were injured. The Confederates would add an additional two batteries there.

Other batteries would follow. Sited on river bluffs from Freestone Point on the Occoquan to Marlborough Point on Potomac Creek and down to Mathias Point, these were offensive batteries intended to deny the Yankees river access to Washington and Alexandria. The gauntlet consisted of 14 batteries mounting perhaps 37 guns by December of 1861.

The most important of these batteries were at Cockpit Point, Evansport, Shipping Point and Freestone Point, all near modern Quantico. A correspondent from The New York Herald describes the earthworks after they were abandoned in early 1862: “At Cockpit Point there are four heavy guns, one of which, a Parrott, was found to be in fragments. The magazines are most ingeniously contrived. On entering one of them you descend an inclined plane, and after advancing about four feet you find yourself in a passage barely wide enough to admit a man. You turn within to the right or the left, still going underground, to the distance of from fifteen to twenty feet, when you come to the magazine itself, which is filled with shelves of cedar plank, on which shot and shell and other ammunition are stowed. The passageway is lined with cedar planks, to prevent the earth from caving in.” There are also references to an 80 pounder Whitworth. These “heavy guns” would wreck anything short of an ironclad – and there were no Yankee ironclads in 1861. In July the Confederates began deploying mines as well, with an 80 pound charge sufficient to kill a gunboat.

Were the batteries effective? Yes – from October 1861 to March 1862 the batteries shut down a good portion of river traffic, forcing shipping to divert to Baltimore to deliver cargo to Washington by rail. Fuel prices rocketed. Hay for horses became scarce. On November 14th, an imprudent schooner carrying firewood upriver took three hits, was abandoned by her crew and then set on fire by Confederates. The Navy forbade civilian traffic on the river. But most boats willing to take a chance passed by without damage. Confederate marksmanship was apparently pretty bad, possibly because of poor powder. One witness estimated that perhaps one shot in 200 hit wood. The worst casualty was Yankee pride – the capital of the United States was cut off from its shipping lanes.

Washington pushed back, of course. In December and January the Union ships Yankee, Anacostia and Pensacola engaged the batteries sporadically. An engagement on January 3rd involving the Anacostia and Yankee is elevated to the battle of Cockpit Point. This was a probing action to assess the true strength of the batteries. Four shots were fired by the Confederates, resulting in slight damage to one gunboat from the 80 pounder and a Yankee sailor slightly wounded. The gunboats hit back with 40 shots, dismounting a gun. The gunboats retired with the knowledge that the batteries could be shelled with impunity if they took up the right position at the right range.

Additionally, counter-batteries were constructed by the Union on the Maryland shore at Budd’s Ferry. These batteries mounted Parrott and Whitworth rifles and sometimes engaged in artillery duels across the river lasting hours on end. Generally marksmanship on both sides was bad, with the shots passing over the target.

By March of 1862, Richmond appreciated that the security of these batteries was in jeopardy from a land attack, not to mention being shelled by gunboats and artillery in Maryland. On March 8th, Lincoln issued an order making destruction of these batteries the first priority for his army and navy. The next day, gunboats moved in to shell the batteries again. There was no reply. The Confederates had quietly withdrawn with the supplies and artillery they could move on muddy roads, spiking or bursting the remaining guns. The Yankees dismantled what was left as best they could.

Today, traces of the earthworks at Cockpit Point are still evident and suggest a rich archaeology. A generous land owner has donated 16 acres of the site to Prince William County for preservation. At Aquia, there are remains of the Walker and Brent’s Point earthworks. The works at Freestone Point are still there. But many of the batteries have been lost to development, as at Evansport, now downtown Quantico.

On a related note, I had pointed out the “Boot Battery” on Jones Point in “Defending the Potomac.” Three of Robert Knox Sneden’s maps depict such a battery there.  I love Sneden’s maps because they are usually very accurate and filled with information. However, I am assured by experts that no such work ever existed. Why Sneden would depict the battery on three different maps is a mystery which begs further investigation, but I will take their word for it and beg forgiveness for my “historical malpractice.”

Sources: Study of the January 1862 Battle of Cockpit Point, http://eservice.pwcgov.org/planning/documents/Archaeology/CockpitPointBattlefield_FinalReport.pdf

 

Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.

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