The most serious effect of the blockade was not the personal problems people faced such as higher prices and inconvenience but rather humiliation, not only for Washington but for the entire nation. It was inconceivable that the great Capital of the United States was a beleaguered city. - “The Confederate Blockade of Washington, D.C., 1861-1862” by Mary Alice Wills
One of the many forgotten stories of the Civil War took place about twenty miles south of Washington along the Potomac River. From October 1861 to March 1862, the Confederates blockaded the capital city by placing artillery batteries on and three capes on the Virginia shore near Dumfries.
During the war, these strategic points, located on a seven-mile front, had names such as “Shipping Point” and “Possum Nose.” Folks in Prince William County know these three places today as Leesylvania State Park, the area east of the Cherry Hill neighborhood and Quantico. Riders on VRE pass by the points and some of the sites of the camps.
After their trouncing of the Union army at First Manassas/Bull Run in July 1861, the Southern forces controlled this part of Virginia south of the Occoquan River, a defensive line that extended from Centreville to the Potomac river. They considered similar strategic places closer to Washington, but feared being too close to the Union Army in and south of Alexandria.
To commemorate the blockade, the Prince William County Historic Preservation hosts a series of boat tours of the sites. Yesterday, about 18 hearty souls braved morning temperatures in the mid 40s and met by the dock at Freestone Point in Leesylvania Park. Located about five miles south of Woodbridge, this woodsy 500-acre park was once a plantation owned by Harry “Light Horse” Lee and used by the Lee family.
While some of the sites we visited (we did not get off the boat for any of them) have lost their original name, this first one is still known by some as “Freestone Point.” This northernmost site drew the first fire from the Union Navy’s “Potomac Flotilla,” on September 25, 1861. The northern guns returned on January 3, 1862. Like all the skirmishes that took place here, little damage was done to either side.
Hopping on board the “Rivershore,” a 50-foot commercial pontoon boat out of Occoquan, we shoved off around 1030. Our guide was Robert Alton, author of "Stratagem 1861, Early Civil War Tactics and the Battle for the Potomac."
Reflecting a quiet pride, Alton told us about his passion for finding Civil War relics along these wooded bluffs. His book benefits from his countless trips to look for the buried treasure. The photographs of his findings are beautifully presented.
About 15 minutes after shoving off, we arrived at the first cape below the park. On older maps it’s called called “Possum Nose,” and also “Possum Point.” The confusion is cleared up by The Virginia Historic Landmark Commission form that notes, “Cockpit Point and Possum Point were considered one point called Cockpit Point.”
The 80-foot high cliff made this spot appealing to the Confederate Army. They put six guns here and rifle pits. The earthworks remain in fairly good shape. Our veteran captain chimed in that the state hopes to make the historic point accessable to the public with interpretive markers and a pier for boats. As we gazed at the point, an eagle watched from his sentry post.
The captain pushed the throttle once again and we headed toward Quantico. Looking across the river, one notices the Maryland shore has come a little closer. The distance, about 2,500 yards, seems too wide to be called a gauntlet, but I’m sure it felt that way on the occasions the lead flew.
The “Old Line State” played a Role in this story too. President Lincoln needed Maryland badly, a border state which wraps around Washington on three sides. During the blockade, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, running from Baltimore to Washington, carried some of the needed supplies. Nevertheless, prices for goods soared during the blockade. Alton said the price of coffee was higher than it is now.
The majority of Marylanders fought for the Union, but a significant number of folks in Southern Maryland whistled “Dixie” during the war. Those living near the Potomac in Charles County had to hide behind their barns when Major General Hooker brought 8,000 Union troops to Budd’s Ferry and nearby places such as Posey’s Plantation.
The Federals set up their artillery, camps and a depot. With Chief Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe at the helm, they launched a spy balloon, the Constitution, from the specially equipped boat G.W. Parke Custis. The aerial reconnaissance confirmed the Confederate positions, provided a good estimate of the number of troops, and allowed a sketch of their positions (Our boat captain said maybe we should consider this the first case of an aircraft carrier).
Armed with this knowledge, a confident and no-doubt restless Hooker devised a plan of attack. McClellan, however, balked. It wasn’t until March 8th, that he finally prepared to green light Hooker’s assault after President Lincoln issued written orders.
No such movement, however, was needed. The next day General Johnston ordered a retreat to the Rappahannock River. Jefferson Davis and the War Council had decided to defend Richmond more closely.
Chugging along the slightly rough waters, we headed further south towards Quantico. The unspoiled beauty of the riverscape is interrupted by the Dominion Power plant. Looking ahead, we spotted the railroad bridge over the mouth of Quantico Creek. This was the “Shipping Point,” whose site is on Quantico’s northern tip.
The Quantico Naval Hospital was located at this small peninsula starting in 1939, before giving way to USMC Systems Command. The biggest batteries were located here. The Confederates also put two batteries on Waller Hill about ½ mile south of Shipping Point. During this time, Quantico was known as “Evansport.”
As we returned to Freestone, Alton wrapped up his presentation, and signed copies of his book. The unique setting capped a fantastic tour.
“The Confederate Blockade of Washington, D.C., 1861-1862” by Mary Alice Wills
Stratagem 1861, Robert Alton