Canal History: Role of the Canal During the Civil War

The Mason Dixon line has historically been defined as the dividing line between the north and the south, but as the Civil War began, the Potomac River became the physical barrier between opposing sides and the C&O Canal became a strategic supply line often targeted by the Confederates.

Early in the war, the Confederates stationed at Harpers Ferry didn’t want to antagonize western Marylanders who might still be won over, so they resisted attacking C&O and B&O assets in the area. When they retreated, however, they destroyed bridges and raided train yards.

The River played a major role in an embarrassing Union defeat at Ball’s Bluff. Crossing the Potomac, a reconnaissance mission with backup from a larger number of troops became caught between a high bluff and the river behind them. With the high ground, Confederates captured 500 Union soldiers and killed about 200 including Senator Ned Baker. Only 36 Confederates lost their lives.

Later in the war, the river and the Canal would bear witness to numerous crossings of both armies to and from pivotal battles at Sharpsburg (Antietam) and Gettysburg. Crossings were carefully selected and often caused delays due to high water, miscalculated river widths, and large columns of troops and artillery.

Confederates also attempted to destroy the Monocacy Aqueduct but were unsuccessful.