Monday, March 20, 2017

Where eagles dare: Well-preserved Virginia site to tell story of Potomac blockade

Remains of gun batteries (Courtesy of Prince William County, Va.)

While Confederate artillery batteries erected below Washington, D.C. had more bark than bite – observers wrote of poor marksmanship and munitions -- they effectively blockaded the vital Potomac River for five months.

Among the most imposing was Cockpit Point Battery in Prince William County, Va. Sitting atop a 70-foot bluff, the fort had an air of mystery from the beginning. It was built in secret, with trees left in front to better hide the construction. Curious Federal troops on the Maryland side of the river eventually used a balloon to try to figure out how many men were at Cockpit Point and other batteries in the area.

The Rebel emplacements thrown up early in the war saw relatively little action, but the threat embarrassed the Federal government and to a degree stymied efforts to resupply the capital.

“It is something that is really unknown, even to hard-core Civil War buffs,” said Bill Backus of the county’s Historic Preservation Division.

(Courtesy of Prince William County)

Backus and colleague Rob Orrison earlier this month conducted the first public tours (above) of the property, which was donated about a year ago by the developers of Potomac Shores, a large residential and golf community just to the north of Cockpit Point.

Cockpit Point Civil War Park, a few miles east of Dumfries, is not technically open. The 113 acres are split by a busy railroad line that passes by a chemical facility and the Possum Point Power station, modern facilities that bookend the park.

County officials for now will concentrate on a 93-acre parcel of the property, with the hopes of putting in a small parking lot later this year (until then, people are not encouraged to drive to the site). That side will highlight natural resources, including a pond. The park has two bald eagle nests.

“We think it is going to be mixed use, because access of the earthworks is limited, because of the railroad,” Backus said. “Our ultimate goal is to put a trail system to both sides of the park.”

There is no timetable for putting a trail or interpretive markers on the battery side of the property. There currently is no safe (or legal) way to cross the railroad. Officials encourage visitation through special tours in the spring and November.

Federal balloon gazed down on Confederate batteries (click to enlarge)

The 20 people who took part in this month’s visit saw “some of the few batteries that remain from the blockade of the Potomac River in the first year of the war,” said Backus.

In a press release announcing the tours, Orrison, the county's historic site operations supervisor, wrote: "This property is unique as it contains some of the best preserved earthworks and forts from the Civil War in Northern Virginia. It's by far the best-preserved Civil War battery associated with the Potomac Blockade." 

'A remarkable military position'

The Texas Brigade is said to have been among the units that Brig. Gen. Isaac Trimble employed in autumn 1861 to build the four lunettes on the bluff, called Possum Nose.

Backus said the batteries probably are about 150-200 yards from the Potomac.

(Illustration appeared in Harper's Weekly)

The Confederacy rotated artillery in and out of the fort. Sometimes there were six, sometimes fewer. A 30-pounder Parrott, nicknamed “Long Tom,” was used, along with guns from the Norfolk naval station. Between 100 and 200 men were in the garrison.

The Federal government was worried by Cockpit Point and nearby Shipping Point, Freestone Point and Evansport fortifications (totaling 37 heavy guns); a pro-Unionist called the former a “remarkable military position.”

Backus and Orrison recently wrote about the blockade for Blue & Gray magazine. They stress the Federal government needed an open Potomac River for resupply and communication reasons, along with a wish to keep Maryland out of the fight.

Orrison, in the blog Emerging Civil War, wrote: “Though the batteries were constructed under the auspices of the Confederate Navy, the men manning the guns were infantry. Various units moved in and out of the area to man the guns, and their skill as gunners was obvious, as they rarely were able to hit anything that fired along the river.”

While the blockade lasted until March 1862, Cockpit Point took a beating from the Union navy in January 1862. Two vessels – the USS Yankee and USS Anacostia --  pounded the batteries from positions that couldn’t be easily hit by return fire. Shots from the USS Anacostia were accurate enough to force the Confederates to abandon one of the batteries. But the fort remained in Southern hands

(Courtesy of Prince William County)

Federal troops and batteries on the Maryland side hoped for help from Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who could have used his massive force on the Virginia side to attack the batteries from the rear. But he apparently felt that did not fit within the larger strategy, Orrison writes.

Instead, it was Rebels who took the batteries out of action.

In early March 1862, they withdrew to build new defenses along the south bank of the Rappahannock River. An attempt was made to destroy the river positions.

John S. Salmon, in his “The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide,” wrote a Federal landing party found evidence of a hasty departure: Half-baked bread, clothes and spiked cannons.

For their part, Federal forces used Cockpit Point to launch patrols, “mainly looking for guerrillas.” They knocked the batteries down further so they would be of little or no use if the Confederates retook them.

Map of battle corps and study areas, American Battlefield Protection Program

Keeping further deterioration in check

Backus says the remnants of the lunettes are quite discernible. Trees have moved in and other natural forces have worked on the fortifications over the past 155 years. Still, the state of preservation is considered to be good and there have been few modern disturbances.

Foundations of winter huts are still in place, along with the remains of a communications trench.

A study conducted for the county said it should work to maintain surrounding forest to protect surviving earthworks and take steps to prevent vandalism.

There has been evidence of fairly recent relic hunting, and officials don’t want visitors on site. They could cause more damage to the batteries. “We are trying to keep it protected by not marking where everything is,” Backus told the Picket.

There’s no interest in reconstructing the defenses. Instead, officials want to prevent any further deterioration. One bluff is eroding and officials may step in to help stabilize it.

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