Blockade of the Potomac River, 1861 - Northern Virginia
Blockade of the Potomac River, 1861 - Northern Virginia
Blockade of the Potomac River
The 1861 blockade was conceived by Gen. Robert
E. Lee as a means of stopping supplies and troops
from reaching the Federal capital of Washington, DC.
1861 Potomac Blockade
The Potomac River provided
a water route for supplies
and reinforcements to reach
Washington, D.C.
Cannon at Freestone Point
Well-preserved Confederate
fortifications can be seen at
Leesylvania State Park in
Woodbridge, Virginia.
Blockade of the Potomac River - Northern Virginia
Confederates on the Potomac
Copyright 2013 & 2014 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.

Last Updated: May 13, 2014
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Guns on the Potomac
In the wake of the first Battle
of Manassas, Confederate
forces surged forward to the
Potomac River. Thirty-seven
cannon were mounted to
control the waterway.
The July 1861 victory at the first Battle of
Manassas created an enormous opportunity
for Confederate forces to achieve quick
victory in the War Between the States (or Civil

As the shattered Union army tried to rebuild
itself around Washington, D.C., Gen. Robert
E. Lee ordered the building of artillery
batteries along the Potomac River below the
city. Lee's order - issued in August 1861 -
initiated a Confederate blockade of the vital

Lee's plan was simple. Cannon would be
positioned at key points along the Potomac
to prevent supplies and reinforcements from
reaching the Union capital. The primary army,
meanwhile would increase pressure on the
disorganized Federals. If the plan succeeded
the Confederates might force the evacuation
or surrender of Washington.

Among the batteries erected at Lee's order
was a three-gun position at Freestone Point
in today's
Leesylvania State Park. It was a
location well-known to the Confederate
general, as his father - "Light-Horse Harry"
Lee - had been born there. Construction of
the installation began on September 20,
1861, and Union forces attacked just five
days later.

The engagement, known as the Battle of
Freestone Point, began when the warships
Seminole and USS Jacob Bell moved to
within range of the new battery and opened
fire. The Confederate gunners from the
Washington Mounted Artillery of Hampton's
Legion watched and waited until the Union
ships came to within range of their own guns.

After receiving ten shots from the Union
sailors, the Confederates then opened fire
as well. Despite being outgunned by the
warships, the Confederates kept up their fire
and the battle ended in a draw with little
damage on either side.

A daring and successful effort to run the
blockade was carried out on October 16th by
an African American sea captain named
Daniel Myers.

The 69-year-old Myers was the co-owner and
captain of the schooner
Susquehanna and
had spent 55 years of his life at sea. Leaving
Alexandria with a cargo of Mexican guano for
factories in Baltimore, Myers took his vessel
down the river to Indian's Head on October
15, 1861.

The next morning he weighed anchor at
daylight and , despite warnings from the
Union military of the danger ahead, sailed
past the Confederate guns at Portico Creek,
Shipping Point and Dumfries. The Southern
artillerymen watched but did not open fire.

Then at 8 a.m., as the
Susquehanna passed
Quantico Creek, four Confederate batteries
suddenly opened fire. The first three shells
went wide or fell short, but the men working
the cannon on shore got the range and fired
two more rounds that passed between the
mainmast and foremast of the schooner.
Miraculously, both flew through the rigging
without otherwise striking the vessel.

As Myers and the
Susquehannah had
demonstrated, the blockade was not totally
effective and vessels continued to slip by
from time to time. The Confederate cannon
remained a real danger, however, and
another attempt was made to silence them
on January 3, 1862.

The target this time was the Confederate fort
at Cockpit Point (also called Possum Nose).
The works there consisted of six cannon in
four batteries, along with a powder magazine
and defensive rifle pits atop a high bluff.

Anacostia and USS Yankee started
the battle and once again the Confederate
gunners replied. Like the earlier exchange
with the battery at Freestone Point, the fight
ended in a draw with neither side suffering
major damage.
The spring of 1862, however, brought a
change to the strategic situation in Northern
Virginia. On March 9-10, the epic clash
between the ironclad
s USS Monifor and CSS
Virginia took place to the south at Hampton
Roads, Virginia. The inability of either ship to
defeat the other forever changed the nature of
naval warfare.

Rumors also reached Confederate forces in
Virginia of a pending major offensive by the
Union army, now commanded by Gen.
George B. McClellan. Southern commanders
had no way of knowing that McClellan was
engaged in a war of words with President
Abraham Lincoln over the proper strategy for
that campaign, but they wisely decided to
consolidate their forces and prepare to
defend their own capital of Richmond.

On March 9th, as the
Monitor and Virginia
battled at Hampton Roads, Confederate Gen.
Joseph E. Johnston withdrew from the
positions the Confederate army had held
since not long after First Manassas. The
batteries along the Potomac were evacuated
and their garrisons marched away to join the
main army.

Seeing the Confederate tents and other
structures go up in flame, Union forces sent
ashore landing parties. The Southern troops
were gone and the once-feared batteries
were silent.

The withdrawal of Johnston's army from
Manassas and the line of the Potomac
invalidated McClellan's fiercely defended
plan of launching an amphibious movement
of his army to place it between the somewhat
scattered Confederates and their capital city
of Richmond.

Johnston took up new positions that blocked
any advantages that McClellan stood to gain
from his plan. Blunted before he could win
his debate with Lincoln, the Union general
soon refocused on the Peninsula formed by
the James and York Rivers and the natural
avenue it provided to the Southern capital.

The blockade of the Potomac River is largely
forgotten today, but there was a time in the
fall and winter of 1861-1862 that Confederate
guns threatened to force the fall of the Union
capital of Washington, D.C. The march of
time has destroyed most of the Southern
batteries, but the well-preserved earthworks
of the installation at Freestone Point can still
be seen at
Leesylvania State Park.

The park is located at 2001 Daniel K. Ludwig
Dr., Woodbridge, Virginia. The entry fee is $2
on weekdays and $3 on weekends and the
park is open daily.
Please click here to learn
USS Jacob Bell
One of the warships that
engaged the Confederate
batteries, the Jacob Bell was
later lost at sea with all hands.
Photos by Savannah Brininstool
Earthworks of the Blockade
Time-softened earthworks
built by Confederate forces to
protect their cannon can still
be seen along the Virginia
shore of the Potomac River.