Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Confederate Blockade of Washington

Wherein guns at Quantico cut off shipping and hunt spies

Theophilus Holmes
By Fall 1861, the U.S. Navy was already beginning to establish an effective blockade of the South, though it still had a ways to go before it would match general-in-chief Winfield Scott's vision of cutting off outside commerce to the South. But the South was also hard at work to cut off the Washington from the rest of the world. The raids against the B&O Railroad west of the capital are still fairly well known, as is the fear of partisan activity on the stretch to Baltimore, but the Confederate blockade of the river is less well known.

The town of Evansport at the mouth of Quantico Creek had been a native village known as Pamacocack when Captain John Smith landed there about a year after the settlement of Jamestown. Today, it is the town of Quantico, entirely surrounded by the Marine Base. In 1861, as Evansport, it was a community looking for a rebirth from gold mines in nearby Independent Hill, after the tobacco that it had become prosperous shipping down Quantico Creek to the Potomac in the 18th Century had caused massive soil erosion that silted up the 19th Century waterway.

When Robert E. Lee visited the town in his inspection of the Northern Virginia line of defense in June 1861, his engineering mind recognized the ideal ground for the construction of batteries to command the Potomac River, which narrows at the spot Quantico Creek empties into. Around the same time G.T. Beauregard was transferred to command the Alexandria Line, provisional President Jefferson Davis (on Lee's advice) appointed Theophilus Holmes to command what he called the "Department of Fredericksburg", responsible for guarding the deep water Aquia Creek, at which the North could land a large enough force to slip behind Beauregard's men at Manassas, and to build a series of batteries on Quantico Creek, to shut down the Potomac as a route for travel.

Holmes was 57 and had been a major in the infantry in the old army, but he had had a crash course in coastal defense while commanding the sea batteries of North Carolina. With a force of several thousand men, his command had been one of the top targets for absorption during Beauregard's grand strategy scheming and had, in fact, been present in reserve for the battle at Manassas, but he had always been treated as Beauregard's equal by the War Department. When he was finally subordinated to the commander of the Army of the Potomac, it was to General Joe Johnston, who treated him as a semi-independent division commander, even while divisions had not been implemented in the army.

On the night of October 8, Holmes had returned to his headquarters at Brooke's Station in Stafford County from a visit to Evansport. He had been promoted to major general the day before, but had apparently not been informed, since he still signed his report to Adjutant General Samuel Cooper as the "Brigadier-General, Commanding".
The two principle batteries could open fire at once, as their guns are mounted; but a letter from General Johnston to General Trimble [directly commanding the batteries] requests that our fire may be delayed until he has completed certain arrangements of his own, of which he will advise us. I have little doubt the batteries will be abundantly able to block the river, except in dark nights...
Holmes  had done his job superbly, working at night and taking effort to camouflage the work, and the U.S. Navy's Potomac Flotilla had utterly failed to detect the construction. Porter Alexander remembered in his memoirs written years after the war in Nicaragua that the batteries were "constructed in the midst of a dense thicket of cedars which completely hid [them] from the river, but could be cut down in a night & a full view be given as soon as we were ready."

Alexander had played a role in the deception schemes that Holmes had employed so successfully, and it may be because of him that Johnston had asked Holmes to hold off on revealing the new firepower. Alexander recalled in his memoirs:
The enemy got an idea we were trying something of the sort near a place called Limestone Point*, & shelled about there a good deal, while we also made some false demonstrations there. About a week before we expected to be ready to unmask our Evansport battery I wrote an anonymous letter, or rather one under the fictitious name of Lazarus, to Gen. McClellan conveying the idea that I was a clerk, or courier, or employee of some sort about some important hdqrs. where I overheard many important conversations, & that I was willing to betray them to him if I could be promptly & well paid & given some means of getting letters to him.
(*my best guess for Limestone Point is Freestone Point, now Leesylvania State Park, named after the sandstone quarry of the same formation used to build the U.S. Capitol - though that stone came from Aquia Creek - and may have been misremembered by Ambassador Alexander writing without notes in a foreign country. It experienced bombardment by the Potomac Flotilla at the end of September 1861. Leesylvania State Park is part of the estate of Robert E. Lee's grandfather.)

Alexander filled the letter with details of the Evansport battery and put it in his pocket and carried it around "so that it would bear signs of having been handled & carried to correspond with its story". Then he gave it to J.E.B. Stuart, commanding the cavalry, who were those in closest contact with McClellan's troops.
I got Gen. Stuart, commanding our cavalry pickets, to make a scout & drive in the enemy's pickets & ride around a bit in their territory & then come back, meanwhile confiding the letter to a trust private with instructions to place it so that the enemy would get it.
Alexander's private left it with a slave, with money and instructions to give it to a Union soldier for delivery to a high-ranking officer. Then he returned with Stuart's men and reported the job complete to Alexander. The signals chief then sat down to wait to see which Confederate soldiers would be acting as McClellan's spies and deliver money and instructions to "Lazarus". In a few days the Evansport batteries would open fire on the Potomac Flotilla and then McClellan would surely bite on the chance to know what his opponent was doing.
But a few days afterwards there came up to hdqrs. a special messenger from a Major Munford of cavalry on the picket line enclosing my letter... & sending some very excited advice to watch the post office & hang whoever first inquired for a letter for Mr. Lazarus. It seemed that some good Southerner had seen the soldier stop behind & interview the old Negro woman, & had scared her into telling & giving up the letter. Then he had watched his chance to run the blockade & get it over to our pickets, thinking, of course, that he was frustrating a dangerous traitor.
The Evansport batteries would be revealed without Alexander catching his spies. And when they were, Theophilus Holmes would have Washington under siege.

Print Sources:
  • Alexander, 70-71

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