Susquehanna canal in Confederate path

Objectives: The Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal was a major means of transportation during the Civil War, and vital to Union victory. It afforded Union access to the rich resources of the Susquehanna valley.

June 26, 2005|By Robert M. Duff | Robert M. Duff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the Gettysburg campaign, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee's objectives was to cut the Union's communications and transportation lines to Washington.

By June 27, 1863, strong elements of the Army of Northern Virginia had reached Chambersburg, Pa., and were threatening the railroad center and the state capital at Harrisburg.

On June 28, the Confederates were engaging Union militia at Wrightsville, Pa., on the Susquehanna River, seeking to gain control of the bridge across the river there. But there was another vital though little remembered transportation artery at stake in that battle before Gettysburg - the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal.

According to The Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway - History, the South's campaign against communications lines in this area was nothing new. It had been under way since the start of the war: "Confederate raiders would routinely travel the Lower Susquehanna region to destroy bridges and railroads. ... One hundred veteran reservists were sent from Wilmington, Del., to Havre de Grace to guard ferry and railroad operations. Confederate cavalry brigades cut telegraph wires at Harford Road and Bel Air Road. Their goal was a destructive railroad campaign that led all the way to Havre de Grace." They also tried to disable the canals and their locks.

At war's outset

At the outset of the war, Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin H. Butler leaned over the field table in his tent and frowned, wishing the kerosene lamp shed brighter light on the map. He was commander of the 740-man Massachusetts 8th Infantry Volunteer Regiment. They had pitched camp and finished supper. The men were quiet - tired - as they made ready for the night. They had just traveled from Massachusetts south to Perryville, at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, arriving on the evening of April 20, 1861.

After the events of April 10 at Fort Sumter, the state of Massachusetts was answering President Abraham Lincoln's call "for 75,000 volunteers to preserve the Union," according to "Unique ways of Maryland's Mob Town" by William Connery in the Washington Times.

With a practiced eye, Butler traced the course of the river and noted the canals running parallel to the river. These canals were built to bypass navigation obstructions such as waterfalls, rapids and dams.

In his book, Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War, Eric Mills reports that Butler was given good advice by Capt. Samuel F. DuPont of the Philadelphia Navy Yard: Since the overland way was no longer tenable, they should take to the Chesapeake Bay. The Southerners may have destroyed the rails, but they didn't control the Chesapeake yet.

Mills writes, "S. M. Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, offered the use of Maryland, which served as [a steamboat] ferry transport for train travelers crossing the Susquehanna. They squeezed aboard the steamer and headed down the Chesapeake, reaching Annapolis by midnight. Baltimore had been avoided, and Washington lay ahead."

In his stateroom, Butler took the map from his aide and unrolled it. He sought to improve his knowledge of the region. He was surprised at the river's length and the area of its watershed.

A water artery

The Susquehanna River is one of the longest rivers on the eastern seaboard. It rises in central New York State and winds through the Appalachian Mountains in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland before flowing into the head of the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace.

About 444 miles long, the river and its tributaries drain an area of 27,570 square miles.

According to the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway - History, "The Susquehanna Canal in Cecil County opened to traffic in 1805. Abundant natural resources allowed the area to continue to grow and prosper. Fisheries, agricultural products, large forested areas, and Cecil County's rich wealth of mineral resources, such as chrome, granite, magnesium, placed the Lower Susquehanna Region at the heart of America's early manufacturing and excavating industries."

Coal and farm products were also shipped from the area. The military significance of these resources for the Union was not lost on Butler or the opposing Confederate commanders.

Suggestions for the Susquehanna Canal go back to William Penn, about 1690, and even further back to the early 1600s and Dutch cartographers. It wasn't until March 1792 that work began on the Conewago Canal bypassing York Haven falls on Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River.

Various evolutions, branches and the restructure of canal companies made the Susquehanna Canal a general reference to a water transport system. The network eventually stretched over a span of 135 years and about 1,243 miles of waterways.

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