Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Keeping the Nation's Captial Open

USS Pawnee and Freeborn engage Confederate batteries at Aquia Creek, June 1, 1861.
In his history of the U.S. Navy in the Civil War, Admiral David Dixon Porter commented that in May 1861 "the country was too busy watching the black clouds gathering in the South and West to note the ordinary events that were taking place on the Potomac Before the Lincoln Administration could execute on any grand strategy of war, there was the very serious issue of Washington, D.C.'s geographic isolation."

Riots and political uncertainty in Maryland temporarily cut of land routes, leaving the Potomac River as the only alterative. Using guns seized at Gosport, Confederate engineers and gunners established fortified outposts along the Virginia side of the river to challenge any ship flying the U.S. flag.  To answer this issue,the U.S. Navy established the Potomac Flotilla. Never large in size or stature, the squadron and Confederate shore batteries fought in several small engagements (often at Aquia Creek) from May through July 1861.  The Flotilla kept the river open, but Confederate gunners often found a way to harass Union shipping.

In a sign of events to come, the U.S. Army initially refused to provide the necessary ground  troops to secure the Confederate forts on a permanent bias.  It was not until the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 that the Potomac was finally secured.

After the war, Porter did not forget the Flotilla’s work. He wrote that "[the public] never stopped to consider the importance of such tedious work as occurred on the great highway from Washington to the sea, nor did they ever seem to reflect that if the river was once closed, the very life of the Union would be imperiled."

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