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C&O Canal – A Tenuous Pawn (2) With Author Timothy R. Snyder by Jim Surkamp
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C&O Canal – A Tenuous Pawn (2) With Author Timothy R. Snyder by Jim Surkamp
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The Burning Boats 1861-1865 Pt. 2 With Author Timothy R. Snyder


We learn that upwards of one hundred boats lying at Williamsport and other points below and above, which have been prevented from passing down with their freight by the rebel troops at Harper’s Ferry; consequently all business upon the Canal has been suspended, and thousands directly and indirectly interested in its trade and commerce thrown out of employment. – Herald Torch Light, June 5, 1861.


In late May, 1861, Thomas Jonathan Jackson was replaced in command of Harper’s Ferry by Joseph E. Johnston. Confederates probably wanted a calmer head, an older man, a wiser man. Jackson had engaged in a bunch of provocative acts at a time when the Confederates were trying to woo Maryland to their cause. Ironically, just as Johnston took command, just a week earlier or so, the Maryland General Assembly adjourned. They took no steps towards secession, and then Union troops invaded northern Virginia, opposite Washington, D.C. on May 28th, occupying Alexandria, Arlington – the high ground opposite Washington, D.C. As a result, Johnston will have a free reign. It’s evident a shooting war is on. Maryland was taking no immediate steps towards secession. So Johnston then would take steps to destroy both the B and O railroad and the C&O canal, prior to his evacuating Harper’s Ferry. His troops attack the canal opposite Harper’s Ferry and burned over twenty-five canal boats and damaged a couple of locks. He also sent parties out to attempt to breach Dams No. 4 and 5 near Williamsport. They were unsuccessful, but these were first attempts to attack those dams.


Information reached here that an attempt was made by the Virginia rebels, on Saturday (June 9) and Sunday (June 10) nights last, to destroy Dams No. 4 and 5 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. At No. 5 they were met by the brave Guards of Clear Spring, who, after considerable skirmishing, succeeded in repulsing them, killing one of their men. The rebels endeavored to blow up the dam by means of a blast, for which purpose they had procured four kegs of powder, but were driven off before they were able to injure it. At Dam No. 4 some damage was done to the Canal, but we learn none to the Dam itself. It is clearly the duty of every loyal citizen in the county to rally to the defence and protection of the property of the Canal Company. – The Herald of Freedom and Torch Light, June 12, 1861.


During that attack on the Dams, Redmond Burke, an Irishman who later became a bushwhacker and courier for Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and was killed in 1862 by Federal troops in Shepherdstown – he was every night, using a dark lantern was visiting Dam No. 4 with two of his sons and they worked at drilling for dynamite holes in the rockbed beneath the Dam, a Dam he once built with others. – Philadelphia Public Ledger June 14, 1861. Most people are more aware of Jackson’s later attempts to disable the dams in December of 1861. After the Confederates evacuated, canal traffic was resumed in late August, 1861. They did try to harass canal traffic.


In fact, Turner Ashby, the Confederate cavalryman, rode to Richmond, offering to lead an expedition to break the canal. And a staff officer in Richmond wrote that it as "a cherished object” of the Confederate government for the B andO railroad and the C&O canal both to have been severed or disabled. Monday-Wednesday – September 9-11, 1861: Shepherdstown/Bridgeport Lock No. 38.


Confederaate cavalryman Harry Gilmore wrote: While encamped near Morgan’s Spring, parties, of which I was generally one, would be sent frequently to the Potomac for the purpose of blockading the canal on the Maryland side, by which immense supplies of coal and provisions were brought to the capital. We would go down before daylight, conceal ourselves behind rocks or trees, or in some small building, and, when the sun was up, not a soldier or boat could pass without our taking a crack at them, and generally with effect, for we were all good shots. We became a perfect pest to them, and many an effort was made in vain to dislodge us; but wo could not be found, for every day we were in a new spot, miles apart. Friday-Sunday – September 13-15, 1861: Shepherdstown, Va.


A Brisk Skirmish — We learn that a spirited skirmish took place on Friday last (Sept. 13), between the rebels at Shepherdstown, and the Federal troops stationed opposite the town on the Maryland side. The troops fired at each other across the river first with small arms, and then with cannon. When the rebels commenced firing with a cannon, our troops procured two old six pounders from Sharpsburg, and planted them on the borders of the river, and returned the fire with vigor, sending balls and other missiles into the town, which soon put the enemy to flight, and terminated the engagement. On our side a tow boy on the canal was killed, but none of the troops were hurt; on theirs it is believed that several were killed and wounded. – The Herald of Freedom and Torch Light, September 18, 1861.


Major J. Parker Gould of the 13th Massachusetts in Sharpsburg wrote: There was a skirmish yesterday at Shepherdstown between the rebels and our troops. A canal-boat was passing at the time and 1 boatman was mortally wounded. The Confederates seem to know our weakness in numbers, and are becoming saucy.


There was a serious flood in November that put the canal out of commission; but in December, canal boats began to move again toward Cumberland. Reports were coming that eighty-seven boats had cleared Cumberland and carried 7,613 tons of coal, 633 tons of lumber, cord wood, cooperage, eighty tons of hay and oats –


all heading to Harpers Ferry and Sandy Hook where at least half of that overall load would be loaded on eastbound Baltimore and Ohio cars. And those emptied cars would be heading back up to Cumberland imminently.


"Stonewall" Jackson, by this time his name is "Stonewall," (he earned that name at First Manassas, First Bull Run), by this time his headquarters was at Winchester and he sent a number of expeditions to the north to disable Dam No. 5 and wanted to disable Dam No. 4. While the destruction of both dams was important to the Confederates,


Dam No. 5 was Jackson’s first choice. Why? Both dams were built logged-cribbed and rock-filled in the 1830s. Dam No. 4’s leakiness had been fixed with new masonry by the spring of 1861. But Dam No. 5 was, not only still leaking and prone to sabotage, but it was just that much


further up river away from Federal General Banks’ men further east in Frederick, Maryland. Friday – December 6, 1861: Dam No. 5. Saturday-Monday – December 7-9, 1861: Dam No. 5. The first one was in the first week of December against Dam No. 5. It was led by Turner Ashby, All of them were a failure.


The Union troops were strongly posted and, of course, they had the icy Potomac River between them. Working conditions were difficult. The Confederates tried to divert water around the Virginia end of the dam. They also tried to cut the wooden cribbing of the dam on the Virginia side of the dam. But the strongly posted Union sharpshooters prevented them from inflicting any damage. Saturday-Sunday – December 7 thru -8 – Federal


Col. Samuel Leonard Turns the Tables: Confederate Major Elisha Franklin Paxton of the 27th Va., who arrived at Dam No. 5 on the Virginia side near dusk that Saturday, December 7th, seemed to have his work of dam destruction well under control. With arms fire for cover, for 5 hours his men worked at destroying the Dam in the ice cold water. Col. Samuel Leonard of the 13th Massachusetts saw that his men, armed with short-range smoothbores at Dam No. 5 couldn’t withstand the onslaught from Confederate Rockbridge Artillery Captain William McLaughlin’s six gun battery and the fire of 600 better armed regulars firing from the Virginia side. So Col. Leonard gave new orders, using the nighttime to change things. He replaced the company with another company from Williamsport that had much better Enfield rifled muskets. Leonard switched two companies sending the C company with shorter-range smoothbore rifles from Dam No. 5 to No. 4 and replacing them with Company G at the besieged Dam No. 5. William McLaughlin’s Rockbridge Artillery began early the next morning – Sunday, December 8th – this time, firing boldly right from the brink of the river. But they became surprised to face a barrage of fire that was much more lethal than the day before. They were driven back and after dark they snuck back to retrieve their pieces.


Confederate Paxton, supervising the assault, wrote later: At daybreak Sunday morning our cannon opened fire upon them again, but they were so sheltered in the canal from which in the meantime they had drawn off the water that it was found impossible to dislodge them. As my workmen could not be protected against the enemy’s fire, I found it necessary to abandon the enterprise.


Charles E. Davis of the 13th Massachusetts remembered the vast difference bertween the Enfield rifled muskets and the smoothbores: Prior to our arrival, this part of the river was protected by troops supplied with the old smooth-bore musket of a very antiquated pattern, with too little power to carry a bullet across the river, so that they were a


constant source of ridicule by the enemy, who were much better armed, and who amused themselves by coming down to the river daily, and placing the thumb of the right hand to the nose, and the thumb of the left hand to the little finger of the right hand,


would make rapid motions with the fingers, to the great exasperation of the Union men, who were powerless to prevent it. After we were placed there with our Enfield rifles, there was less time spent in arranging their fingers, and more in the use of their feet. Late that Sunday, December 8th,

Harry Gilmore and his friend, Welch, try to recover Confederate pieces near the shore.


The enemy were all concealed behind the rip-rap walls of the canal, and impossible to shell them out. Our men were prevented from limbering and carrying off our pieces by a very hot fire of musketry from the enemy on the other bank; and, when two or three men had been wounded, Colonel Ashby rode up, and told Captain McLaughlin that the guns must be brought away, and also the horses of a lieutenant and sergeant tied near them; but not a man of the battery would volunteer to go after them. I proposed to Welch that we should procure the horses. He agreed, and, without saying a word to anyone, we tied our horses behind the cliff; and crawled to within two hundred yards of the horses and guns, when the enemy opened on us a brisk fire from the canal. Without stopping, we made a dash for the horses, and never probably before were halters unloosed in so short a time. This done, we leaped on them and fled, lying flat on their necks.


The leaden hail was all around us, but we soon got out of range, and, vaulting on our own, we led the recovered horses back, very much to the amusement of the colonel and the chagrin of the lieutenant and sergeant, when we said, "Gentlemen, here are your horses. Don’t get them into such a tight place again." Welch and I then offered to take our company and bring off the guns; but Captain McLaughlin would not consent, bringing them away himself after night. Soon after Welch and I had recovered the horses, I was lying down in a field, under cover of a knoll, my horse browsing in the bottom, when Colonel Ashby came and informed me that Captain Moore, of the 2d Virginia Infantry, was in a very precarious position in a large mill, and he wished me to take a message to him, which must be done on foot. I took the message and started on this dangerous mission, being obliged, for five hundred yards, to cross in full view of the enemy on the other side of the river. Of course I was in a great hurry to accomplish my task; and, as soon as I got within range of their muskets, I started at full speed across the flat, the balls flying around, and cutting up the sod in a lively manner. Three or four times I halted, and found refuge behind piles of friendly rocks or trees to take breath. At last I reached the mill in safety, and delivered the message, I returned in greater fear than ever, lest I might receive a wound in the back , a soldier’s dread; but I reported all safe to Colonel Ashby, and was fully repaid, by his kind thanks and complimentary speeches.

The storm that night was terrific, and the men suffered awfully from cold. One of our


officers had a flagon of whisky, and, under the pressing necessities of the case, I stole it from his ambulance and divided it among the field officers. Next morning the officer was in a towering rage about it. A Confederate team crept down to the dam,


gathered at its southern abutment with the idea of digging a ditch around the southern end of the dam, so the flowing water would undermine the dam, causing it to collapse. The dam didn’t collapse because the water level dropped quickly after their work, reducing the diverted stream to a trickle.


During the second attempt, it was actually at Dam No. 4, again led by Ashby during the second week of December, it was a failure as well. Wednesday – December 11, 1861: Dam No. 4 (north of Shepherdstown, Va.} Initially the Confederates were spied opposite Dam No. 4. They disappeared. The 12th Indiana, who was on duty there at Dam No. 4, sent a party of men across to see if the Confederates had,indeed, left. They were captured, as the most significant thing that occurred there. That precipitated a sharp exchange, but no damage was done to the canal.


The third attempt was the one that Jackson attended in person. It was during the third week of December for about five days. The Confederates were opposite, arrayed from Falling Waters to Little Georgetown. They made threats and demonstrations as if they were going to cross the river at Falling Waters, where their main intention was to try to breach Dam No. 5.


Tuesday – Dec. 17 – Confederate Captain Raleigh T. Colston of Berkeley County led a team onto Dam No. 5

after dark, and through the night hacked away at

the log cribbing in the middle of the dam.


The rubble held by the log cribs was piled up on the dam so that by morning of the 18th the piled rubble atop the still-standing dam was a breastworks shielding them from Federals gunfire. At daybreak the Federals discovered the breastworks.


Massachusetts soldiers went down river and found a location from which they could bring fire upon the workers and soon drove the southerners from the dam and into the millhouse. For cover Charlestown-born


artillerist Roger Preston Chew’s two artillery pieces had been shelling a brick house on the Maryland side, where the shooting was coming from. But on December 19th, Wednesday,


Battery E of the 1st Pennsylvania Artillery answered with two ten pound parrotts forcing Chew to take cover fifty yards to their right.


Lt. William Thomas Poague of the Confederate Rockbridge Artillery remembered seeing Chew and others shrunk behind a large tree with shells flying by, to the left and to the right. Finally, on the last day, I think it was December 20th, the last day of the expedition, Jackson, in the words of one of his officers, "Yankee’d the Yankees," meaning that he had tricked them. He had boats made to potentially cross the river in a full view of the Union troops at Dam No. 5. He sent them up river toward Little Georgetown. The Union troops were sure that he was going to cross there. Threats had been made the previous day. So they all followed and apparently left the work party with an evening to work on the dam without being fired upon. They heard timber breaking and soon the dam had been breached and (they) left. The very next day the Union Gen. Banks reports that canal


boats are still traveling in both directions. Jackson sent one more, small expedition back to Dam No. 5. They spent two nights at the dam – January 1st and January 2nd; and one of their men in charge there wrote that they spent two additional nights widening the breach.

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