I recently had the chance to spend some time in Montgomery County, Maryland, just east of Washington, DC. I’m usually driving through on my way somewhere, so have never explored the area’s history very much. This particular day I was on my way to a talk and book signing, and make time to get off the highways in search of local history.
I came across Blockhouse Point Conservation Park, a county-run park. While it includes several miles of hiking and horse trails, the park preserves, as the name suggests, the site of a Civil War blockhouse. I eagerly parked, consulted the maps at the trailhead, and headed into the woods.
As I hiked, I reflected on this lesser-known aspect of the war. The park’s brochure describes it well, “Long hours of picket duty and drill. Swampy camp conditions and muddy drinking water. Forays into Virginia chasing Confederate raiders.”
This is a part of the conflict we often gloss over, but it was the reality for much of the war for Union troops in any theater. While the headline events like savage battles, epic marches, and grand campaigns capture our attention, the truth is that the day to day reality for many Union troops was something dull and monotonous, and dangerous, like duty at the Potomac River blockhouses.
As the war dragged on and Federal armies penetrated deeper into the Confederacy, occupation and control of captured areas demanded more and more of the Union army’s attention. Union commanders had to deal with civil issues and act as a police force in regions like northern Virginia, middle Tennessee, central Missouri, and the Carolina coast.
Over time, the Union government had to adopt, and refine, policies regarding the conduct of the war, interactions with civilians, and procedures for occupying forces. These were issues that commanders had little experience with, and likely had never thought of in the heady, patriotic days of 1861.
Union forces arrived here that first year of the war to set up camp. From this isolated outpost, Union troops patrolled the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the Potomac River, and nearby roads. They drilled and performed routine camp duties. They interacted with unsympathetic civilians. They explored the hills and valleys in their leisure time. And they likely pondered the movements of the large armies that were making headlines, knowing full well that their trials and tribulations were not being captured for posterity.
Moreover, the blockhouse overlooking the Potomac and the C&O Canal was quite literally on the front lines, on the border, with Virginia just across the river. Forays into the Old Dominion would have been frequent, and dangerous. Guerilla activity, much of it led by Col. John S. Mosby, annoyed these occupying troops and disrupted their efforts to maintain the area’s security.
The Federals would have also had to interact with civilians, many of whom likely resented their presence. Dozens of local men had left to join Confederate forces and their wives and families remained. Men from New York and Massachusetts likely bought produce or other goods from these civilians, but also had to oversee their movements and monitor their activities. It was an uneasy peace between the civilians and the soldiers.
As I hiked up one final steep hill, my effort was rewarded with a spectacular view of the Potomac, and Virginia on the other side. I emerged at a point of land jutting out over the river. It had obvious military significance, I could see clearly to the east, west, and south. Below me ran the C&O Canal.
Walking further, I found the remains of the earthworks at the blockhouse site. While I was enjoying my walk on a day off from work, I remembered that the men stationed here were on guard duty twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In the rain, in the snow, in the cold, on Christmas Day, it didn’t matter: security was primary.
My boots sunk slightly into damp ground, and I had to step carefully over jagged rocks. I imagined the soldiers struggling in brogans over this terrain in search of firewood every day or refiling canteens from the nearby spring.
The park has interpretive signs that discuss not only Civil War history but other topics as well. Archaeological finds are also highlighted. Personal items from the blockhouse and campsites have shed light on life here during the war. I am sure that erosion, both natural and man-made, metal detecting, and relic hunting are all concerns for park managers.
Returning to my car, I reflected on these various topics that don’t often make it into our studies of the Civil War, both in the classroom or in the field. Issues of maintaining military discipline in isolated posts, of cooperating with local authorities, of interacting with hostile or indifferent civilians, of Union military policy, and of historic preservation all permeated my mind on the return trip.