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Editor’s Letter Vol. 32, #5

What Blockade?
Folks often call or email inquiring about upcoming issues. For callers, when I’d say the blockade of the Potomac, after a moment or two of silence the response most often was, “What blockade . . . there was a blockade of the Potomac River? When was that?” Truth be told, my reaction was similar when Rob Orrison, Virginia Historic Site Operations Supervisor for Prince William County (Va.), pitched the idea to me in February. I wasn’t sure there would be enough to warrant a “General’s Tour” treatment. Rob and his coauthor Bill Backus said there was. Bill is Manager of Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park in Prince William County. For the historical enrichment and enjoyment of us all, they were right.

There is only one book devoted solely to the topic. It was written by Mary Alice Wills, who had pursued the topic for a graduate school dissertation. The book was published in 1975 by Prince William County. The esteemed military historian Joseph B. Mitchell (1915-1993) wrote the Foreword, wherein he commented: “Every schoolchild knows of the partial burning of Washington by the British in the War of 1812. Yet few know that, for a period of nearly five months, despite the erection of over 40 Union forts to protect the capital city, and the deployment of thousands of men and a flotilla of ships, the Confederacy cut off all access to Washington from the sea. By order of the United States Navy, ships were prohibited from attempting to use the Potomac River to bring supplies to the Capital for fear they would be destroyed by the Confederate forts and batteries blockading the river.”

Contributing to the dearth of contemporary reporting on the blockade, which has affected primary source material, historian Mitchell wrote that Northern newspapers of the time “gave the subject very little coverage, presumably to avoid the effectiveness of the blockade from becoming a subject for common conversation,” though his research did reveal that one newspaper, the New York Tribune, referred to it as a national disgrace and humiliation. Even Southern papers avoided the topic, seemingly to prevent details of the blockade from reaching Northern officials by any means. Thanks to the Orrison-Backus team, the story is being told and updated with new information uncovered since Mary Alice Wills wrote her 1975 book.

The guys are especially eager to get the story out because of the recent acquisition of 137 acres at Cockpit Point, a significant Confederate battery position. The site is included on the “General’s Tour” for informational purposes, but it has yet to be developed into a park with interpretation. Still, Prince William County officials hope for a 2017 opening.

David E. Roth

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