Potomac River during the Civil War


The Potomac River, which is located in Maryland with Virginia on its southern shore, extends 383 miles from the Appalachian Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay and serves as the geographical boundary between the states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. From the colonial period until well into the nineteenth century, it was an important navigation route and helped facilitate exploration inland from the coast. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Potomac traced the border between the Union and the Confederacy and lent its name to the most important Union army, the Army of the Potomac. Throughout the war, the river functioned largely as it always had—as an avenue for transport.

The Potomac River helped dictate the pace of campaigning for the Union and Confederate armies. Running west to east, and with its headwaters extending beyond Harpers Ferry in the lower Shenandoah Valley, the river proved to be a major obstacles for generals attempting to maneuver their armies. During Confederate general Robert E. Lee‘s invasions of the North—the Maryland Campaign in 1862 and the Gettysburg Campaign in 1863, the need to secure fords across the Potomac River helped dictate a western strategic route, across the river at Boteler’s Ford, Shepherdstown, Harpers Ferry, and Williamsport. The presence of the Army of the Potomac east of the Blue Ridge Mountains meant that eastern crossings of the Potomac were protected. On the whole, however, because the main theater of war in Virginia had shifted south after Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston withdrawal from Manassas Junction early in 1862, the Potomac played little role in land campaigning.

As Johnston pulled back toward Orange County and Fredericksburg, Union general George B. McClellan sought a way to flank him. Beginning in March 1862, he loaded his Army of the Potomac on transports and sailed it down the Potomac River and into the Chesapeake Bay, landing at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Middle Peninsula. From there, McClellan marched up the Peninsula only to be stopped by Johnston during the Peninsula Campaign and then Lee in the Seven Days’ Battles before ever reaching the Confederate capital at Richmond. Although it failed, McClellan’s campaign would not have been possible without the Potomac River, whose major role in the war had now shifted to the maritime sphere.

In 1861, Confederates—perhaps anticipating something like the Peninsula Campaign—had attempted to deny Union forces use of the Potomac, erecting several batteries along the river’s south shore and firing on Union ships. Largely ineffective, these batteries nevertheless proved an embarrassment to the North because they restricted access to the capital only to river traffic willing to risk the possibility of a lucky cannon shot. Once Johnston retreated and the conflict moved south, the Confederate guns withdrew and normal traffic resumed. Still, Confederate guerrillas continued to harass boats along the river for the rest of the war.

Despite worries in 1862 that the Confederate ironclad warship CSS Virginia might sail up the Chesapeake, and then the Potomac, to threaten Washington, D.C., the Union navy achieved superiority over its Confederate foes in the Chesapeake. With the destruction of CSS Virginia in 1862, the Confederate naval threat had been ended, with the exception of the James River Squadron, which lurked safely above Confederate river fortifications at Drewry’s Bluff. This enabled military planners to use the Potomac River to supply Union armies operating in Virginia. For instance, while he commanded the Army of the Potomac late in 1862, Ambrose E. Burnside located his main supply depot at Aquia Creek, where waterborne supplies could be offloaded onto trains and carried along the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad to Union forces campaigning along the Rappahannock River. In the spring of 1864, during the Overland Campaign, Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant placed his supply depot at Belle Plain near Fredericksburg, before shifting it to a base along the Rappahannock.

  • Achenbach, Joel. The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
  • Browning, Robert M., Jr. From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.
  • Gutheim, Frederick. The Potomac. New York: Rinehart & Company, 1949.
  • Nesbitt, Mark. Rebel Rivers: A Guide to Civil War Sites on the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1993.
APA Citation:
Wongsrichanalai, Kanisorn. Potomac River during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/potomac-river-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Wongsrichanalai, Kanisorn. "Potomac River during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 30 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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