January 1, 1865: Butler’s Canal Project Fizzles Just as Grant’s Did
At 4 p.m. on New Year’s Day, 1865, 150 years ago to the day, General Benjamin Butler blew up the bulkheads on his Dutch Gap Canal project on the James River below Richmond. Though the explosion failed to divert the James River sufficiently to bypass strong Confederate batteries located on the western edge of Farrar’s Island, eventually the path of the canal became the main James River channel in postwar years. Like Grant’s Canal at Vicksburg, a lot of work had produced a fizzle during the war, followed rivers changing paths after the strategic importance was gone.
During this time, Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln were working to sack Butler for his failed First Fort Fisher Expedition over Christmas 1864. Butler, as a War Democrat, had been untouchable prior to Lincoln’s reelection. Once Lincoln was guaranteed another four years, however, it was probably only a matter of time before Grant replaced Butler with someone he trusted. Butler’s Dutch Gap Canal “Failure” was only the icing on the cake.
Butler’s Dutch Gap Canal project began in mid-August 1864. At Dutch Gap, two sections of the main channel of the James River were only two hundred yards apart. West of Dutch Gap, along the loop of the main channel, lay several powerful Confederate batteries, especially Battery Dantzler. These batteries, situated high above the river, controlled the James and prevented the Federal ironclads from approaching nearer to Richmond due to the risk of plunging shot. Butler noted the two hundred yard interval at Dutch Gap and realized its strategic importance. If he could cut a canal across this gap, he’d have a way to bypass those powerful Southern batteries and he’d have shortened the distance to Richmond via the James River.
Work started on the canal project in mid-August 1864 and proceeded fairy quickly at first. However, picks and spades soon became worthless as harder ground underneath the topsoil was reached. Butler called in a steam dredge to help with the work. Another issue was the sickness caused in this region of Virginia. The White troops originally assigned to the job were succumbing to illness at an alarming rate, and Butler eventually placed USCT regiments in the canal. During the entire operation, from August 1864 to January 1, 1865, the Confederates nearly continuously shelled the canal operation. However, the deep sides of the canal made the project nearly impervious to traditional artillery fire. The Confederates instead resorted to mortar fire which could drop into the canal in a nearly vertical direction. Though it was extremely difficult to put a round into the canal, the Confederates were able to do so from time to time, and they did inflict casualties.
When the canal had been completely dug out except for a bulkhead on the northern end, Butler arranged to blow this final seal with explosives, and set the date for January 1, 1865. On that day, 150 years ago, at 4 p.m., the bulkhead was blown. Earth thrown up from the bulkhead fell back down into the channel. Although water flowed through the channel, the canal was not navigable for the Union ironclads. Butler was sacked as commander of the Army of the James only days later, and his pet project was abandoned.
Although I’ve not seen many connections made in print comparing Butler’s Dutch Gap Canal to Grant’s canal project west of Vicksburg, I’ve always been struck by the parallels:
- Both men conceived their projects in order to bypass significant Confederate batteries guarding the Mississippi and James Rivers.
- Both projects involved massive labor and ridicule as far as projected success.
- Both projects ultimately failed in their goals during the war…
- …but the Mississippi near Vicksburg and the James south of Richmond eventually changed course, the canal channels becoming parts of the main channels of both rivers.
Perhaps I’ve simply failed to look in the right places. If you know of a good article on the parallels between these two operations, please use the Contact form at the top of this page.
- Dutch Gap Canal “Action Sequence”
- The Overland Monthly: Dutch Gap Canal
- NP: January 21, 1865 Harper’s Weekly: Dutch Gap Canal
- Section Through Dutch Gap, James River, Va. (OR Atlas 65:7)
- Plan of Dutch Gap Canal and Fortifications, James River, Va. Sept. 10, 1864 (OR Atlas 65:8)
- Plan and Section of Dutch Gap Canal: Official Records
- Vertical Plan of the Dutch Gap Canal (Battles and Leaders)