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TOM: Dutch Gap Canal


GENERAL BUTLER, commanding the Army of the James—in an official order published early in August, 1864—called upon his colored troops for volunteers for a service of extra danger and hard work, promising extra pay for the same. The hard work was, I believe, especially mentioned as “hard digging,” and the danger was indicated as the fire of the enemy. The number of volunteers was limited to some three or four hundred men. The extra pay was to be given, first, after a month’s service, and again, on the completion of the work.

The troops responded readily to the call; more than enough were willing to go. Officers were selected and detailed, and the command thus raised was soon on the spot and at work. The work proved to be the digging of a canal at a point called Dutch Gap—to be large enough and deep enough for the passage of river gun-boats. The situation of the ground, and especially of the Rebel military works, made this object seem feasible, and worth an effort.

The Federal line of works at Bermuda Hundred extended from the Appomattox to the James River, the right of the line on the latter. The Rebel lines were parallel with, and in front of the Federal, with their left on the James River, at a steep bluff. This bluff commanded a long reach of the river, the guns pointing straight down the stream, their range being uninterrupted for perhaps half a mile to the rear of the Union works.

The stream, at this part, was peculiarly exposed to a plunging fire from the bluff on which stood Howlett’s house, and here many and formidable guns were mounted. There were also a barrier of sunken craft across the stream, and rumors of an elaborate torpedo system underwater. A formidable spot; and, with both shores in hostile hands — as they were, everywhere above the Federal right —a spot almost impossible for wooden vessels to pass at all.

The land operations were, just then, at a stand-still. Each side was thoroughly fortified, and the works protected by abattis and wire entanglements. To break through the lines on either side had been proved to be out of the question by a series of assaults from both parties. Affairs were at a dead-lock in Butler’s front; a large part of each army was busy watching its enemy, thus keeping its hands tied.

But this was to the advantage of the Rebels, as they had an inside line, with a railroad at their backs, and at all times they could keep their movements secret. They could withdraw a large force from our front, and still keep up a show of strength, without our immediately discovering the game; while our movements were soon intelligible to them. We were in Virginia—the enemy’s country; his spies were on their own familiar ground. From the same cause our area was confined to the places within our lines of work, and the forests here were rapidly falling before our fuel-hunters, and exposing our numbers and movements to the Rebel signal-officers. With a view to unlock the situation, General Butler supposed it practicable to cut a canal in a month’s time that would let our gun-boats up the James, without running the gauntlet of the Howlett guns and the sunken rafts and torpedoes.

The river makes a great bend above Dutch Gap, inclosing a long, broad point of meadow-like land, half a mile wide at the end and two or three miles in length, but, at the throat, only about five hundred feet across, from the river above to the river below. A canal across, of five hundred feet, would save in distance six miles or more over the journey round the bend. And as the Howlett bluff, the snags, the torpedoes, and the Rebel left were all on the turn of the bend, a canal would let the gun-boats past all these dangers without traversing the long, open river-reach of exposed water-channel. Thus, we might place our river navy behind the Rebel line, and divert their attention from Grant at Petersburg, or from the dead-lock game at Bermuda.

On the north of the river, behind the Federal works, and on both sides above the Howlett bluff, the country was mostly open meadow, with perhaps some fringe of trees along the river margin, so that there was no great chance—short of Fort Darling — to build up another formidable work that should repeat the Howlett lock upon the stream. The bank at Dutch Gap to be cut through was about forty-five feet above water level, at the highest part.

Under these circumstances, it was easy to see the military advantage of a canal. Could it be built in a short time? Were the engineering difficulties formidable, apart from the inevitable opposition of the enemy? Five hundred feet long, sixty feet wide, forty-five feet deep; such a cut would be less than many which have been successfully made on our railroad lines.

One night—the 8th of August [1864], I think —the working detail crossed the river in boats, armed with shovels, picks, rifles, and provisions. The Engineer set two lines of stakes, and the ground was broken at once.

This was the beginning; and no marriage-bell could have gone merrier than did the first breaking of the ground at Dutch Gap. The light soil yielded easily, and the progress was plain enough to be seen. The men were enthusiastic: they were gaining renown, and were to be paid for it. The General would smile upon them officially in General Orders; their credit with the sutler would improve; what more could a soldier wish? The enemy’s fire, to be sure, would open upon them in the morning; but that was no novelty. It generally did open upon them in the morning, at whatever point of the line they might happen to be. So they yielded to the light-heartedness of their race, and laughed and made merry over the night’s digging.

Long and deep grew the ditch, until, at last, the security of its shelter, the fatigue of work, the waning hours of the night, brought drowsiness, and the work grew less vigorous. The eastern stars grew pale; the gray lines shone above the horizon. We peered anxiously above the new earth-bank toward the dreaded guns at Howlett’s. Reveille calls awoke the troops all along the Federal lines. A faint sound of distant bugles came from the Rebel works. The bluff, and the Rebel batteries — even the guns, at last —grew distinct. It was broad daylight, and they must soon see what the night had brought forth at Dutch Gap. A line of new, freshly thrown up earth, stretching across the throat of the peninsula, from water to water, could mean but one thing—a canal! This would at once be obvious, and the full purport and result of a canal at that point could hardly escape the intelligence of the stupidest. “Our ole gun-boats ‘ll git ‘way roun’ beyind ‘um,” said the colored diggers — which was plain enough to see. Howlett’s guns would see it, too, soon enough; and, seeing, would no doubt try to “perwail upon us to stop,” as Sam Weller sang of Dick Turpin. “A couple of balls in his nob,” was Mr. Turpin’s persuasive method. Howlett’s had many balls, and our working detail had many “nobs” open to conviction.

They were certainly somewhat slow of comprehension, and we were getting tired of watching, when, without warning or any visible preliminaries, two puffs of white smoke—one immediately after the other — expanded suddenly and silently from the guns at Howlett’s, and silently rolled upward. A seemingly long interval of waiting; then came the distant reports, and simultaneously the scream of the shells far above our heads. Below us, two puffs of dust were kicked up with an explosion. They were “getting the range,” as gunners say, and this first practice was bad. But again the smoke clouds expanded and rolled away from the Rebel guns, and this time their shells landed nearer to the working line.

But this game can be played by two parties. Federal batteries replied; and in number of guns, and amount of iron thrown, the Rebels generally came out second-best. An artillery duel was thus begun, which raged, with no perceptible effect, for some hours. It taught the working party, however, that they were reasonably secure from damage by the Howlett-house guns. And, indeed, the Rebels seemed to learn the same lesson very soon; for their fire gradually slackened, then went out altogether, and was not again rekindled at that point. The Howlett guns threw their shells a long distance, and at right angles to the line of the canal; and, with horizontal firing, it was almost impossible to strike so narrow a mark.

After the first day’s firing, the guns at Howlett’s treated the canal with silent contempt.

The work progressed rapidly at first, and the excavation was soon deep enough for mule teams to work to advantage. These were crossed over and stabled under the protecting river-bank. The file of carts came from the canal, and dumped the waste earth on the reedy flat of the river-shore, where the works of the Federal right looked across protectingly. A slight projection of the riverbank above concealed this open end of the canal from the enemy. The opposite end was left untouched. The canal extended to within some ten or fifteen feet of the point where it was to join the river above, and this mass was left as a bulk-head, to be blown out with powder when the rest of the canal was made navigable. It was supposed the higher water at that point of the stream would take the new short-cut offered by the canal, and sweep out a good boat’s channel through the debris of the bulk-head.

As the cutting got down through the top layers of soil and loose clay to the tougher hard-pan, the work became slower, while the enemy found more effectual means of annoyance. By crossing to the north, or Richmond side of the river, they had high ground on the prolongation of the line of the canal, so that their guns had a better chance of throwing shot into it; although here the bulkhead of the canal stood between the workers and the Rebel guns, and the deeper the work sunk, the more effectual protection this gave. Still, the “danger” that had been promised in the call for volunteers began to develop itself, and now no day passed without death and wounds in the deepening channel.

The working detail was driven to find quarters for camps in holes burrowed into the steep clay river-banks, near the open end of the canal. These were squared out and cut down some five or six feet below the upper surface, and shelter-tents were pitched above for roofs. The earth thrown out made a path along the steep side of the riverbank, below the line of fire. Under this bank, also, came the temporary hospitals and the supply department, and built their make-shift conveniences in the narrow spaces between bluff and river.

As the enemy’s shell-practice grew more accurate, and the hard-pan grew tougher, the progress of the digging became slower. The excitement and novelty faded away into danger and drudgery. The sun shone fixedly, the yellow earth radiated the blaze of heat, and set free the malaria of newly turned earth and sedgy shores. Fever and ague, and bilious fevers, attacked the working party; and these diseases were aggravated by the cellar-like holes in which the constant fire of the enemy forced the troops to live. The sick-list speedily enlarged, and the death-rate increased. The lighthearted race soon sobered down out of the broad grins with which the work was begun, and the pathetic melancholy in every face showed that now the other side of its changeable character was uppermost. Before the first month of work was over, half the laborers were hors de combat.The hospital transferred its boat-loads every night to the south side of the stream. Engineers shook their heads. By no means half of the work was yet done, and the progress grew very slow as the material changed to blue-black clay, and rock-like hard-pan. Inspectors and experts came, and reported unfavorably.

But General Butler showed the determination or obstinacy which had helped him often before in straits, legal and military. He gave up the volunteer system, made direct details of whole commands, doubling his working force, and put in charge an officer with the combined powers of military commander and chief engineer. He also introduced a steam dredge for the channel, and an engine for hoisting the earth and pumping water. The mule force was increased also, and the breadth of the work somewhat diminished. The canal was reduced in width to simply the necessity of the narrowest paddle-box steamer, a roadway being thus left on each side of the canal at the bottom of the cut.

All this renewed effort told upon the work manifestly, and soon the great bulk of the steam-dredge could hide its length in the mouth of the canal.

But the enemy had brought a new weapon into play, which was doing more damage than all their devices hitherto— than any thing, in fact, except the insidious fever. This was a mortar-battery— an old-time device for shell-throwing; once the only method by which shells could be thrown at all. By the side of the modern perfections of horizontal shell-firing, rifled ordnance, and long ranges, these little, squat, iron tubs seem as absurd as the old-fashioned, bell-mouthed blunderbusses and matchlocks. But they renewed their youth at Dutch Gap. Their shells, thrown up from the bushy meadow beyond the river, fell into the gap of the excavation, and exploded with fatal effect. The direct fire sent the shot screaming in lines above our heads, or spent itself against the impenetrable mass of the bulk-head. A few only described their parabolas with sufficient nicety to clear the upper edge of the protecting wall of earth, and yet fall short enough to reach the workers. But the mortar-shells were thrown high up into the air and then fell by their own weight, with no warning scream, and, dropping in the midst of busy groups, burst into ragged fragments of iron, which maimed and killed.

Across the river from the closed end of the canal was a wide, low meadow, with a fringe of scattered trees along the stream, and thickets of alders and meadow-bushes over its surface. Hidden in these bushes lay the mortars. It was impossible to tell their whereabout, as they were often shifted. But, to them, the canal remained fixed, and it was an easy thing to get the angle at which to toss a shell that would fall into its open seam. Down in the deep cut, between the high clay walls, it was difficult to hear the report of the mortar when fired; but if one looked up at the right moment, it was easy to see the black ball descending. They fell hardly as silently as snowflakes, but with a flutter scarcely too loud for a bird’s wing, until the quiet and stealthy fall ended in a sudden roar of explosion, which reverberated with horrid exaggeration from the upright walls. Then crouching figures rose slowly from the sulphurous cloud of the gunpowder smoke; or there were some who did not rise, and a blanket was made to do duty as a stretcher, and something limp and bloody was carried down to the outer bank, by the mouth of the canal.

To silence the mortars, a battery of artillery was brought over, and earthworks were built on the river-bank, near the closed end of the canal.This bank was high and steep, and overlooked the meadow of the hidden mortars. The gunners could see no troops or works among the alder-bushes, but they kept a sharp watch for the puff of smoke from the discharged mortar, and directed their fire at the spot indicated.

The rebel counter-movement to this step was to place sharp-shooters along the river-bank, hiding them also in the bushes of the shore. But this by no means checked the Federal fire, though it may have disconcerted its accuracy. At any rate, the mortars continued to toss their quietly dropping and terrible missiles into the canal, with no perceptible diminution, though they came now from thicker and more hidden clumps of bushes.

The increased force at the work made some crowding of camps necessary, for the protected space was limited. This made it difficult to keep the camps clean, and the foulness, added to the continued underground burrowing, augmented the sick-list. One regiment was, for a time, without an officer for duty, and its force of men was almost correspondingly reduced.

Giant Despair found easy victims in the negro race. The cases of disease from Dutch Gap began to show an undue fatality. The new detail was fast following in the footsteps of the first. The first men had volunteered for extra pay, and this was, for some cause, withheld, and the volunteers were discontented, and thought themselves defrauded. The second men were ordered to the work with no promises or expectation of increased pay; and they, too, considered themselves unfairly treated, in being made to do the same work for which the others were nominally drawing extra pay. There were no songs now, at night, by the camp-fires. Each day added new victims to the mortar-practice.

The canal was a horror. Its open line caught all the falling iron, and at the bottom of the cul-de-sac the workmen found no shelter and no escape. They were walled in by the now lofty sides. These sides radiated the fierce heat of the sun, stifled the breezes, and exhaled miasma. The work looked hopeless again. Progress, there was seemingly almost none, though the dredge was doing hidden work under water.

“Silence those mortars!” was the talk of all officers, and the hope of the men. Artillery and musketry had been tried, but their fire had not diminished. “Cross a force of troops and capture them!” This was impracticable, as the broad, open meadow was under the guns of Rebel works in almost every direction. To venture there, it must be done in heavy force; and this would require pontoon-laying in the face of hidden sharpshooters, and large preparation where such preparation would be full notice in advance to the enemy of our intentions. “Then venture a small force of picked men, crossing by night, spiking mortars, capturing or routing the gunners, and returning before the Rebels could counter-move in the morning!” This might be done, but it would be a desperate enterprise. The crossing would have to be effected at some point where the opposite bank was free of sharp-shooters and pickets. Under the darkness of night, a small force might creep into the unexplored regions of the long peninsula, and it was possible that a point might be found unguarded, where a party in boats could cross unseen. The crossing once made in safety and secrecy, the enterprise would then have to begin in the enemy’s country, in the presence of the whole Rebel army; a navigable river between the party and its return, and a desperate game to play by night in front; in an unknown country, against an unknown number of the enemy, lying at some unknown points among the bushes. The probabilities were largely against a favorable upshot; nevertheless, the enterprise was not only talked of, but talked of seriously, and even prepared, though, I believe, without official sanction. Regimental line officers planned the mortar raid, chose their men, and even made night reconnoissances up the peninsula, and selected the point of crossing.

But, when they were ready to receive the desired permission from head-quarters and strike the blow, a greater movement than this frustrated and partly superseded their gallant plans. Twenty miles away, General Grant had given his often-repeated order, “By the left flank, for the Weldon Railroad, march!” And in all such cases the right wing of the grand army must simulate attack also, and in sufficient force to change the feint into a real attack, if the enemy should show weak at any point.

Dutch Gap was the extreme right of the Army of the James, which was again the right of the grand army. So the movement at once affected the troops at the canal.

At midnight of September 27th there was commotion among the forces at Dutch Gap. Adjutants were rousing officers of the line with the welcome news of instant march. Down with the shovel and the hoe, and up once more with rifle and knapsack. In an hour or two we had turned our backs upon the now enormous gash of the canal and the putrid holes where we had camped, had crossed the river to the Federal lines once more, and were in joyful, lighthearted march for a new crossing of the river two miles below.

With every step away from the grim horror of the canal our spirits rose, till at length the night-march at route-step fell into cadence with the first song for weeks.

Our own individual fortunes, henceforth, were apart from Dutch Gap and its canal, after nearly two months of labor between its sullen walls, and exposed to its combination of pestilence and sudden death.

We took a hearty share in the masking movement of the right wing, which, finding the weak spot of the enemy, turned its feint into an impetuous, sweeping assault—carrying Battery Harrison, Newmarket Heights, the Richmond road, and a long line of Rebel works north of the James. The works carried then were held by the Union troops afterward.

This affair gave us the hill from which the enemy had been shelling Dutch Gap, silencing the guns there, of course, and commanding the meadow of mortars from a new direction. This shut up one source of danger, disconcerted another, and freshened the determination of the General and the efforts of the men.

Entirely new men were now substituted for the first two sets of workers, who were allowed to feel themselves free from Dutch Gap, and to hold the works they had helped to capture. The dredging machine and the pump-engine were rendered bomb-proof with heavy timbers, and powder-chambers were dug in the now towering mass of the bulk-head.

Two months had passed since the ground was broken, and the dredge now floated half-way through. The new detail had more camp-room, and was consequently freer from sickness than the former.

But the mortar-fire, though partially checked, was by no means silenced. The ominous globes of iron still dropped among the workmen. The heat was still considerable, the malaria still formidable. The canal was not yet built, nor the doubters silenced. Again the work dragged heavily.

But a new interest was added, from the digging of mining-chambers in the bulk-head. An entrance was made into the bank considerably above, and then descended some distance below the water-level in the river. Powder, in rubber bags and tin cans, was stored in these chambers, ready to be fired at the proper time. General Butler hoped by this means to lift the enormous mass of the bulk-head, and clear out a channel between the upper river and the canal.

The work dragged its slow length through October [1864], growing slower as the working space grew shorter. The dredge—worked by contract, in civilian hands—was timorous, and did small service. The Rebel mortars, though closely watched, and constantly replied to, still dropped their fatal shells every five minutes — a rate of fire which they actually averaged, from the beginning to the end of the work. The canal was the dread of all troops liable for detail; a butt for the gibes and sneers of the doubters, and the personal enemies of the General. Court-martials even ventured to punish criminals, by sentence to the canal; one of them epitomized its opinion of the nature of the work and its probable duration, by sentence of a culprit to “two years’ hard labor at Dutch Gap Canal.” This was a fair hit. The successful end of the work could now give us little more than our capture of the Battery Harrison line had already done, and every day’s labor cost us lives.

At last, late in November [1864], the canal fairly emerged from the level of ridicule, and appeared as a political power, dictating terms to the enemy—by which it served its only useful purpose, and partially redeemed its ceaseless slaughter.

At this time, Butler was given charge of the business of exchange of prisoners. The enemy were notoriously using the colored troops who had fallen into their hands, as laborers in dangerous and exposed places on their works. To Butler’s appeal to have them treated according to rules of civilized warfare, as prisoners of war, the enemy averted his nose from the “beast,” and went on haughtily with his defiance of humanity.

Collecting certain prisoners then in his hands—prisoners, I believe, of some Confederate distinction, and not in the military service — Butler put them at work in the canal, and notified the Rebels that they would be removed when the captured men of the colored regiments were treated as prisoners of war. One of the prisoners was allowed to go to Richmond, on his parole of honor to return, to represent the case to the Confederate authorities. In a few days, the Confederate prisoners were taken out of the canal, and the colored prisoners off of the Rebel works. Thenceforth, they were treated as prisoners of war.

Let us give General Butler due credit for his action in this matter. The Rebel press howled “beast” and “outlaw” louder than before, but the Rebel authorities yielded to his demand.

After this short episode, the canal fell back to its old position of butt and bugbear—hated, feared, and sneered at.

So far, the original men who had broken the first ground had remained near the work, overlooking it partially from the advanced line captured in September [1864]. Early in December [1864], however, they were detailed from the Army of the James, and sent out to sea, as part of the memorable first expedition against Fort Fisher. After the failure there, they returned once more to the old position on James River. And here they saw, at last, the closing of the work they began with so much glee, and had toiled over through so much gloom. The grand explosion of the bulk-head took place late in December, 1864 [sic, on January 1, 1865]. The powder in the chambers was fired, and the whole mass of earth disappeared into rubbish and debris. The waters of river and canal united three miles above the Howlett Battery, but united without a navigable channel. No Monitor gun-boat or naval craft of any kind ever passed through the canal.

The work ceased; the Rebel mortar-fire was silent at last; General Butler was removed from his command; and Dutch Gap faded out of Army gossip in the growing light of greater events. Five months of hard and dangerous toil, with a net result of absolute failure!

Hardly any single operation of the war was persisted in with such determination against such formidable obstacles; none, certainly, for an object of such small importance. The loss of life—the troops disabled by wounds, and sickness from labor at the canal—I have never seen estimated. That it was considerable may be inferred from a loss of nearly two hundred men in one regiment, whose whole period of canal work was a little less than two months. The effect upon morale can not, of course, be estimated. But to live in putrid holes; to be exposed daily to a hostile fire, with no chance to retaliate; to suffer a soldier’s dangers, while deprived of his spirit as a combatant; to wield a spade only under fire — all this is depressing and demoralizing, and to the impressible and depressible negro race, it was doing much to deprive him of his soldierly ardor.

The “extra pay” offered in the original order fell short of the spirit of the promise, though, perhaps, not legally of its letter. After much delay, the volunteers received the first month’s pay, but nothing more, though they worked another month in the hope of it. But the literal promise was that the second payment should be made on the successful completion of the work, which has not happened to this day. Were not the words of the call those of a shrewd and legal mind, rather than of a blunt and soldierly one?

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  1. Unknown Author. “Dutch Gap Canal.” The Overland Monthly, Volume 4, Number 1, pp. 3038
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