Susquehanna canal in Confederate path

In the Gettysburg campaign, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee's objectives was to cut the Union's communications and transportation lines to Washington.

By June 27, 1863, strong elements of the Army of Northern Virginia had reached Chambersburg, Pa., and were threatening the railroad center and the state capital at Harrisburg.


On June 28, the Confederates were engaging Union militia at Wrightsville, Pa., on the Susquehanna River, seeking to gain control of the bridge across the river there. But there was another vital though little remembered transportation artery at stake in that battle before Gettysburg - the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal.

According to The Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway - History, the South's campaign against communications lines in this area was nothing new. It had been under way since the start of the war: "Confederate raiders would routinely travel the Lower Susquehanna region to destroy bridges and railroads. ... One hundred veteran reservists were sent from Wilmington, Del., to Havre de Grace to guard ferry and railroad operations. Confederate cavalry brigades cut telegraph wires at Harford Road and Bel Air Road. Their goal was a destructive railroad campaign that led all the way to Havre de Grace." They also tried to disable the canals and their locks.


At war's outset

At the outset of the war, Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin H. Butler leaned over the field table in his tent and frowned, wishing the kerosene lamp shed brighter light on the map. He was commander of the 740-man Massachusetts 8th Infantry Volunteer Regiment. They had pitched camp and finished supper. The men were quiet - tired - as they made ready for the night. They had just traveled from Massachusetts south to Perryville, at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, arriving on the evening of April 20, 1861.

After the events of April 10 at Fort Sumter, the state of Massachusetts was answering President Abraham Lincoln's call "for 75,000 volunteers to preserve the Union," according to "Unique ways of Maryland's Mob Town" by William Connery in the Washington Times.

With a practiced eye, Butler traced the course of the river and noted the canals running parallel to the river. These canals were built to bypass navigation obstructions such as waterfalls, rapids and dams.

In his book, Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War, Eric Mills reports that Butler was given good advice by Capt. Samuel F. DuPont of the Philadelphia Navy Yard: Since the overland way was no longer tenable, they should take to the Chesapeake Bay. The Southerners may have destroyed the rails, but they didn't control the Chesapeake yet.

Mills writes, "S. M. Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, offered the use of Maryland, which served as [a steamboat] ferry transport for train travelers crossing the Susquehanna. They squeezed aboard the steamer and headed down the Chesapeake, reaching Annapolis by midnight. Baltimore had been avoided, and Washington lay ahead."

In his stateroom, Butler took the map from his aide and unrolled it. He sought to improve his knowledge of the region. He was surprised at the river's length and the area of its watershed.

A water artery


The Susquehanna River is one of the longest rivers on the eastern seaboard. It rises in central New York State and winds through the Appalachian Mountains in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland before flowing into the head of the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace.

About 444 miles long, the river and its tributaries drain an area of 27,570 square miles.

According to the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway - History, "The Susquehanna Canal in Cecil County opened to traffic in 1805. Abundant natural resources allowed the area to continue to grow and prosper. Fisheries, agricultural products, large forested areas, and Cecil County's rich wealth of mineral resources, such as chrome, granite, magnesium, placed the Lower Susquehanna Region at the heart of America's early manufacturing and excavating industries."

Coal and farm products were also shipped from the area. The military significance of these resources for the Union was not lost on Butler or the opposing Confederate commanders.

Suggestions for the Susquehanna Canal go back to William Penn, about 1690, and even further back to the early 1600s and Dutch cartographers. It wasn't until March 1792 that work began on the Conewago Canal bypassing York Haven falls on Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River.

Various evolutions, branches and the restructure of canal companies made the Susquehanna Canal a general reference to a water transport system. The network eventually stretched over a span of 135 years and about 1,243 miles of waterways.


In his book, The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals, the author, William H. Shank writes, "The State of Pennsylvania, while slow to get into the canal building business, at least had the distinction of having one of the oldest canal systems in the country. In 1797 the Conewago Canal, paralleling the Susquehanna River on its west bank below York Haven and designed to enable boats to avoid the rocks and rapids of Conewago Falls, had been built and declared operable by the state."

Four canals in 1861

By 1861, four canals had been completed. There was a growing need for transportation in the region, which fostered larger boat dimensions, and the ever-evolving company mergers.

According to The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals, "The Union Canal, 4 feet deep, 36 feet wide at surface level and 24 feet wide at bottom, was a remarkable feat of engineering.

Shank writes: "In a distance of 81 miles [by canal] between Reading and Middletown it climbed 311 feet to the summit level of the canal at Lebanon and descended a total of 192 feet to the level of the Susquehanna River at the west end, using a total of 93 lift locks 75 feet long and 8.5 feet wide." These dimensions allowed barges with cargoes of 75 to 80 tons. Today's 18-wheel tractor-trailers carry as much as 40 tons.

"In 1835 Pennsylvania granted a charter to the Susquehanna Canal Co. to build a canal from Columbia to the State line. Maryland had already chartered the Tidewater Canal Co. to build her part of the canal from Havre de Grace, north. The two companies were later united under the name Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal Co.


"Excavation began in 1836. It was decided that the west bank of the Susquehanna was a more feasible route for the canal. Hence, the river was dammed below Columbia and Wrightsvillle to form a pool for the canal boats to cross from the Main Line basin at Columbia and also to feed water into the new canal."

Basin at Wrightsville

The Susquehanna and Tidewater entrance basin was at Wrightsville and the canal was constructed 43 miles south to Havre de Grace, with about two-thirds of the route in Pennsylvania and the remaining one-third in Maryland. The canal was put into operation in 1840. Materials shipped on this canal were coal, lumber, grain and iron, much of it southbound to Baltimore. A prime commodity was coal, bound for the port of Baltimore.

According to Shank, "Twenty-nine locks were built to overcome an elevation of 231 feet between Havre de Grace and Wrightsville.

"Avoiding the now obvious error of some of the earlier canals, such as the Union, in building their locks too narrow and too small, locks were built 17 feet in width and 170 feet in length, thus permitting single boats of 150 tons capacity or tandem boats up to 300 tons capacity per pair to pass the locks easily.

"The canal channel was designed 50 feet wide at water level by 5.5 to 6 feet deep. There was a weigh lock at York Furnace where tolls were charged. Average dimensions of the double [or tandem] boats using the canal system were 65 feet in length, 16 feet in width and 8 feet in depth, drawing approximately 5 feet of water when the boats were fully loaded."


The locks on the canal used various methods of filling and draining the water. Rivers were a good source, and in their absence, reservoirs and aqueducts were used.

The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals observes, "Maintaining water in the summit level of the Union Canal was a tremendous problem. Inasmuch as the feeder canal was located some 85 feet below the summit level it was necessary to pump the water from the feeder canal junction [known as the Water Works] using four huge pumping engines, rated at 120 horsepower apiece and two immense water wheels 40 feet high by 10 feet wide, to raise the water through a 3-foot-diameter wood pipe to the top of a 95-foot hill from which point the water flowed four miles through an aqueduct to the summit level of the canal."

The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals reports, "An interesting side note on the construction of the Schuylkill system was a 450-foot-long tunnel, completed in 1821 near Auburn, Pa., through which the canal passed. The tunnel was constructed through a low hill, which might easily have been avoided by laying out the canal line about a hundred feet westward. However, the proprietors of the company wanted a tunnel, knowing that it would be the first one to be constructed in the United States."

Passengers, too

The Union army needed foodstuffs, horses, metals, chemicals and manufactured goods such as nails, wire and weapons. Logistics included transportation and thus the canals were a valuable resource.

In addition to cargo, the canal boats carried passengers in style.


The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals describes the passenger experience aboard the canal boat: "There will never again be a period in the travel history of this country quite as colorful or as unique as the canal-boat era, which reached its peak in the 1850s. ... The canal boat traveler found himself, particularly at night or on rainy days, thrown into extremely intimate contact with his fellow travelers in the crowded cabin.

All boats were animal-drawn. Mules were found most suitable for the heavy freight boats although oxen were in use in some areas. The packets, or passenger-carrying boats, which generally moved at the maximum speed permissible on the canals, found horses speedier towing animals.

"Some boats carried their own spare teams on board, generally forward, which added somewhat to the variety of odors on the boat. Two to three animals were used as a towing team, depending upon the boat size, with a 'driver' on shore with the team and a 'steersman' at the tiller to guide the boat.

"The driver on shore was the 'forager' for the crew. If a fat hen from some farmer's hen house wandered too close to the tow path it was only natural that it should wind up in the dinner pot on board. Ripe fruit near the tow path seldom was harvested by the owner. The top rails on fences adjoining the tow path also had a mysterious way of disappearing on cold nights, when the canal boat stove was low in fuel.

"A ladies' cabin in the bow of the boat, [is] calculated for eight persons. This cabin is handsomely decorated, and has tables, chairs and beds for that number of persons, and is as neat and comfortable as such rooms usually are in steam boats. The next room is what is called the 'midships,' containing the freight. Next is the gentlemen's room, large enough for all passengers; this room besides a bar with the choicest liquors, is calculated for a table, at which all the passengers breakfast, dine and sup, and contains beds and bunks for all the male passengers. The last room is the kitchen, at the steerage, where cooking is done in superior style.

"Women canal travelers were somewhat critical of the 'neat and comfortable' conditions described above, if we are to judge from the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, who traveled the Main Line in 1841: 'Mercy on us!' says one, after surveying the little room, about 10 feet long and 6 high, 'Where are we all to sleep tonight?'


"Then there is the 'turning out scene,' when the whole caravan's ejected into the gentlemen's cabin, that the beds may be made. The red curtains are put down, and in solemn silence all, the last mysterious preparations begin. At length, it is announced that all is ready. Forthwith the whole company rush back, and find the walls embellished by a series of little shelves, about a foot wide, each furnished with a mattress and bedding, and hooked to the ceiling by a very suspiciously slender cord. Direful are the ruminations and exclamations of inexperienced travellers ... as they eye these very equivocal accommodations."

The Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal was a major means of transportation during the Civil War, and vital to Union victory. It afforded Union access to the rich resources of the Susquehanna valley.

In addition to its military value, the waterway was an economic factor in the burgeoning industrial growth of the area. Both freight and passengers gained access to the headwaters of the Ohio River and to Lake Erie in the west, and to Philadelphia and the eastern seaboard.

Charles Dickens' notes

The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals, describes a distinguished passenger: "One of the most famous, and prolific, writers who traveled the Pennsylvania Canal System was England's Charles Dickens."

These are some of his impressions, according to Shank's book: "The night was cloudy yet, but moonlight, too; and when we crossed the Susquehanna River - over which there is an extraordinary wooden bridge with two galleries, one above the other, so that, even there, two boat-teams meeting may pass without confusion - it was wild and grand. ... I may go on to remark that breakfast was perhaps the least desirable meal of the day, as, in addition to the many savory odors arising from the eatables, already mentioned, there were whiffs of gin, whiskey, brandy; and rum from the little bar hard by, and a decided seasoning of stale tobacco.


"And yet, despite these oddities - and even they had, for me at least, a humor (as in atmosphere) of their own - there was much in this mode of traveling which I heartily enjoyed at this time, and look back upon with great pleasure."

Although no battles were fought on the canal system, it was a target of marauding Confederates. They harassed the Union with mischief along the Susquehanna. system as long as they were able.

Robert M. Duff is a freelance writer from Coatesville, Pa.