The Dam #5 Lockhouse: evidence of an effort from 150 years ago?

Posted on December 18, 2011 by


So many of us go to battlefields and imagine the damage done by artillery, yet, are unable to see the impact on the ground. There is, however… here and there… evidence of damage done to structures.

While not the site of intense artillery fire, the lockhouse at Dam #5, on the Potomac, may have the scars of war, but the same scars appear to have missed mention in a nearby interpretive markers. Are they really scars of war, or something else?

The lockhouse near Dam #5, near Locks #44 and #45 of the C&O Canal, was built ca. 1839.

Dam #5 consisted of a heavy wooden frame, which was filled with quarried rock, and served to force water into the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. In an effort to halt the flow of traffic that ran along the canal, from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, D.C., on December 7, 1861, “Stonewall” Jackson ordered Major Elisha Paxton forward with at least two companies of infantry to create a breach the dam. In the meantime, two guns (one from the Rockbridge Artillery, and one from Chew’s horse battery) took to the heights above the Potomac (on what is now the West Virginia side), to assist in keeping the dam-busting infantry safe from enemy sharpshooters.

William T. Poague recalled that the guns focused attention on “the brick house on the other side from which Yankee sharpshooters annoyed our men at the dam,” and ultimately, proved effective. After a few shots, the Federal soldiers in the house were forced to “run from the house like rats”. While it seemed initially like “sport” to the Confederate gunners, they were soon answered by a Federal battery that not only silenced the two guns, but forced the crews to leave the guns and take refuge in the nearby woods. There is no mention of lobbing shells at the “brick house” or any other structures on the north bank of the Potomac.

In the end, the day proved not so successful for the Confederates… and neither did the next (Paxton withdrew on December 8, feeling his men were not well protected).

This sketch of the December 7 affair, by Cpl. Henry Bacon, of Co. D, 13th Massachusetts Infantry, appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated paper. The lockhouse, it seems, is the house just to the right, on this side of the river.

Contemporary view of a modernized Dam #5.

Ten days later, Old Jack gave a go at it again… this time tasking Captain Raleigh Colston (of the 2nd Virginia) with the dam-busting effort. It’s not clear just how many men (some indicate a couple dozen) waded into the waist-deep icy water, but, they were able to create a small breach. Meanwhile, the artillery (this time, just R.P. Chew’s guns) was occupied not with enemy sharpshooters, but with counter-battery activity. This time, there was no mention of firing upon any structures on the opposite bank of the river.

Interpretive marker at Dam #5.

Though the interpretive marker at Dam #5 implies that the effort on December 17 was the end of it, efforts continued for about four days before Jackson pulled his men off the effort.

Jackson declared the effort a success, after all, the dam was breached. However, the damage done was nominal, and repaired within days.

So, back to the initial question. Based on details of the actions from December 7 – December 20, 1861, we can feel rather confident that, if the marks in the house did happen as a result of this affair, they were made on December 7. So… does the lockhouse bear scars of the action of December 7? Take a look… paying close attention to the area around the front door of the lockhouse…

Moving-in a little closer, to the right of the doorway…

To the left of the doorway…

And, finally, above the doorway…

Take a look at this photo, from the front of the lockhouse. Confederate guns were to the right, on a height not seen in this picture…

… were the Confederate gunners targeting the doorway specifically… and for a particular reason?

One of Chew’s guns and one of our guns were placed on the hill overlooking the dam to set fire if possible the brick house on the other side from which the Yankee sharpshooters annoyed our men at the dam. – William T. Poague

It seems the shells may have been striking the house, and done some damage to the bricks around the door. Some may have actually made it through the doorway, but, even if they did, they weren’t exploding after entering the front door.

In search of some answers, I exchanged a few e-mails with Craig Swain about this, and his assessment was such… (my words based on what Craig said)…

Jackson had smoothbores at this time, which didn’t have percussion fuses, but rather, timed fuses, possibly Bormann. It would seem, based on the “pock marks” near the doorway, that these fuses were “petering-out” about the time the shells made it to the house. Instead of getting the big boom the Confederates were hoping for, the failure of the fuses ended up seeing the shells hit the house as solid shot. It could be that a shell or two… or more… made it through the front door, and that the Federals therein, noted that the shells weren’t exploding. Yet, rather than playing their odds, they probably did the wisest thing, in getting out of the house… taking the precaution… just in case one of the shells that eventually made it into the house had a fuse that didn’t fail.

So, in short, it would seem that these “pock marks” are, indeed, evidence of artillery fire from those days on the C&O Canal, near Dam #5, 150 years ago.

*Craig and I have discussed this more, off blog, and it might be that the pocks are evidence of one of few different scenarios, in relation to the December 7 incident. One, of course, is as I suggested… the shells, inevitably, glancing off the house, to the right (and the fuses failing, not exploding the shells). Others are that the pocks are evidence of exploding shells, outside the house. We also discussed the possibility that the pocks are the result of musket fire, but I’m skeptical of that. Did shells actually explode outside, and did one, perhaps find its way in, but did not explode? Hard to tell, but we do know, from Poague’s account that it was “after a few shells” that the snipers fled the house. Only “a few shells” had been fired. It might be that the Confederate guns didn’t have enough time to set fire to the house… that one of the shells that might have followed would have exploded inside. I wish we have something in writing from one of those snipers on the inside.