Civil War

Photo of Civil War Reenactors on canal boat
Reenactment of Civil War troops on the canal

NPS Photo

The US Civil War, 1861-1865

The C&O Canal runs alongside the Potomac River. The river was a dividing line between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War. The canal was strategically important to both sides. Union forces protected the canal and used it for transportation purposes, moving troops, coal, and war supplies. Confederates tried to damage both the canal and boat traffic. It became the subject of many raids by confederate cavalrymen such as Jeb Stuart and John Mosby. Canal mules were taken for the war efforts of both the North and the South. Both sides used the towpath as a road when war came into the state of Maryland.

The people who worked on the C&O Canal were divided by the war. Boatmen joined both sides and fought against former friends and neighbors. Several campaigns were fought on or near the canal.

runaway slave on canal ad

Dreams Along the C&O Canal

"… justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream…. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania."
Martin Luther King, I Have a Dream Speech, August 28, 1963, presented at the Lincoln Memorial downstream from the eastern terminus of the C&O Canal.

Dreams motivated many along the Potomac - from George Washington looking for a transportation route to the west, to Irish and German laborers who built the C&O Canal, to escaped runaways traveling on the underground railroad fleeing north to freedom, to Martin Luther King who downstream from the canal at the Lincoln Memorial shared his dream that one day all will live in this land as equals.

Last updated: July 8, 2023

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