Stonewall’s Troops Fail to Break Dam No. 5 – Jackson Knows Why

December 8, 1861 (Sunday)

General William Wing Loring, it seemed, was in no hurry to get to Winchester. It was the waiting that bothered General Jackson the most. He had wished for a winter campaign that would combine his force in the lower Shenandoah Valley with Loring’s force in the hills of Western Virginia. Waiting for Loring was not how Jackson desired to toil away these snowy months.

The Federals in Western Virginia were busy at work rebuilding the railroad to Grafton. Earlier, in November, Jackson’s men had harassed railroad workers in Morgan County and ripped up track between Harpers Ferry and Cherry Run. While they were burning the crossties, they saved the rails, made of heavy English iron, to be used on Southern railroads.1

Never one to keep his men idle, Jackson had something bigger in mind. There was a dam across the Potomac River, six miles north of Williamsport, Maryland, which served as a reservoir for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The Union used the canal, which ran along the northern bank of the river, to shuttle supplies towards the mountains. If the dam was broken, the canal would be cut and a vital Union artery would be severed.

It wasn’t only railroad supplies that were carried on the canal, however. Empty boats had been shipped west to collect the essential Pennsylvania coal and ship it to Washington. Jackson planned to strike before the coal boats returned.

The work on Dam No. 5 had been stymied by the war, leaving it a partially-constructed, but fully-working barrier, holding back enough water to serve twenty-two miles of canal and creating a lake more than a mile long.2

On December 6, Jackson detailed 400 infantry and two sections of the Rockbridge Artillery, both under the command of Major Frank Paxton. They reached it on the 7th and proceeded to try to break the dam with artillery. From the snowy heights above the Potomac, the four guns wailed away, as the infantry kept things lively for the Union troops from Massachusetts and Indiana, who were posted on the site.

The Union boys had only short-range, smoothbore muskets, while Paxton’s men were armed with rifles. The Rebels, knowing that their foes couldn’t harm them, stood by the edge of the River and lobbed insults along with bullets.

A detail of Rebels entered the icy waters in another attempt to break the dam. Closer to the range of the Union muskets, one of Paxton’s men was killed. This operation was abandoned around 11pm, doing little damage.

Unknown to the Rebels, during the night, the Union troops were reinforced by a company armed with rifled muskets. Paxton, unhappy that the dam was still standing, placed his artillery on the water’s edge, so they could fire directly into the dam. This would have done the trick.3

According to a Union report, the cannons never had the chance to fire a shot. Before they could open upon the dam, the company with rifled muskets opened fire, killing two Rebels. Paxton, however, wrote to his wife that they opened fire in the morning, but the Federal troops were too well-hidden to do any damage. Since it was the dam, and not the Union troops, who were the target, it’s probably safe to say that the accurate Federal fire made it too hot for the dam busters.4

After learning of the failure, Jackson attributed it not to the Union reinforcements, the cold water or Major Paxton, but to God. Jackson held a view that the Sabbath must be kept holy. The action on this date occurred on a Sunday. According to Margaret Junkin Preston, the wife of one of Jackson’s staff officers, “The expedition proved a failure, and he attributed it in some measure to the fact that Sunday had been needlessly trespassed upon.”5

Jackson planned to try again. The next time, he would make sure to leave on a Monday, so as to completely avoid fighting on the Lord’s day.

  1. The Baltimore and Ohio in the Civil War by Festus P. Summers. []
  2. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson. []
  3. Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign by Peter Cozzens. []
  4. Memoir and Memorials by Elisha Franklin Paxton. Union account from Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign by Peter Cozzens. []
  5. The Life and Letters of Margaret Junkin Preston by Elizabeth Preston Allan, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903. []
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Stonewall’s Troops Fail to Break Dam No. 5 – Jackson Knows Why by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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