For 365 days in 1864 a small diary penned by John Price, the Superintendent of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, provides a unique and enthralling view of Chesapeake City as that troubled year gradually passed by. With the Civil War dragging on, as Union and Confederate armies confronted each other in a deadly, epic struggle, Price hovered over his tiny journal to chronicle the dark, troubling times as the country and an inland waterway village at the top of the Delmarva Peninsula faced fears and tribulations. His accounts of personal moments, the challenges of operating the waterway, and shattering national events provide a one-of-a-kind narrative portrait, a window to the past.
A Civil War era diary kept by the manager of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
Often the manager of the C & D concerned himself with the routines of daily life and the weather, but regularly disturbing war and political news demanded the diarist’s attention. Since the founding of the nation blue laws prohibited working on Sundays, a day for attending church, resting and reflecting, but with fighting raging the United States Government couldn’t be hindered by such morals. Aghast townspeople watched, government tugs, light boats, and barges pass through the canal one Sabbath in April to “accompany Burnside’s expedition.” “Piping times these, Uncle Sam violating the sanctity of the Sabbath and teaching men so. Sad to contemplate such necessity.”
A Delaware Civil War recruiting poster . Source: Delaware Public Archives.
On Independence Day, generally a time of raucous celebration and enjoyment in a watermen’s town, the diarist found sadness. “Congress having repealed the commutation clause in the conscription law, every able-bodied man between the ages of 18 & 45 is liable to be drafted. The case is a despicable one, and will make great confusion and much skedaddling.” AS a result of the law’s change, men could no longer provide substitutes or pay fees to avoid service. A clerk, son, and son-in-law went off to escape the draft, he wrote. “Grants men are being killed off making ample room in the army for a hundred thousand greenhorns who prefer staying at home to going to the front as fodder for Lee’s sharpshooters.”
While conscription resulted in “dark days,” the worries for the man superintending work on an important military inland waterway were just getting started. Shortly after returning from church on Sunday, July 10, an urgent telegram arrived. Mr. Gray, the corporation’s lawyer, wanted to know if a tug could be equipped with a cannon. General Jubal Early’s Confederate Troops were marching on Maryland. Price came up with a suitable vessel as fear spread. As Wednesday passed into Thursday, word arrived that the “rebels were advancing” on Chesapeake City, a town of about 1,000 people. On that sleepless night, a second message arrived, confirming that enemy troops were on their way. That caused great alarm and some house furnishings, clothing and such were removed to the safety of the countryside.
But at sunrise Chesapeake City was safe. “Breathing free on learning that reports of last night in relation to the visitation on the part of the rebels were fabrications. Thank God. The canal is uninsured.” Another report before noon caused Price to order the noisy steam-pump at the lock shut-down “ so that everything at the waterworks might be quite to escape the observation of the rebels. Slowly the old, noisy waterwheel ground to a halt and all was silent on the western end of the waterway. Eight and a half-hours later the enemy hadn’t arrived, so the wheel started pumping water again and commerce resumed. Later, he received news that the invaders had retreated back across the Potomac.
As summer turned to fall, Price began expressing worries about a free election. When the Baltimore steamer landed 20 soldiers in Chesapeake City, he supposed they were there to intimidate voters. When citizens went to the polls to vote on the new Maryland State Constitution, one he called “bogus,” he noted how Republicans were exercising every possibility to disenfranchise Democrats. Election-day passed off “comparatively quiet, only one or two fights,” as he cast his ballot for George McClellan.
Reading Price’s diary is like taking a trip back in time. It is possible to see the Civil War era in one small but important Maryland town as Price reflects on a nation, a state and his community in the uncertain depths of wartime. Throughout the struggle the canal was an important transportation route, carrying urgently needed men and supplies as the conflict ebbed and flowed on distant battlefields. As he finished this chronicle on New Year’s Eve, the great conflict was nearing its end, but Richmond still stood and Abraham Lincoln was in the White House.
On those brittle, browning pages penned so long ago, he paused each day to record important observations in a small pocket diary bound in brown leather and stained from the passing of centuries. This day-by-day chronicle of happenings for 1864, tells the modern readers about life on the canal during the war between the north and the south.
The C & D Canal Pumphouse a few years after the Civil War (1867).
source: personal collection
Article originally published in Maryland Life, March 2013
Note: An interesting article about the importance of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal during the Civil War. Delivered by Major R. R. Reynolds, Army Corps of Engineers, 1911, From JSTOR.