County is Home to Best Preserved Civil War Battery on the Potomac
The Cockpit Point Battery, or canon emplacement, which served as part of the Potomac Blockade against Union shipping between October 1861 and March 1862, is the best preserved of the batteries that lined the Potomac River during the Civil War.
A recent study, presented to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, showed that Cockpit Point, one of four Confederate batteries along the river in Prince William County, holds historical significance that can’t be found elsewhere.
“There are remnants of other batteries around, but there is no battery that is anywhere near the state of preservation as Cockpit Point is,” said Scott Seibel of the URS Corporation, which conducted the study funded by a grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program. “It’s very rare given all of the development that’s occurred along the Potomac River. The condition of the battery is excellent.”
In 1990, the Board of County Supervisors recognized Cockpit Point’s importance and classified the site as a Designated Cultural Resource with the adoption of the County’s Comprehensive Plan. The classification was renamed to “County Registered Historical Site” in the 2008 Comprehensive Plan, and Cockpit Point has remained as a registered site in all subsequent comprehensive plans.
In 2012, the current Board of County Supervisors again recognized the importance of Cockpit Point and approved a proffer of 113 acres as part of the Potomac Shores rezoning. The board designated the land for use as open space and passive recreation. Cockpit Point was included in the proffer. Proffers are voluntary considerations developers offer to the County to offset any adverse effects their development might have on the community.
Prince William Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan, whose Potomac District includes Cockpit Point, said the historic relevance of the site could not be underestimated. “With the development of Potomac Shores, which is going to be absolutely beautiful, this will be a plus and will present a great opportunity for residents to learn about our County’s Civil War history.”
The Potomac Blockade was established as a Confederate strategic plan to try and put pressure on the Union, and it worked, Seibel said. “It was mostly the fear that shipping could be hit, and this put a lot of pressure and embarrassment on the federal government in Washington, D.C., as they had to bring in supplies by rail.”
While the Potomac Blockade lasted until March 1862, Cockpit Point fell to the Union Navy in the Battle of Cockpit Point in January 1862 when two Union ships, the USS Yankee and the USS Anacostia, blasted away at the battery’s cannons from positions that couldn’t be easily hit by return fire. The Anacostia fired dozens of rounds at the battery. As the Anacostia fired at the battery, the Yankee sailed within range of the battery’s guns and Confederate forces were able to hit the Yankee with one of only four shots fired. The shot caused minor damage to the Yankee and slightly wounded a Union seaman. The Union shots from the Anacostia were accurate enough to force the Confederates to abandon one of the batteries.
The study — which was part of a project to closely examine the history of the battle, document the battlefield itself, establish a battlefield management plan and gather information and other data for future use — confirmed that the battery is a prime candidate for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, said Prince William County Archeologist Justin Patton.
In order to qualify for listing on the register, the events at a site must be an integral part of history and the site must be intact enough to retain historical integrity. “Not everything meets those criteria. This will get listed because it meets all those criteria,” Patton said.
As part of the project, the Prince William Planning Department held a stake holder meetings and two public meetings at the same time it developed and maintained a website for community input. The website included all project information, meeting materials, maps and survey results.
The study also suggested a battlefield management plan to address concerns of continued tree growth and erosion that could lead to the degradation of the earthworks. Management of the forest cover would follow National Park Service Guidelines for the sustainability of military earthworks. Additionally, the plan calls for the county to consider options that include various forms of land and water access. Other options for the battery could include wayside interpretive panels, brochures, a trail system, removing vegetation to open vistas that would hint at the view that would have existed during the time the battery was in use, reconstruction of earthworks and guided tours.
The proffer process to transfer ownership is currently underway, Patton said. “Once we acquire the site then we can think about doing a National Register nomination.”
Visit the Prince William County Planning Department’s web page for a more complete look at the study.