The Dutch Gap Canal Flop

January 1, 1865 – A project on the James River intended to allow Federal naval vessels to get to Richmond ended in failure.

After returning from his failed effort to capture Fort Fisher, Major General Benjamin F. Butler resumed supervision over the digging of a canal across Trent’s Reach on the James. The purpose of this canal was to bypass a bend in the river at Dutch Gap, thereby enabling Federal warships to avoid Confederate batteries protecting their capital of Richmond.

Digging the Dutch Gap Canal | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. IX, No. 421, 21 Jan 1865

Black Federal troops had been assigned to this backbreaking project, which had been going on since last summer. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had little faith that the canal would make much difference, but he allowed it to be dug so he could keep the troublesome Butler busy.

On New Year’s Day, Federal engineers brought up 12,000 pounds of gunpowder to destroy the final obstacle in the Federals’ path and open the canal. The explosion hurled dirt about 50 feet in the air, but most of it came back down exactly where it came from, and the canal was a bust. It became a viable water trade route after the war, but for now the canal was useless as a military waterway.

This failure, combined with that at Fort Fisher just a few days before, seemed to symbolize Butler’s military career. Not long after, Grant looked to remove him as commander of the Army of the James.



Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 511; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 538; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 618; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 231-32

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