Canal-ditch or Millrace

I have looked forward to covering the canal-ditch or millrace, as it was also known in 1862. In order to understand the northern portion of the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, as well as the Swale, which differs from the southern portion at Prospect Hill, one needs to understand the terrain across which the Union soldiers moved and upon which both sides fought. The canal-ditch, sometimes called the millrace, was an important terrain feature for both sides. It acted as a moat for the Confederates. At Hanover Street, it forced the Union soldiers to stop dead in their tracks before crossing it. This caused successive waves of Union troops to bunch up, becoming large group targets for the Confederate infantry and artillery. This was compounded by the fact that the Confederates took up most of the floor boards of the bridge. This caused Union soldiers to cross by waiting their turn to walk on the bridge stringers or by jumping down into the three feet of cold water that remained in the canal-ditch. In either case, they were easier targets so consequently serious casualties occurred at this location. Fortunately, for the Union on the west side of the canal-ditch, there was a twenty-five foot bluff under which the Union regiments reformed their lines.
Originally, the canal-ditch was simply a drainage ditch where rainwater run-off collected, eventually dumping into Hazel Run to the south. By 1854, it had undergone several realignments, the sides of which were reinforced with wood or stone walls as development of the community increased the run-off. It helped to drain the surrounding agricultural fields but was always prone to flooding and nuisance ponding following storms. It became a purpose built canal-ditch or millrace beginning to the north, near the Paper Mill and main canal. It ran about a mile to a location near Prussia Street (now Lafayette Blvd) where it split. One branch followed the original alignment about 700 yards south to Hazel Run. The first hundred yards or so of this branch ran partially underground between Prussia and Frederick Streets.

1---Michler-Canal-ditch-map webPortion of Michler 1867 map showing canal-ditch alignment from mill pond to Hazel Run

The second branch ran east some 400 yards to power Marye’s Mill. This mill was located just south of the railroad bridge at the Rappahannock River and is prominent in several period photographs.

2---Marye's-Mill-by-O'Sullivan webTimothy O’Sullivan photo of Fredericksburg

The canal-ditch was about 15 feet wide and five to six feet deep with a bottom that varied in depth and firmness. According to National Park Service (NPS) historian Noel Harrison, it also provided power to either the Tobacco Factory or Clarke’s Sash and Blind Factory, both of which were located near the split at Prussia Street.
The Confederates placed artillery to cover critical locations where the Union troops would exit the city on their approach to Marye’s Heights. Against the bridge on Hanover Street, the easiest Confederate artillery shot came from Lt. Galbraith’s 3-inch rifled gun located just to the north of Brompton, on the far side of the extension of Hanover Street as it crested Marye’s Heights, at a range of 600 yards. This gun could catch the Union troop columns head on where Hanover Street crested as they emerged from the city. Indeed, Hanover Street was so dangerous, the Union troops switched to George Street, one street to the north in order to move out of the city. George Street merged into Hanover Street about 75 yards from the canal-ditch. Then, there was only Hanover Street along which to continue their advance. Many Union accounts of the battle would only mention Hanover Street as the two streets became the same to them.

3a---Artillery-damage---Hanover St web 3b---Artillery-damage--George St web1864 photos of the Hanover and George Street area. Note Confederate artillery damage to buildings.

The damage to the buildings seen in this photograph was caused by Confederate artillery firing on Union troops emerging at the junction of George and Hanover Streets. Hanover is on the extreme right with George angling in from the center to the right of the photograph. One Union soldier wrote afterwards, “My recollection is that as the road leaves the city, it makes a slight curve [George Street], and as we came to that spot the whole view was open to us. I know the road was littered with some dead, and cast off blankets and knapsacks. For a ways the road slightly descends, and then you come to a considerable stream of some sort, it may be a waste weir, from Falmouth dam. This stream was bridged, and a part, if not all of the flooring of it had been removed. I remember we, partially at least, crossed on the stringers. At this point the enemy concentrated a hot artillery fire. I think the Sixty-first [New York] got over without much damage, but the head of the regiment [possibly the 64th New York] following took several shells that caused heavy damage.”
The Confederates had other artillery that could also fire on this area. Capt. Squire’s 1st Company battery of the Washington Artillery battalion had two rifled guns which were located on Willis Hill just to the north of the Willis cemetery and above the Stephens house. They could fire at a range of 675 yards, which gave them a slightly better shot at the troops on George Street than Galbraith’s gun. Equally destructive were two guns of the Donaldsonville Artillery located north of William Street on what today is the campus of Mary Washington University. These had a range of 750 yards. One 10-pound Parrott was located adjacent to what today is the university bell tower, and the other, a 3-inch rifle, a little to the north. All played upon the crossing and the backup of Union soldiers at the Hanover Street Bridge. Until the Union soldiers could cross the canal-ditch and gain the protection of the bluff, they were sitting ducks. It took some regiments up to 30 minutes to make the crossing if they selected using the bridge, tightrope walking the stringers of the bridge. Another Union soldier remembered, “It was seven hundred yards from the last buildings of the city to the base of Marye’s Heights. A third of the way across this expanse, a mill canal of fifteen feet wide crossed the route to the slight hollow where the men were to form for their final assault. A narrow bridge crossed the canal, but most of its planks had been removed. Like the regiments that had gone before it, the Fifth [New Hampshire Regiment] faltered briefly here as men either crossed the bridge with difficulty or splashed through the shallow water. As they reached the other side, they scrambled to form a line of battle. Here a twenty-five foot rise blocked the enemy’s view of them, and despite their fears, they paused for a few minutes in relative safety.”
At the southern end of the canal-ditch in the area of Frederick and Prussia Streets, where the canal forked near the train depot, the Confederates also had well aimed artillery. The Washington Artillery battalion had its 4th Company under Captain Eshleman with two 12-pound howitzers and two 12-pound Napoleon cannons. They were located on the southern extreme of Willis Hill, just opposite the exit point for the Union troops as they left the city. Just to the north of them were two 12-pound Napoleons under Captain Miller’s 3rd Company. Further north was Captain Squires with his 10-pound Parrott and 3-inch rifle. These Confederate guns had a range of 1,100 to 1,200 yards to where the Union troops exited the city near the train depot. In addition, the Confederates had the rifled guns, mainly 10 and 30-pound Parrott’s, located on Lee’s Hill. These were sighted perfectly to fire down the unfinished railroad bed. These guns ranged about 2,200 yards to the train depot and less to the unfinished railroad bed. A very unpleasant welcoming committee to this axis of Union advance. The following map displays the route used by Stockton’s 3rd Bde, 1st Div, 5th Corps, shows use of Frederick St-RxR Depot-Prussia St axis of advance.

4---Prussia-St-attack-route webMap of Union advance of Stockton’s 3rd Bde, 1st Div, 5th Corps, shows use of Frederick-RxR Depot-Prussia St axis of advance

The Fourteenth Indiana Regiment was in the first Union assault that emanated from this location. They marched south on Caroline Street and turned right onto Prussia going past the train depot. Prussia Street appeared to be an “alley headed straight to Marye’s Heights”. After crossing the canal, in an open field immediately beyond the canal, three large shells burst among the tightly packed ranks of the Indiana troops, killing and wounding many. Shortly afterward, Private Edward Spangler of Company K, 130th Pennsylvania Volunteers observed, “When we came to the street in which the railroad station stood [Prussia Street] leading directly to the range of hills covered with Confederate infantry and artillery, howling projectiles made great gaps in the ranks of our division. The fire was too hot and destructive for some soldiers who, convinced that “absence of body is better than presence of mind” sought shelter behind a brick ware-house. I would have given all my possessions, which were nil, as well as those of my relations, present and prospective, could I have honorably followed suit…”
“Emerging into the open we were about to deploy in line of battle under a deadly fire, when we encountered a mill-race or canal, from four to six feet deep and fifteen feet wide, which ran clear around the city in the rear… It was impassable, except at the few street bridges, some of which had nothing left but stringers over which we had to pass in single file. It was first discovered in our division by the head of column, and was a most serious and embarrassing obstacle, and very disconcerting under a raking storm of projectiles…”
But where was the canal-ditch in the Hanover Street area? Generally, it is said to be aligned under modern Kenmore Avenue. While this is true, there are some important differences at the junction of Kenmore Avenue and Hanover Street. The visitor signs located at the corner of those roads are misleading, adding to the confusion. The deviation from modern Kenmore Avenue begins 200 yards to the north near William Street. The actual alignment ran rather through the park to the east, until it reached Hanover Street after which the canal-ditch, now a buried box culvert, rejoins Kenmore 50 yards to the south. This area has been known locally for many years as Sandy Bottom. At one point in the distant past, the Rappahannock River flowed here rather than in its current channel.

5---Signs-at-Kenmore_Hanover webCivil War information signs at corner of Kenmore Avenue and Hanover Street

With the help of Eric Nelson, Deputy Director and Senior Planner for the City of Fredericksburg, I came upon a set of engineering drawings formally known as the Reinforced Boxed Drain, Kenmore Avenue, dated 22 April 1929. These clearly demonstrate that the Kenmore/Hanover location is where the important divergence of the canal-ditch from Kenmore Avenue occurs.

6---box-culvert-title-sheet webBox culvert title sheet

7---box-culvert-engineer-drawing webBox culvert engineering drawing showing original alignment of canal-ditch

8---Kenmore-topo-webGIS topo of Kenmore Avenue with canal-ditch superimposed

9---Kenmore-photo-overlay-web2012 photo overlay on GIS topo map of Kenmore avenue with canal-ditch superimposed

Why is this important? The artillery could fire on the Union regiments stacked up on rising terrain between the city building and the canal-ditch. This amounted to some 300 yards of mixed urban and open terrain.
Secondly, there would not have been sufficient space for the Union regiments to reform safely and without confusion under the bluff. Had the canal-ditch been along the alignment of what Kenmore is today, given the crowding that occurred as more and more men reached the west side of the canal-ditch would have compounded the command and control problems that the Union leadership experienced on the day of the battle.
The following pastoral view of the canal-ditch was taken sometime after the Civil War, in the section of the canal between Hanover and William Street looking to the north, about where the alignment deviation begins. The canal-ditch appears to be narrower than the reported 15 feet thanks to the aquatic plants growing along the edges, but an obstacle to movement nonetheless. The trees seen in the background to the right are possibly located in the city cemetery just north of William Street.

10---Albert-Kern-collection webCanal-ditch between Hanover and William Streets, view to the north

Three major Union assaults against the Sunken Road crossed this terrain passing out along Hanover and George Streets. The assaults were commanded in turn by Generals Hancock, Howard, and Humphreys. These amounted to six brigades with a total of 29 regiments. A total of 15-20,000 troops were funneled through this avenue of attack over an eight hour period. Most soldiers made it across; far fewer soldiers made the return journey. The 19th Massachusetts observed that the bridge was crowded with “fugitives, wounded men and stretcher bearers” so they choose rather to cross via the canal-ditch.

11---Hanover-engr-detail-webBox culvert Engineering detail at junction of Kenmore Avenue and Hanover Street

The following map overlay from the city of Fredericksburg Geographic Information System (GIS) survey helps place things in proper perspective. This more detailed view is taken from the same GIS information but at 62.5 feet to an inch. The accompanying aerial photo is dated 2012 which was the date of the aerial survey.

12---Hanover-photo-overlay-web2012 photo overlay of Kenmore-Hanover junction detailing canal-ditch alignment

13---Hanover-topo-webGIS topo of Kenmore-Hanover junction detailing canal-ditch alignment

This recent photo was taken on May 24, 2014. You can clearly see the alignment of the canal now in the box culvert. Note the storm drains and manhole cover. Over the years, many have accompanied Frank O’Reilly, NPS Historian, on his Annual December 13th Battle Walk following the path of the Irish Brigade. You may remember that he usually makes a stop in the parking lot of the 1st Union Bank where he describes the trial of the Union troops at this point.

14---Hanover-bridge-today-webHanover Street Bridge location as of 2014. Box culvert lies immediately below the road and small park.

15---Hanover-bridge-drawing webHanover Street Bridge as it might have looked in December1862

The above photos are of the area where the Hanover Street Bridge was located. In it I have pointed out the manhole cover and storm drain which feed the buried canal box culvert. I also attempted to show the canal-ditch with water (blue) in it as well as the stringers in light brown, which the men would have had to cross.
For those wishing a more detailed account of these attacks, read Frank O’Reilly’s book The Fredericksburg Campaign; Winter on the Rappahannock. (
I will have more on Confederate artillery in a future post.
Harrison, N., Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, Volume 2, E. Howard, Lynchburg, P. 160
Owen, W., In Camp and Battle with the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, Originally published by Tucknor and Co, Boston, 1885, republished Louisiana State University Press, 1999. P. 185.
Marshall. M., Gallant Creoles, A History of the Donaldsonville Canonniers, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2013, P. 140.
Wise, J., The Long Arm of Lee, Volume 1, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1991. P. 387.
Fuller, C., Personal Recollections of the War of 1861, A Reprint by Edmonston Publishing, Inc, Hamilton, NY, 1990. P. 79
Pride, M. and Travis, M., My Brave Boys; To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth, Univ. Press of New England, Hanover and London, 2001. P. 171.
History Committee, History of the Nineteenth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865, Salem Press Co, Salem, Mass., 1909. P. 179.
Baxter, N, Gallant Fourteenth, A Story of an Indiana Civil War Regiment, Guild Press of Indiana, 1991, P. 117.
Spangler, E., My Little War Experience with Historical Sketches and Memorabilia, York Daily Publishing Co, York, PA, 1904, P. 64.



About Peter Glyer

I am retired with a lifelong interest in history, primarily the Civil War and WWII - Europe. I was an Army engineer, hence my interest in terrain. I graduated with a degree in City and Regional Planning and a Masters in International Relations.
This entry was posted in Confederate Artillery, Terrain, Weapons and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Canal-ditch or Millrace

  1. Pingback: Lower Fredericksburg | Mercer Square

  2. joemaghe says:

    Excellent modern days views here with a very helpful historical overlay. Thanks, Pete, nicely done.


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