EARLY PHOTO OF BEN BUTLER’S DUTCH GAP CANAL: RICHMOND OR BUST!

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This is may be the earliest photograph of Ben Butler’s imaginative engineering feat that was a little ahead of its time. In this large format albumen photo excavations for the “Dutch Gap Canal” are clearly still in the early stages. They still cover a broad expanse, showing some progress in the middle, though still not deep, with work crews and many horse-drawn carts hauling soil away, or ready to do so, in the foreground, sloping from right to left. Trees in the background appear to be in full foliage, and there are a good number of tents in the middle background that indicate warmer weather, and were likely exchanged for safer quarters once Confederates realized the danger and began shelling the area.

After his defeat at Drewry’s Bluff in May 1864, Butler had pulled back his Army of the James to the Bermuda Hundred Peninsula, formed by the Appomattox River along his left running down to City Point at its confluence with the James River, which snaked its way down from Richmond before making a seven-mile loop around Farrar’s Island, actually a peninsula, and along Butler’s right and then down across his rear. Butler’s main defensive line ran roughly south opposite the midpoint of Farrar’s Island. The problem was that Confederate heavy artillery and mortars opposite him controlled that loop of the river, thwarting any hope of the Union flotilla of ironclads and wooden gunboats on the James being able to move upriver in support of further operations against Richmond. Butler’s solution was to dig a canal through the narrow spit of land, called Dutch Gap, only about 200 yards wide, connecting Farrar’s Island with the mainland, thus bypassing that dangerous loop in the river. Work began August 10, 1864.

In his excellent book on photographs of the 1864-65 Virginia campaign, William Frassanito counted 29 photos taken from late October 1864 to February 1865, with the majority taken by cameramen working for the Anthonys, and just six by Gardner, Russell or unknown camera crews. Frassanito does not include this view, but it is clearly earlier than those illustrated, judging from the foliage on the trees, exposed nature of the camp, and the progress of the excavations. The condition of the photo is very good, with pleasing tones, clarity and detail. We see just some foxing in the sky portion of the image. It has been matted and nicely framed in a gilt wood frame. We have not removed it to check for a photographer’s imprint or notations.

The Dutch Gap Canal is now in the main channel of the James, but remained impassible to warships at the end of the war. Butler had planned to open it up on January 1, 1865, by blasting open its bulkhead with six tons of gunpowder. Unfortunately, what goes up tends to come down, and it did, again blocking the canal. A steamer did make its way through to Richmond in May 1865, but it was not until the 1870s that Butler’s vision came to fruition, much to the postwar economic benefit of Richmond. Butler himself had been relieved from command of the Army of the James on January 8, 1865. The canal was not his only disappointing performance, but it was effectively his last. The one bright spot to come out of it was that he had compelled the Confederate government to stop using captured U.S. black troops on work crews on fortifications under U.S. fire by putting captured Confederates to work at Dutch Gap under Confederate fire in retaliation.  [sr] [ph:L]

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