History buff traces Civil War role of C&O Canal

December 09, 2011|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Author Tim Snyder of Hagerstown says he worked on his book for 14 years.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

And along the path, he came across historical markers relating events that occurred on the canal during the Civil War.

"Those iron markers created curiosity about what happened to the canal during the Civil War," Snyder said. "But I couldn't find more information."

Snyder's childhood curiosity and lifelong interest in local history eventually led him to write "Trembling in the Balance: The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal during the Civil War." The book is a readable, carefully researched account of the importance of the canal to both sides in the Civil War. The book was published this year.

Snyder, 50, was still a boy when he became something of a history buff. When going on family vacations, he and his brother obsessed on historical markers.

"We took a lot of driving vacations. We drove and camped," Snyder said, who lives in Hagerstown. "Whenever we saw a historical marker, my brother and I would say, 'Stop, stop.'"

So, when he pursued an advanced degree at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, he sought a history degree. Sparked by those old iron markers along the towpath — and the lack of information on the topic — Snyder chose the role of the C&O Canal during the Civil War as his master's thesis topic.

Snyder received his master's degree in 1999 and immediately decided to expand the thesis into a book. But he reorganized it.

"This book is entirely different. My thesis was organized by topics. I continued my research and wrote it chronologically, in more of a narrative," he said.

It was a long, difficult slog. Snyder said almost nothing had been written about the role of the canal during the war.

"I read ';The Great National Project' (a general history of the canal) and a couple articles on the canal in the Civil War in West Virginia History magazine," he said. "They only covered 1860 and '61. There was nothing in detail about the whole war."

Snyder took a dozen years to complete the book.

Research took him to the National Archives, where the National Park Service keeps all its records, including all the records of the C&O Canal. He also consulted the records of Alfred Spates, president of the canal during the war; the 128-volume "Official Records of the War of the Rebellion"; and personal correspondence and diaries of political leaders and soldiers during the Civil War.

Along the way, he received encouragement from Tom Clemens, history professor at Hagerstown Community College, from John Frye of the Western Maryland Historical Library in Hagerstown and from the first editor Snyder contacted at West Virginia University Press.

Snyder said he initially wanted to work with a university press, because that would give his book a more scholarly reputation.

Snyder had his share of disappointments. The first editor at WVU Press was replaced with another editor, who canceled Snyder's project. One professional reviewer, asked to evaluate Snyder's book, said it was too much like a collection of notes and had too many quotations in it. Snyder revised his book, but then another reviewer looked at the new version and said it was too dry. It needed more quotes. Snyder was frustrated.

"I was having trouble with publishers," he said. "I think everybody considered this a niche audience."

And then he had a spot of luck. Karen Gray, a volunteer at C&O canal visitors center in Williamsport, told Snyder that Walter Chalkley, editor of Blue Mustang Press in Massachusetts, had been in the visitors center looking for C&O Canal material to publish. Gray knew Snyder was working on something.

"Initially, I was reluctant," Snyder said. "Blue Mustang was primarily a publisher of juvenile fiction. They have some of the 'Misty of Chincoteague' books."

But Snyder contacted Chalkley, and Blue Mustang eventually published his book. "Trembling in the Balance" is now available at

Snyder said he was happy to have completed the project.

"I guess that I was determined, going through all those trials and errors," he said. "A lot of people write theses, but few follow through to turning that into a book like I did."

Snyder has held book signings around the area, including a recent signing at Turn The Page Bookstore in Boonsboro.

But life goes on. In his day job, Snyder works for United Healthcare in Frederick, Md., but he also lectures and writes about the area's history. He works intermittently with the Catoctin Center for Regional Studies at Frederick Community College and has been writing and editing content for a not-yet-active website called Crossroads of War: Community and Civil War on the Maryland Border.

And he plans to continue writing books.

"Writing is a process, a craft you learn by doing. I wasn't very good at first," he said. "I worked on (my first book) 14 years, counting the MA program. I also wrote articles that spun off the research I was doing on the book. As I wrote articles, I got better at writing."

Snyder said he has ideas for other books. He's working on another canal-related book — "The Winter Expeditions of Stonewall Jackson: Jackson's Raids on Dam Number 5, Dam Number 4, Bath, Hancock and Romney." He said it is about 80 percent complete.

"They tell me the first one is the hardest," he said. "But I'm not intimidated by the blank page."

About the author

Author: Timothy R. Snyder

Title: "Trembling in the Balance: The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal During the Civil War"

Genre: History

Pages: 345

Price: $22.95

Website: available online at, and Barnes

Available locally at: Turn the Page Bookstore in Boonsboro, Williamsport C&O Canal visitors center, the Harpers Ferry Historical Association bookstore, and copies are available to borrow from branches of Washington County Free Library

The C&O Canal at the start of the Civil War

Put yourself in Maryland in early 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War. Maryland, which considered itself a Southern state, was an unsettled place to be. Emotions ran high, and opinions were polarized — some people favoring the Confederacy, some the Union.

By March, seven Southern states had seceded from the United States. Maryland didn't secede, due at least in part to scheduling — at that time, the state Legislature met only in even years and wasn't scheduled to convene until 1862.

Southern sympathizers pressured Gov. Thomas Holliday Hicks to call a special session to discuss secession, but he declined.

Then, in mid-April, South Carolina attacked Union soldiers at Fort Sumter. Virginia sent soldiers to capture the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, which was then still Virginia. And federal soldiers were attacked in Baltimore.

Hicks agreed to hold a special session of the Legislature in Frederick, Md., away from federal troops in Annapolis. The Legislature met and, in May, called for the recognition of the Confederacy as an independent nation. The Legislature also declared the presence of federal troops in the state unconstitutional.

And then the Confederate Army did almost everything it could to make Maryland residents angry at the Confederacy. The sticking point? The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, stretching across the border between Union states and Confederate states.

The canal was considered by Confederates a crucial Union supply route — something to block or destroy. To Marylanders, the canal was a vital commercial delivery route — something to keep open. In "Trembling in the Balance," Tim Snyder said Washington County was described in the Washington Evening Star newspaper as the "chief flour, grain and produce" supplier to Washington, D.C.

Confederate soldiers repeatedly detained canal boats, stole or destroyed supplies and destroyed portions of the canal, and this contributed to Marylanders' decision to join the Union.

— Chris Copley

The Herald-Mail Articles