Both the Confederacy and the Union recognized the strategic importance of the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal?and both sides fought for control.
The Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal (A&C) provided the Confederacy the means to avoid the coastal blockade ordered by President Lincoln in late April 1861. Most all vessels, labor and provisions necessary to construct Confederate defenses in the Albemarle-Pamlico region came from Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard, and had to pass by here.
A Confederate navy was established. A steam side-wheeler and a number of canal tugs were purchased, then outfitted as gun-boats at Gosport. They proceeded down this canal to join a fleet of small vessels known as the "Mosquito Fleet."
Commercial toll traffic came to a standstill and military vessels caused such damage to the canal that Marshall Parks, Jr. wrote to Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin Wise in January 1862, pleading for funds:
"?Since the commencement of the war all the heavy ordinance and military stores have passed through this route, the vessels?being generally larger than those used for commercial purposes, have already in their hasty passage through the canal done much injury to its banks, and unless means are provided to it in common repair, it will soon become useless?"
In February 1862, Union ships defeated the Confederate naval force in the Battle of Elizabeth City. The entire Mosquito Fleet was destroyed, except for the CSS Beaufort
and the CSS Raleigh
, both of which had been outfitted at Gosport. They returned in time to participate in the famous naval engagement know as the Battle of the Monitor
and the Merrimac
With the Albemarle region firmly secure in Union hands, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Gosport and the A&C Canal fell under Union control. Defense works were erected to guard the lock at Great Bridge as skirmishes continued over control of the canal.
The Union utilized the canal to control the sound regions of North Carolina, which enabled it to block important Confederate supply lines.
Between 1861 and 1865, a total of 8,824 steamers, schooners, lighters, barges, rafts and other vessels in wartime service traveled the canal.