150 Years Ago: Pontoon bridges over the Potomac

Strategic mobility.  That’s what the pontoon bridges provided the Army of the Potomac.  I’ve written at length about the bridges used in June 1863 at Edwards Ferry.   But that is getting ahead a year in sesquicentennial coverage.

The important pontoon bridges in the last week of October 1862 were over the Potomac at Berlin, Maryland and Harpers Ferry, Virginia (it was still Virginia then).   A series of photos of bridges at Berlin (now days it is Brunswick) capture what those bridges looked like.  Most captions provided for these photos indicate they were taken by Alexander Gardner in October-November 1862.  However, I’ve seen a few places where these are cited as part of the July 1863 crossing at the same place in the aftermath of Gettysburg.  I’m apt to accept the former date.

I find this photo remarkable for many reasons.  There’s a lot of “action” implied here, particularly with the wagon train in the foreground.  Look closely at that.

There are three means of transportation in evidence here – wagon, train, and canal.  See the box cars?  Means the B&O was already repaired from any damage done in September.  The “iron horse” brought supplies to the Army of the Potomac. Those railroad tracks, or at least the modern version of them, are still at Brunswick today.

Look closely to the upper left corner… or here’s a better view.

Appears the wagons are being loaded directly from the box cars.

And looking up to the houses behind that, just before the destroyed bridge’s piers, sites Lock 30 on the C&O.

The near side pontoon bridge abutments are obscured by the bank of the canal towpath.

There was a significant slope down from the towpath to the river.  And file this away as we discuss below – the landing for the bridge to the right has a tree next to the river bank and some sort of lift next to it.  There’s a lot of brush between the two bridges.  There’s also another tree on the land-side of the canal, roughly the same height as the other tree.

Looking across the river, there is one of those “ghost” blurs often seen on glass plate, time exposure negatives.

That must be a wagon train finishing its crossing.

Notice the detail on the landing of the far side.  The pontoon bridges reach Virginia on a spit of land sticking out from the shore.

And look to the left of that at the houses on the distant bank.

Follow the bridge piers across.  The last one, actually on the Virginia shore, appears to have walls on the superstructure.  There are two, maybe three, structures where the old bridge ran through.  I can feel the warmth of the fireplace in that house in the lower center, even through 150 years.

An Edwin Forbes drawing depicting the scene on October 27, 1862, looks at first glance to be a pencil version of the Gardner photo.

But, Forbes shows only one pontoon bridge in place.  So, does this validate the time of Gardner’s photo or not?

There there are more photos of Berlin’s pontoon bridges, or I should say bridge, to consider.  One copy at the Library of Congress collection is from a book of illustrations.  The photo was taken looking from Virginia back to Maryland.  While crisp, I’m not fond of that view, as it does not show the working details I love to pick up.  Instead I like this one from nearly the same angle:

This is the messy “business” side that I like to examine.  Movement going on to the left.  Good close up of the pontoon bridge landing.  Likely someone will chime in to say the mounted guy on the right is one of Gardner’s assistants.   The only down side is the resolution is not sufficient to allow picking off details on the far shore.   But this is the “spit” of land seen in the first photo above.  But again, just one pontoon bridge.

And another view from the Virginia shore:

Remember the houses referenced above?  Those structures match right up to the outer wings.  No comfy fire going in the house though.  And there’s the bridge pier with “walls” right at the end of the old bridge abutment.  But again, just one pontoon bridge.  Let’s look closer.

Follow up from the two individuals standing at the old bridge abutment/pier.  Look to the Maryland shore.  There is a tall tree on the river side of the towpath, with brush between there and the single pontoon bridge.  Where the second bridge should be, there are a couple of box shaped items laying on the bank.

Those boxes also appear in the other “Virginia side” photograph, just to the right of the guard on the bridge.

In profile, there are the two trees, one by the river and the other a bit further back.

My explanation?  According to McClellan’s report of operations, a pontoon bridge went across at Berlin on October 25.  The Ninth Corps crossed on October 26 and 27, which is what Forbes depicted.  So perhaps Gardner took one series of photos around that time but from the Virginia shore.  Later, after the engineers placed a second bridge, he went back to the Maryland side and took another photo.  If so, the “Virginia side” photos mentioned above may capture the engineers laying out equipment for that second pontoon bridge.

Looking at the site today, the river shoreline has shifted.  The “spit” of land is gone.  But it is not hard to pinpoint where Gardner put his camera.  Or where Forbes sat to make his sketch. And knowing those locations, we could say with some accuracy the location of those pontoon bridges…. Bridges that transported the Army of the Potomac from one great battle to the next.

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12 responses to “150 Years Ago: Pontoon bridges over the Potomac

  1. Pingback: Bridging- then and… way back then | Bring the heat, Bring the Stupid

  2. ultimaratioregis

    Craig,

    Took a look from the link on Brad’s place. That is absolutely fascinating. We routinely discount the ingenuity and labor capacity of our ancestors in arms. One can wonder whether we have the know-how or the manpower to do something like this today if we lost our bridging assets, or had requirements in excess of capability.

  3. Craig,

    Excellent work on piecing together what was going on and when.

  4. Craig,

    Living in Prince George, VA I am always fascinited with the bridging exploits of the AOP. I really enjoy following the path from the Rapidan and Rappahannock to the North Anna and the valley of the Pamunkey all the way to Wind Mill Point on the James. I don’t know if you ever made it there before it closed but when Flowerdew Hundred was open you could take a tour to the shoreline which was the southern terminus of the James River Bridge with the swing out middle section so traffic could make its way to Bermuda Hundred. It was an awesome piece of combat engineering.

    Buck Buchanan

  5. Thank you for this very informative post. If I may ask what photo editing program are you using to get such quality closeups from old plate photos?

    • I’m downloading the originals from the LOC website, then simply cropping them where needed. The photos on the LOC site are offered in various resolutions. I’ll pull the highest and edit from there.

  6. Pingback: Marching BACK through Loudoun: Return of the Army of the Potomac | To the Sound of the Guns

  7. Pingback: Connections Between the Civil War and Today With Engineering | English 1000 blog

  8. Where exactly can I find specific dimensions and specifications of civil war pontoon bridges?

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