150 year ago: Bridges over the Rappahannock

I’m often inclined to put emphasis on the activities of the supporting arms in campaigns such as Chancellorsville. Not that I want to reach past the activities of the combat arms (particularly the artillery!). But the activities of signalers, engineers, and quartermasters are some of the “parts,” and in many cases valuable parts, that add up to that sum total of effort.

Henry W. Benham

 

I’ve mentioned – just mentioned a part of – the signal troops in the Chancellorsville campaign. Another branch that played a critical and often overlooked role were the engineers. Specifically those involved with bridging operations to support the advance over the Rappahannock… and then the retreat back. The official reports from Brigadier-General Henry W. Benham, commanding the Engineer Brigade, provide a table detailing bridging operations during the campaign. Here’s a reproduction of that table:

 

CvilleCpgBridges

 

Benham listed fifteen bridge operations. One of these, number nine, did not have a bridge laid but rather noted the movement of bridging equipment to Bank’s Ford. The Engineer Brigade used nine bridges, relaying five of them twice, for a total of fourteen bridge placements. And fourteen bridges pulled up when the army no longer needed them. All within the span of nine days. These bridges spanned the Rappahannock at points over thirty (river) miles apart.

 

Completion times – which I think were “weighted” to the short side – are not excessive. Benham’s table indicates most of the Fredericksburg bridges required less than an hour and a half from start to finish. That is, of course, not to say the time from initial movement to finish. Or for that matter does not address the “ordered” time for completion. Regardless, the times reported for some of these operations, such as 45 minutes at Kelly’s Ford or 1 ½ hours at United States Ford, speak to the efficiency of the engineer bridging troops.

 

 

Several of the bridging operations were conducted under Confederate guns. At Fredericksburg the engineers didn’t face as stiff resistance as the previous December, but were certainly not unopposed. Bank’s Ford crossing also saw Confederate resistance. In all the Engineer brigade casualties were one killed and three wounded. (I’d rather suffer the sore back of an engineer over the lot of some infantryman at Chancellorsville. How about you?)

In his reports, Benham relates problems, lots of problems. What part of those problems came from the friction within the army, and what part came from Benham’s flask, is hard to decide. But each of these bridges had great operational importance. Even being late and delayed, the bridges in place at Fredericksburg caused the Confederates pause. And those placed at United States Ford were “golden” when the Army of the Potomac retreated.

Looking at the number of bridges built, the times in which those were completed, the units involved, and some of the responsible officers, I cannot help but consider what those same men, officers, and equipments would be doing a little short of two months later on the Potomac.

 

(Benham’s report and the table are in OR, Series I, Volume 25, Part I, Serial 39, pages 204-216.)

 

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One response to “150 year ago: Bridges over the Rappahannock

  1. Pingback: Marching Through Loudoun: June 21, 1863 | To the Sound of the Guns

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