Marching Through Loudoun: June 24, 1863

Today (June 24) in 1863, from his headquarters at Fairfax Courthouse, Major-General Joseph Hooker forwarded an assessment of the situation to Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington. He dismissed any Confederate advances into Pennsylvania as only for “plunder,” and something best confronted by the militia.  In Hooker’s estimate, no other troops, save those of Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Corps, had crossed the Potomac.  Lee had over-extended, or so Hooker felt.  And Hooker was seeking out an advantage:

General French is now on his way to Harper’s Ferry, and I have given directions for the force at Poolesville to march and report to him, and also for all of Stahel’s cavalry, and, if I can do it without attracting observation, I shall send over a corps or two from here, in order, if possible, to sever Ewell from the balance of the rebel army, in case he should make a protracted sojourn with his Pennsylvania neighbors.

If the enemy should conclude not to throw any additional force over the river, I desire to make Washington secure, and, with all the force I can muster, strike for his line of retreat in the direction of Richmond.

But Hooker still had not found the opening he wanted.  So for another day the marching in Loudoun remained limited.  As indicated with his report, Hooker ordered Stahel’s cavalry division, which was for all practical purposes now the third division of the Army of the Potomac (for simplicity I’ll show that on the map now), over the Potomac in the direction of Harpers Ferry.  And as mentioned in the close of yesterday’s serial, he also ordered Eleventh Corps to move that way.

On the other end of the line, Hooker effectively broke up the division of Brigadier-General John Abercrombie.  One brigade of the division, under Brigadier-General Alexander Hays, reported to Second Corps.  The fresh Vermont Brigade, under Brigadier-General George Stannard, received the assignment to First Corps.  Another brigade had orders for Twelfth Corps, but lacked sufficient service time to make the march worthwhile.  Replacing Abercrombie’s division at Centreville, Major-General John Newton’s division from the Sixth Corps moved down from Germantown.  (You’ll also note I’ve split out the divisions of the Second Corps on today’s map.)

June24Positions

Also on June 24, a battalion of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, under Colonel Charles R. Lowell, moved to Poolesville with orders to picket river crossings from Great Falls to the Mouth of the Monocacy. They replaced the troopers of Captain Samuel McKee, previously posted at the Monocacy.

But the “big” move of the day was Eleventh Corps.  As ordered Major-General O.O. Howard received marching instructions at 9 a.m. (again, the delay in communications because of multiple telegraph, wig-wag, and courier exchanges) and started his men towards Edwards Ferry.  But even before they marched, their orders to cross the river changed.  At 7 a.m. Captain Charles Turnbull at Edwards Ferry was ordered to meet Howard and instruct the Eleventh Corps to camp at the bridges, “and not to cross without further orders.”  Howard arrived around 1 p.m.

Brigadier-General Henry Benham of the engineers continued his disagreement with headquarters into this day. If the dispatch of the previous night was not enough, he repeated his frustrations at 8:45 a.m. He had 300 engineers of the Regular battalion at Edwards Ferry.  Another 360 of the 15th New York Engineers were at the Monocacy, waiting bridging equipment.  At the Washington Navy Yard, he held 135 men to repair equipment brought up from the Rappahannock and 250 more of the 50th New York Engineers.  Benham wanted to remain in Washington, with those 385 men, to supervise the repairs, which he estimated would take a week.  Headquarters agreed to continue the repairs, but still ordered Benham to the field at Edwards Ferry.

At Edwards Ferry, one bridge remained in place, with supporting bridges over the canal and Goose Creek near the mouth. One problem facing the engineers was the heavy wagon traffic which was damaging the bridge.  Turnbull requested replacement planks and other timbers.  Those were acquired from the apparently well stocked Navy Yard and forwarded up the canal.

Also on the canal was another set of pontoons was headed up the canal to the Mouth of the Monocacy and the 15th New York.  But orders issued mid-day changed those instructions.  The second bridge would go in at Edwards Ferry, near the first.  And Major E.O. Beers of the 15th was ordered to Edwards Ferry to put the bridge in place.

Why the change?  Perhaps a series of reports from Major-General Henry Slocum that morning.  The Twelfth Corps commander reported the presence of 6,000 Confederates moving east from Snicker’s Gap and reaching Hamilton, just over the Catoctin passes from Leesburg.  Follow up reports placed Lieutenant-General Longstreet himself at Round Hill.  If true, the Confederates might attempt to push Twelfth Corps away from the fords.  And of course Hooker didn’t want to hand over a pontoon bridge, at such an advanced position like the Monocacy, to the Confederates.

Lending support to my guess, Hooker also issued orders for the Eleventh Corps to prepare to support Slocum in Leesburg, and not cross over the Potomac. At 6:00 p.m. Slocum requested that Howard’s Eleventh move to the north side of Goose Creek (over the span at the creek’s mouth) to better support him in Leesburg.  Instead, at 7:30 p.m. Hooker ordered Howard to “guard the bridge and depots at Edwards Ferry, on the north side of the Potomac at that place.”  But that order stood for four hours.  At 11:35 p.m. yet another change ordered Howard to instead, “take up the line of march early to-morrow morning for Sandy Hook, in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry, reaching that place to-morrow afternoon.”

Meanwhile, the engineers at Edwards Ferry sat on an unanswered question.  Captain Turnbull addressed this directly to Major-General Hooker at 5:15 p.m:

Which side of Goose Creek do you wish the second bridge – north or south? The present bridge is on the north side of Goose Creek, with one bridge over Goose Creek at its mouth.  Please answer at once.

That question would linger through the night and well into the next day.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part I, Serial 43, page 55; and Part III, Serial 45, pages 279, 287, and 290-1.)

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