Marching BACK through Loudoun: Return of the Army of the Potomac

Careful you don’t get whiplash as I shift between theaters. Last month I offered a series of posts detailing the movement of the Army of the Potomac through Loudoun. But let’s not forget the Army of the Potomac came back through Loudoun during the later half of July 1863. My research into that movement is not as thorough, however, as the Edwards Ferry crossings in June. At some point in the future, I’ll resolve that deficiency. But for now, let me call out movements from 150 years ago today (June 17) and mention the bridging operations that facilitated that movement. And just as during the June crossings going north, the bridges were vital to the return going south.

We last discussed the pontoon bridges, the engineers took them up at Edwards Ferry on June 28. About a thousand feet of bridging, from a set not used at Edwards Ferry, followed the Army into Maryland. Orders were to remove the rest of the bridging for refit in Washington. But the bulk of equipment remained at the crossing site until July 4. Damage to the C&O Canal, inflicted during Major-General J.E.B. Stuart’s crossing at Rowser’s Ford, prevented the timely movement.

Brigadier-General Henry Benham, commanding the Engineer Brigade, and Army headquarters exchanged frequent messages from July 4 through July 15 about the bridging equipment. At some point I need to offer a detailed analysis of those. But the bottom line is that Benham had repairs to make, lacked transportation, and contended with a turbulent rise of the Potomac. I don’t think the engineers could have laid any pontoon bridges earlier than completed in mid-July.

Between July 15 and morning of July 17, the engineer brigade put in bridges at Harpers Ferry (over both the Potomac and Shenandoah) and at Berlin, Maryland. On July 15, Brigadier-General Gouverneur Warren reported a “bridge over the Potomac will now let troops pass into the Shenandoah Valley.” Engineers built a pontoon bridge and repaired the railroad bridge along with a “wire bridge” at that point. Warren then turned the engineers to build a bridge over the mouth of the Shenandoah River. “We are at it,” Warren related.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ira Spaulding reported one bridge over the Potomac at Berlin was complete on the morning of July 17. The span measured 700 feet. Spaulding complained of damaged material in use that required replacement and repair. Later that day Spaulding built a second bridge there, at about the same place the engineers put in spans the previous fall to facilitate another pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia. The map below shows the operational area with key locations highlighted and yellow lines (small yellow lines) for the bridge locations.

AreaOfOpeationsJuly17

Using Harpers Ferry and Berlin afforded the Army two good crossing sites separated sufficiently to reduce congestion, while keeping units close for mutual support.

When the Army of Northern Virginia escaped across the Potomac, Major-General George Meade began shifting the Army of the Potomac to pursue. This pursuit resembled the slower pursuit offered by Major-General George McClellan the previous fall. The infantry corps moved back towards South Mountain on July 15. By July 17, the Third and Fifth Corps camped along the Potomac.

The first movement orders putting the Army’s infantry back in Loudoun came at 2 p.m. on July 17. Major General William French, commanding the Third Corps at that time, received orders to move “by the Harper’s Ferry Bridge, and across the Shenandoah at its mouth, and proceed up the Valley of Sweet Run some 3 or 4 miles, and bivouac for the night.” This was a leisurely move compared to the crossings of June. Orders urged French to bring up supplies, to include replacement equipment for the troops. By 7:40 p.m. French reported going into camp just over a mile from the Shenandoah Bridge.

July17Crossing

Although I don’t have particulars, the Fifth Corps moved across the bridges at Berlin around the same time, reaching Lovettsville on the Virginia side. So that night, 150 years ago, two Federal infantry corps were camping in Loudoun… again.

And also out that evening were marching orders for July 18. The Third Corps would move out to Hillborough, followed by the Second Corps, which was to cross at Harpers Ferry early that morning. The Twelfth Corps would hold at Harpers Ferry waiting orders to move forward.

July18Crossing

The Fifth Corps would advance from Lovettsville out to the Waterford-Hillsborough Road (the old Vestal’s Gap Road if you are following here). The First Corps received orders to cross at Berlin and march to Waterford. The Reserve Artillery would cross after the First Corps, but then fall in behind the Fifth Corps. Headquarters relocated to Lovettsville. Both Eleventh and Sixth Corps would hold at Berlin waiting instructions to cross. Lastly, the tired cavalry troopers would cover the crossing on the Maryland side.

The only major deviation to these orders came mid-day on July 18. Brigadier-General John Buford’s cavalry division slipped into line in front of the Eleventh Corps and crossed that afternoon at Berlin. Otherwise, the army spent a relatively uneventful day marching. The remainder of the Army crossed the Potomac on July 19. The Army of the Potomac stayed much shorter on this visit to Loudoun. By July 24 all of the major combat elements moved south and cleared out of the county.

Three days to cross in June. Three days to cross back in July. And some of the bloodiest fighting ever seen in between.

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