Crossing the Pontoons: Forbes recalls his crossing of the James

Edwin Forbes was among the best known illustrators of the Civil War.  Working for Frank Leslie’s Magazine, Forbes produced some vivid drawings depicting the action… and inaction… of life with the armies.  Forbes also provided a great narrative of his wartime experiences in Thirty Years After: An Artist’s Memoir of the Civil War.  Here’s his account of crossing the James River, 150 years ago:

A most interesting movement in my army experience was the crossing of the James River during the advance of the Army of the Potomac on Petersburg. The longest pontoon bridge that was build during the war was here made use of, and was crossed by the left wing of the army, while the right wing made use of steamboats further up the river near City Point.

I took position near the head of the bridge, and watched the column in its course. Regiments of infantry came surging along at route step, ragged and footsore, their faces much discolored with powder-stain and dust.  Officers were scarcely discernible from privates.  The latter were laden with all kinds of traps and plunder, and the pack mules and horses had more than the usual burden.  Everything bore the terrible imprint of a month’s hard fighting, and made sad contrast to the hopeful men who in new uniforms had so recently started out from the winter camp near Culpepper, under the great commander, Grant.  The forces had been terribly reduced in numbers, but with the same determined spirit that always pervaded the troops, even in defeat, the column marched promptly and cheerfully forward. Out from the shore was a fleet of war vessels to protect the bridge, and upon one of them was a group of newly and jauntily dressed sailors, who had evidently experienced no hard service. With open-eyed wonder they watched the progress of the column, and laughed loudly at the grotesqueness that misfortune had given to many groups of soldiers. There was indeed great contrast in the two arms of the service, but my heart went out in sympathy to the poor fellows with tattered clothing and blackened faces. All day the throng poured over the bridge, and with each moment came changing scenes. This was heightened by the many steamboats and sailing crafts anchored in the river, and on the steep bluff of the farther bank arose Fort Powhatan, an abandoned earthwork, which had been thrown up by the Rebs to dispute the ascent of the stream.  Low muttering like distant thunder was after a time heard from the southwest; the advance had arrived at Petersburg.

But before long the sun sank into the rest, and evening brought a beautiful picture. Hundreds of bright camp fires on the river bank lit up the bridge, which, with the colored lights flung out from the vessels, looked like fairyland. The trains clattered noisily along, and the many sounds of a moving army rose in the still night air, and were accompanied by the boom of distant cannon – that solemn suggestion of deadly conflict. Long into the night I watched this moving panorama, until from sheer exhaustion I sought repose.

One view of the crossing of the James, 150 years ago.

(Citation from Forbes, Edwin. Thirty Years After: An Artist’s Memoir of the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993, pages 189-90.)

 

About these ads

One response to “Crossing the Pontoons: Forbes recalls his crossing of the James

  1. Clark B. Hall

    Craig, it seems Edwin Forbes could write almost as well he could sketch..

    I was struck, by comparison, when reading Forbes’ eloquent description of Union infantry on the move with a piece Ernie Pyle wrote about American infantry marching through Tunisia in 1943..

    “Their walk is slow for they are dead weary… Every line and sag of their bodies speaks their human exhaustion.. They don’t slouch. It is the terrible deliberation of each step that spells out their appalling tiredness. Their faces are black and unshaven… In they eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory–there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.. The line moves on, but it never ends. All afternoon men keep coming found the hill and vanishing eventually over the horizon.”

    One believes Edwin Forbes and Ernie Pyle would have enjoyed a beer together.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s