Tag Archives: Ambrose Burnside

150 years ago: Canvas or wood for your pontoons?

As our attention turns to Fredericksburg, the topic of pontoon bridges enters the sesquicentennial threads.  I’ve discussed the nature of constructing these bridges in detail, with respect to those placed at Edwards Ferry in June 1863.  We think of the wooden pontoons most often within the context of the Civil War.  Big wooden boats like the ones on display at Chatham overlooking Fredericksburg today.

Chatham 13 Dec 014

These were not the only type of boats used for pontoon bridging during the Civil War.  One alternative was a frame, either wood or iron, with either canvas or rubber covering.  An example of the frame with canvas type appears in a wartime photo taken at Rappanannock Station in 1864.

Almost looks like it was setup on some display just for the benefit of the photographer!

The canvas boat was of course lighter and easily broken down for transport.  But there were some down sides to canvas boats.  A message from Major (or was it Brigadier?) General Horatio Wright to Major General William Rosecrans in early December 1862.

I’m pulling this message out of context, so some background is in order.  Considering his orders and line of march, Rosecrans decided the Army of the Cumberland, or Fourteenth Corps if you prefer, needed a pontoon bridge set.  He figured on about 700 feet of bridging.  Authorities in Washington approved, and directed Rosecrans to order the equipment from Cincinnati, where engineers in General Wright’s Department of the Ohio could supervise the outfitting.  There was some back and forth about the type of boat to issue – wood or canvas.  The preference of the Army’s engineers is apparent in Wright’s response on December 7, 1862:

Canvas boats are not so reliable as wooden ones. Unless great care is used, canvas necessarily mildews and then soon rots. If used by soldiers for shelter, it would soon become damaged for boats. It is not entirely water-proof, even after it lies in the water some time. It is doubtful whether canvas boats are as reliable in ordinarily rapid streams as wooden ones, especially if the bridge’s required to serve a long time, as on a line of communication. Canvas is more easily punctured and worn by floating bodies, and requires to be taken out of the bridge to be well repaired. It takes more time to unload, put together, and launch a canvas boat than to simply unload and launch a wooden one. According to Duane’s book, a canvas boat train requires as many wagons to transport it as a wooden one. Wooden boats can be produced here as rapidly as canvas ones, and are rapidly calked and repaired when leaky, provided they are made of seasoned timber. Wooden boats are much better for use as boats, or to combine into rafts. Unless for a very short campaign, with careful and experienced engineer troops, I would advise the adoption of wooden boats. Buell’s pontoons were made of green lumber. We can get seasoned now. Shall I order wood or canvas?

The reference of “Duane’s book” is, I believe, to the Manual for Engineer Troops by Captain James C. Duane.  As an instructor on various engineering topics, Duane had the opportunity to research pontoon bridging, compare to practices in other armies, and experiment with different materials.

I could probably pull another dozen pages from the manuals and wartime accounts to further illustrate respective advantages and disadvantages of wooden boats vs. canvas frame boats for pontoons.  Wood, at least seasoned wood, was more durable and required less maintenance.  Not mentioned, but cited in the engineering manuals of the day, wood stood up well against rocky stream bottoms, where canvas ripped.

With respect to the number of wagons needed, there’s a lot of other factors that were not considered with Wright’s response.  Duane indicated a wooden boat, or “French style,” pontoon train required 34 wagons each loaded with a pontoon boat, seven balks, numerous lashings, oars, boat-hooks, and an anchor.  On the other hand the canvas train required 29 wagons each with a canvas pontoon, trestle, with balks, oars, and boat-hooks.  Notice the canvas boat wagons included some, if not all, the superstructure of the bridge.  The wooden pontoons, being fixed size and structure, were much more bulky on the road.  The wagon carrying the canvas pontoon was smaller and lighter.

Wartime experience called upon some reassessment in regards to the preference of materials.  In 1869, a board of engineers submitted a new manual covering bridging operations (eventually approved and published in 1870).  The board noted:

With regard to the canvas boat, it soon became apparent that it was precisely what we required for our advance-guard train. It is light, simple, strong, easily repaired, and when packed can safely be transported with the superstructure of the bridge as rapidly as any column of troops can move.

The board of officers submitting this manual included Duane.  The board also noted that the canvas bridging also worked well for expedient ferry operations.

I’ve found no direct record to confirm the type of pontoons delivered to Rosecrans.  The Army of the Cumberland used both types at times later in the war, for what it is worth.

But turning back to the Eastern Theater for a moment – what if  Major General Burnside’s pontoon train had included a set of these “advance guard” canvas pontoon boats?

150 Years Ago: Hard war or conventions of war at Fredericksburg?

On this day, November 21, in 1862, Major General Edwin V. Sumner forwarded this demand to the city officials in Fredericksburg:

Mayor and Common Council of Fredericksburg:

GENTLEMEN: Under cover of the houses of your city, shots have been tired upon the troops of my command. Your mills and manufactories are furnishing provisions and the material for clothing for armed bodies in rebellion against the Government of the United States. Your railroads and other means of transportation are removing supplies to the depots of such troops. This condition of things must terminate, and, by direction of General Burnside, I accordingly demand the surrender of the city into my hands, as the representative of the Government of the United States, at or before 5 o’clock this afternoon.

Failing an affirmative reply to this demand by the hour indicated, sixteen hours will be permitted to elapse for the removal from the city of women and children, the sick and wounded and aged, &c., which period having expired, I shall proceed to shell the town. Upon obtaining possession of the city, every necessary means will be taken to preserve order and secure the protective operation of the laws and policy of the United States Government.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

E. V. SUMNER,
Bvt. Maj. Gen., U.S. Army, Commanding Right Grand Division.

Backing up the demand with iron, Sumner ordered up two batteries.

The reply from Mayor Montgomery Slaughter arrived later in the day.  After complaining of delays with delivery of the demand, and repeating the demands for clarity, Slaughter responded to the conditions noted by Sumner:

In reply, I have to say that this communication did not reach me in time to convene the council for its consideration, and to furnish a reply by the hour indicated (5 p.m.). It was sent to me through the hands of the commanding officer of the army of the Confederate States near this town, to whom it was first delivered, by consent of General Patrick, who bore it from you, as I am informed, and I am authorized by the commander of the Confederate Army to say that there was no delay in passing it through his hands to me.

In regard to the matters complained of by you, the firing of shots upon your troops occurred upon the northern suburbs of the town, and was the act of the military officer commanding the Confederate forces near here, for which matter [neither] the citizens nor civil authorities of this town are responsible. In regard to the other matters of complaint, I am authorized by the latter officer to say that the condition of things therein complained of shall no longer exist; that your troops shall not be fired on from this town; that the mills and manufactories here will not furnish any further supplies of provisions or material for clothing for the Confederate troops, nor will the railroads or other means of transportation here convey supplies from the town to the depots of said troops.

You must be aware that there will not be more than three or four hours of daylight within the sixteen hours given by you for the removal of the sick and wounded, the women and children, the aged and infirm from this place; and I have to inform you that, while there is no railroad transportation accessible to the town, because of the interruption thereof by your batteries, all other means of transportation within the town are so limited as to render the removal of the classes of persons spoken of, within the time indicated, an utter impossibility.

The assurances and explanations assuaged Sumner, who then replied:

Your letter of this afternoon is at hand, and, in consideration of your pledges that the acts complained of shall cease, and that your town shall not be occupied by any of the enemy’s forces, and your assertion that a lack of transportation renders it impossible to remove the women, children, sick, wounded, and aged, I am authorized to say to you that our batteries will not open upon your town at the hour designated.

General Patrick will meet a committee or representative from your town to-morrow morning at 9 o’clock, at the Lacy house.

Despite the tone of compromise in the last message, there were still details to work out and a few misunderstandings to resolve.  More negotiations took place the following day, and only then was the city spared the threat of bombardment (for the time being).

Not reflected in the dialog between Sumner and Slaughter was the input given by General Robert E. Lee, who had arrived outside Fredericksburg along with the lead elements of General James Longstreet’s corps.  Lee’s response was to withdraw his troops from the city and not use the city for military purposes.  Lee did, however, reserve the option to counter any move by the Federals into the city.  In short, Lee proposed, that while the city remained between the two armies, it would be spared the ravages of war.

Wishful thinking.  Perhaps the dialog reflected notions of earlier times – that warfare was an activity confined to the battlefields and fought out between organized armies.  (Although I’d be the first to point out such a time scarcely existed at any point in history!)  The “rules of war,” or more so the conventions of war, required the protection of civilians and private property.

Sumner’s initial demands had the weight of “hard war” in them.  Fredericksburg was an instrument of war as much as the Army of Northern Virginia was.  But Sumner, at heart, was not a true practitioner of “hard war.”  Perhaps John Pope or William Sherman would have responded with harsher terms, or followed through with more resolve.  Not “Bull Head” Sumner.

On the other hand, Robert E. Lee was willing to cast aside the conventions of war.  Within a few weeks, Lee changed the situation by not only reoccupying Fredericksburg, but fortifying it.  Lee was leading an army at the front of a rebellion and could little afford to give the enemy an opening.  Lee would put Fredericksburg back into the crucible of war.  There would be no safe zones on the Rappahannock in December 1862.

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Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 21, Serial 31, pages 783-758.   Also see Frank O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), pages 36-37.

150 years ago: Moving trains by water to supply the army

Yesterday I left off noting that armies on the move need support in order to keep up momentum.  Even without suggesting General Sumner should have crossed the Rappahannock and occupied Fredericksburg – just to stay in front of Fredericksburg – the Army of the Potomac needed logistic support.  To continue the offensive, the army needed everything from axle grease to hard tack to bullets, and even more in-between.

However by early November 1862, the logistic tail following the Army of the Potomac lay back along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.  Engines and their rolling stock worked the rails extending to the southwest of Alexandria.  With the change of objective, the army no longer needed depots at places like Manassas Junction or Warrenton.  Rather the army needed a line running due south towards Fredericksburg.  For General Ambrose Burnside’s plan to reach Richmond through Fredericksburg to work, the rail road had to move.  Problem was the old Fredericksburg railroad was not in shape to support anything, having suffered damage due to the war.  And even if built, railroaders feared the line was exposed to irregular activity.

To resolve the problem, the U.S. Military Railroad came up with a novel solution.  General Herman Haupt wrote of this in his reminiscences:

The reconstruction of the wharves and track from Acquia Creek to Fredericksburg was prosecuted with unprecedented expedition.  It was on November 10 that I directed W.W. Wright to hold himself in readiness to commence work so soon as General Halleck should decide upon its necessity. It was November 11 when a telegram was sent to Colonel Belger at Baltimore to provide canal boats, and five days later, November 17, considerable progress had already been made in the work of reconstruction.  The Superintendent reported that, in five days after commencement, a section of the wharf 1,000 feet long was completed, and a locomotive and cars landed and trains commenced running to Potomac Creek.  In five days more trains were running to the Rappahannock.

The Schuylkill barges answered admirably, and thus was formed a new era in Military Railroad transportation.  Two of these barges were placed parallel to each other and long timbers bolted transversely.  The length of the barges was sufficient for eight tracks carrying eight cars, and two such floats would carry the sixteen cars which constituted a train.

In this way hundreds of loaded cars were transferred from the advanced location of the Army, on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, loaded on the floats, towed sixty miles to Acquia Creek, transferred from river to rail, and sent to Falmouth without break of bulk, in about the same time required to march the army across the country by land.  Supplies were at Falmouth as soon as there were forces there for their protection.

We might fact-check Haupt’s claim about the arrival of supplies and troops coinciding.  Still the point made is valid – the railroad system shifted with remarkable speed and flexibility.  While the repair of port facilities was certainly nothing new, the use of barges to move the rolling stock was a new practice at the military operational level.

One wartime photo shows a pair of barges, as described by Haupt, with eight box-cars loaded.

Rolling stock on barges

Another wartime photo shows perhaps a variation on the theme – three lashed barges with more tracks.

Three barge floats

I’ll defer to the railroading experts out there.  But this seems to me a likely means to transport the heavier locomotives.

As a “trained” logistician, I’d point out the genius of this operation was not just floating the rolling stock, but alluded to in Haupt’s closing – no breaking of bulk cargo.  In other words, the cars were packed at a depot or warehouse and then shipped directly to the front without cross packing.  Such was a significant time savings. And time is everything when discussing transportation and logistics in the military context.

Fast forward a little over eighty years.  Different location, similar logistic problem, but larger scale.  For the armies going into Normandy in June 1944, logistic support was more so a monumental task.  A modern mechanized army requires more than just hay and hardtack.  No doubt, you’ve seen the D-Day documentaries that cite tens of millions of tons of supplies going ashore at the Mulberry harbors.  But just getting those supplies to the beach didn’t meet the needs of the front line soldier.  As the beachhead enlarged and extended, the supplies had to be transported over one-hundred miles (excuse me… kilometers) to the front line areas.  As with the Civil War days, the logisticians needed to save time by avoiding the practice of breaking bulk.  So they did this:

Rails allowed the LST to carry the cars from English ports to the French beaches.  There the LST opened its bow doors and the stock rolled down onto a pre-fabricated line across the beach.

Take away the trucks and helmets, and you have a scene not too far removed from Acquia Landing in November 1862.