Edwards Ferry – Wartime Photographs

I was asked via email last week about photos of Edwards Ferry and the pontoon bridges.  As best I can tell, no photos of the Edwards Ferry pontoon bridges exist.  The closest fit I’ve found are several photos of the crossing at Berlin (modern Brunswick), Maryland in the fall of 1862, after Antietam. (I would add that some sources state these photos show the bridges at the same site during the pursuit from Gettysburg, but I’ll go with the Library of Congress description until further information comes to light.)   Two of those photos offer useful visualizations for comparison.

Pontoon Bridge at Berlin, MD

The photo, likely looking across the Potomac from the high ground above the old section of Berlin (on the left).  Also just left of center are the remains of the pre-war bridge that crossed here.  The two pontoon bridges were placed close together, close enough to cause traffic issues similar to those at Edwards Ferry.  Note also the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and also a mill race running just this side of the Potomac.  I don’t see any bridges traversing the canal or mill race.  From walking that section of the canal, I would speculate the Federals used one of several existing canal crossing points over the C & O.  Furthermore, there is an “island” between the river and the mill race which could have provided ample space for the wagons moving to the bridges.

There does not appear to be much confusion or chaos at this 1862 crossing.  But then again, the photo was likely taken late in the crossing cycle during the slow motion advance of the Army of the Potomac in October 1862.  There are two sets of wagons, approaching each other, separated by a trio of unhitched wagons.  Perhaps that’s a scene which aptly summarizes the Federal pursuit after Antietam.

Another photo provides a closer view of the bridge abutments:

Abutments at Virginia End of Bridge
Abutments at Virginia End of Bridge

In this view, the old bridge piers are on the right and the town at the far side.  But not seen is the second pontoon bridge.  Was this photo taken before or after the one from the Maryland shore?  Regardless, three points to make about the abutment.

First note the gradual slope down of the last bay of the bridge to the shore.  I really wish the photographer had captured a wagon crossing, or at least some led horses, over that last pontoon.  Such would capture the increased displacement on the bridge due to traffic, and illustrate the flexibility required for the decking.

Second, three “guards” are posted to the right of the bridge.  Odds are if you arrived there with your troop, they would say something like, “dismount and lead those horses, sir!”  Or, to marching infantry, “route step!”  A small post next to those “guards” appears to have a sign.  I wonder if that sign carried a written version of that verbal warning.

The last item I’d call attention to is the road grade leading up to the bridge abutment.  The ground on the lower left of the photo appears freshly disturbed.  Perhaps that is due to the heavy traffic rutting the path.   But perhaps disturbed as the engineers built up a path up the bluffs on the Virginia side.  In fact, the entire left side looks like a “spit” of land artificially extended to support the bridge crossing.

Now I would be remiss by failing to mention a scene that did not make it into the movie Gettysburg which shows the coordination between the Army Staff and General Henry Benham.  In this clip, General Daniel Butterfield, played by Donald Sutherland (Jack Bauer’s dad to you and I) converses with General Henry Benham, portrayed by Seinfield’s Uncle Leo (Len Lesser) :

Kind of hard to follow as they are talking in code – “bank heist”, “crap game”, “big Joe”, and “little Joe.”

OK, you caught me pulling your leg again!

Actually I should pause and point out that Kelly’s Heroes, one of the most popular war movies of all time, was first released in the U.S. on June 23, 1970.  So it’s a good 39 years old, as of last Tuesday.  The movie has aged well.

Off topic a bit, still the conversation between “Oddball” and SGT Bellamy mentions a few things that are timeless with regard to bridging operations.  Bellamy is concerned about the security of his team if he accepts the chore of building the bridge.  He also indicates the need for manpower to build the bridge.  If we go back and look at the dispatches between the engineers and staff officers in June 1863, those two issues stand out in the conversation.  Also, of course, there is the friction between the “warfighter” who sees the river as an impediment to his operation which must  be crossed without delay, and the engineer who sees the bridging as an operation unto itself.

River crossings are inherintly an action where man wishes to move contrary to the wishes of nature.  Bridging operations supporting those crossings must therefore involve an abundance of resources.  Those realities have not changed in spite of technology.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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