Edwards Ferry – My Conclusions

The first of the Edwards Ferry tours should post on Gettysburg Daily tomorrow. I’m anxious to see how the videos turn out, and looking forward to feedback, good or bad.

Last year when I started posting notes about the Army of the Potomac’s June 1863 crossing at Edwards Ferry, I figured my content would be exhausted after a few posts.  Instead, the more I wrote, the more I uncovered.  And the more I posted, the more comments and leads my readers offered up.  Now I have twenty-eight posts (counting this one) and four pages of content.   And no doubt I will add more as my expedition continues.

However, I do need to pause and offer some tentative conclusions.  If for nothing else to explain the importance of the event, and why I am still researching the topic.  I don’t want to offer spoilers to the postings on Gettysburg Daily.  At the same time I do have more to explain than what fit within a couple of minutes of video.   So allow me to elaborate here:

Why did the Army cross at Edwards Ferry?

I believe the road network, geography, and operational circumstances drew the Army of the Potomac to Edwards Ferry.  The Leesburg Pike, Aldie Pike, and old Carolina Road intersected at Leesburg.  The Edwards Ferry Road, “California Road,” and other cross paths provided easy access from the Leesburg Pike to Edwards Ferry.

North of Leesburg, the Catoctin Ridge confines movement.  Given the recent fighting in Loudoun Valley in the days prior to the crossing, the fords and potential bridge sites upstream would require strong defenses.  So again, General Slocum’s assessment, with the old Confederate forts at Leesburg, factors in.

Crossing points downstream of Edwards Ferry, as evidenced by Stahel’s and Stuart’s crossings, were treacherous at best.  The only sure crossing points were the bridges leading into Washington.  Had the Army moved through Washington, as in September 1862, I doubt Hooker, or later Meade, would have caught Lee in Pennsylvania.

Another issue, considering the disposition of the Army of the Potomac, was the impediment Goose Creek imposed to movement.  Understand that between the mouth at Edwards Ferry and the A,L,& H Railroad bridge, there were no good places to cross.  Effectively a line split the Army in two – the Second, Fifth, Twelfth, Corps on the west; First, Third, Sixth, and Eleventh Corps on the east.  Edwards Ferry was the easy place to resolve that divide as the Army moved into Maryland.

What else factored into the bridge placement at Edwards Ferry?

One word – logistics.  On June 19, Slocum first suggested a bridge at Edwards Ferry to secure a supply line to his corps then stationed in Leesburg.  Hooker still anticipated meeting Lee somewhere in Virginia at that time.  The C&O Canal offered a route secure from the likes of Mosby.  And the B&O Railroad was not further inland.

Was the crossing efficient?  And could it have been faster?

In some ways the crossing was efficiently conducted.  Particularly after the second bridge was in place.  But in other ways the crossing was a mess.  I contend the egress routes on the Maryland side hindered traffic flow.  Leesburg’s counterpart on the Maryland side was Poolesville.  The  roads, save the canal towpath, converged there.

At the same time, indecisive senior leadership imposed delays.  I contend the Eleventh Corps could have crossed on June 24, had Hooker stuck with the original intent.  The failure to have the lower bridge in place on the morning of June 25 should be traced to incomplete instructions from Army headquarters.  And while the official correspondence remained professional, friction between General Henry Benham, commanding the Engineer Brigade, and Army headquarters certainly did not help.

But the bridging construction itself was done with a high degree of efficiency.  The first bridge was completed overnight on June 20-21, with very little natural illumination.  The second bridge was completed in three hours on the 25.  Captain C.N. Turnbull and Major E.O. Beers deserve credit for quick action on that day.  If nothing else, the construction of that bridge earned the Engineers the right to have a tablet on the battlefield at Gettysburg.

Was Edwards Ferry the “Greatest” wartime river crossing?

Some have called Edwards Ferry the greatest river crossing in the western hemisphere.  I’ve even alluded to that a few times.  From the perspective of the Eastern Theater of war, certainly other contenders for the title are the crossings of the Rappahannock  and Rapidan (Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run and Overland Campaigns).  But these were spread out across several points and with shorter bridge spans.

A good “apples-to-apples” comparison is the June 1864 crossing of the James River.  Many of the same engineers led the effort, including General  Benham and Captain Turnbull.  Perhaps even using some of the same equipment.  The bridge spanned 2,170 feet – about a third again longer than at Edwards Ferry – and required nine hours to complete.  I’ve seen estimates above 100,000 men making the crossing, beginning around 6 AM on June 15 and ending at 9:30 AM on the 17th.  (A narrative detailing the crossing is appeared in the September 2009 Professional Bulletin of Army Engineers, written by Gustav Person.   Another good summary of the James Crossing written by Major Donald Gunn appeared on pages 30-34, in the Summer 2001 Quartermaster Professional Bulletin)

I would give a nod to the June 1864 bridge operation as the “greatest,”  partly on the rapid pace of crossing operations, but also as it lead directly to the penultimate campaign in the Eastern Theater.  But from an engineering standpoint, the June 1863 crossing at Edwards Ferry was just as impressive.  And if Gettysburg was the critical battle in the East, if not overall in the war, then we must rank Edwards Ferry accordingly.

Did Edwards Ferry enable a Federal victory at Gettysburg?

It would be bold to say had any of the Federal corps been delayed in the crossing, events at Gettysburg might have played out differently.  Reality is the road to Gettysburg was a long, dusty course that started along the Rappahannock River taking the Army of the Potomac through ten counties in three states.  Arguably a delay at any creek or cross roads translated into some delayed arrival at the battle.  I would not attempt to fool readers, making the case that an hour at Edwards Ferry caused, or prevented, some crisis on July 1, 2, or 3.

What I would contend is that the crossing at Edwards Ferry allowed the Army of the Potomac to move into Maryland and eventually Pennsylvania at a faster pace than Lee expected.  The crossing, while requiring three days, was the last bold move by Joe Hooker in his tenure as the Army’s chief.  On the morning of June 28, with the entire Army of the Potomac in Maryland the operational and strategic setting in the Eastern Theater changed.  When George Meade took command of the Army that morning, he had a concentrated Army to shield Washington and Baltimore, with options to pursue.  On the other side, Lee began concentrating the Army of Northern Virginia to meet Meade.

Maybe the tactical initiative did not shift to the Army of the Potomac until July 2 or 3, but at the operational level the shift began earlier on June 28.  Those bridges at Edwards Ferry, to a large degree, enabled that shift.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “Edwards Ferry – My Conclusions

  1. Craig,

    I just viewed today’s Gettysburg Daily. I am excited that you are doing Edwards Ferry! You will help bring people’s attention to what I think was the most important river crossing of the Civil War. Good work!

    Nancy Anwyll
    Bull Run CWRT Past Pres.

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