Ok… 149 Years Ago: Confusion at Edwards Ferry

I was preparing for the Edwards Ferry tour last night, mostly going over familiar notes and reviewing old posts to make sure things were fresh in the mind.  There’s one aspect of the crossing that just hits me in the pit of the stomach.  It’s odd, but when I read about the indecision with the initial orders to cross the Potomac, then the countermanding, and re-issue… well let’s just say I have flashbacks to incidents in my own service.  A commander I once served under was fond of saying that “good soldiers prefer orders to be clear and timely, and above all orderly!”  Looking back 149 years (so this isn’t a sesquicentennial post then), I would say those “orders” were anything but “orderly.”

Around mid day on June 23, Major General O. O. Howard, commanding the Federal Eleventh Corps, received this order from headquarters, Army of the Potomac, by orders of Major General Joseph Hooker:

March your corps to Harper’s Ferry, via Edwards [Ferry]. Make the march in two days.

That order should be cited far and wide as the order which set the army on the road to Gettysburg.  Should… but isn’t.  That’s because the order wasn’t held to, but rather superseded by the next instruction.

But before discussing the countermanding of that order, stop and consider the communications system which brought the order to Howard.  On June 23, the Eleventh Corps camped along Goose Creek, probably with most troops just north of the modern Dulles Toll Road bridge.  The corps headquarters relied on two means of communication – courier and signal flags.  Some time back I examined the web of signal and telegraph stations active at the time of the crossing.

Stations In Use During Crossing

Howard’s headquarters did not have a telegraph line.  Furthermore, the location lacked line of sight to army headquarters.  So communications via wig-wag were relayed to Guilford Station (where First Corps camped) or Leesburg (where the Twelfth Corps station might relay it further to Poolesville). All indications from the records are that during this phase of the operations, Howard depended upon the link to Guilford Station to communicate to the army headquarters.  For the order mentioned above to reach Howard’s hands, it was either carried by a courier from Fairfax, or was forwarded in relay through the stations.  Given the brevity of the order, I’d say relay from telegraph to wig-wag is plausible.  Just something to keep in mind when thinking about the time gaps between any order from Hooker and action taken on an order.

The Eleventh Corps started on the road early on the morning of June 24, making their way north through what is today residential subdivisions to the east of Goose Creek.  They arrived at the mouth of Goose Creek before 6 PM that afternoon.  Being roughly twelve miles (on the road network that existed at that time), this was not a hard march.  First notice of the arrival of Eleventh Corps came from Major General Henry Slocum, then in Leesburg, and not directly from Howard.  Such indicates Slocum had some communication with Edwards Ferry, and thereby Howard.  So at this juncture, Howard’s main link to Hooker at army headquarters shifted.  And there’s a quirk to the Leesburg-to-Poolesville link – it goes through the War Department Headquarters in Washington, where anxious leaders were observing the lines, before passing to Army of the Potomac headquarters in Fairfax.  Again, just something to consider.

Howard, as a good commander should, formally informed Hooker of his arrival at Edwards Ferry in a dispatch sent just after Slocum’s report.  In response to that update came the countermanding, sent at 7:30 PM:

The commanding general directs that, until otherwise ordered, you guard the bridge and depots at Edwards Ferry, on the north side of the Potomac at that place.  Please acknowledge.

So instead of marching to Harper’s Ferry, the corps was to instead enter Maryland and wait in defense.  Let me set aside any criticism of orders that effectively splintered the army.  Its a situational issue and I never like to criticism a commander without fully assessing the elements of that situation.  Instead, let’s focus on the changed intent here – Hooker decided it more important not to push forward to block the Confederate entry into Maryland.  Fact was the Confederates were already in Pennsylvania!  Confusion reigned at army headquarters.  Does Hooker parry or thrust?

Then at 11:35 PM (late evening of June 24) came the next, and effectively last, change of orders:

The commanding general directs that your corps take up the line of march early to-morrow morning for Sandy Hook, in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry, reaching that place to-morrow afternoon.  You will take your entire command with you.  Other troops will arrive in the course of the day, to guard the bridge and depots at Edwards Ferry.

Swell.  So the Eleventh Corps was now back to the original plan… well not so fast.  The next order from Hooker’s headquarters went to Slocum, timed at 12 midnight:

The Eleventh Corps is at Edwards Ferry.  Order it forward to your support whenever you deem it necessary.

Um… see any problem here?  For the non-military types, think about the chain of command first.  Howard (Eleventh Corps) formally reports to Hooker (Army of the Potomac Commander), but this order, which is not out of the ordinary for a tactical situation, cedes control of the Eleventh Corps to Slocum (Twelfth Corps) if a very vaguely defined situation would arise – “whenever you deem it necessary.”

Oh, and there’s one more wrapper of confusion to apply here.  At the same time these orders went to Howard and Slocum, Hooker sent a dispatch to Major General William French at Harper’s Ferry.  Keep in mind here that French was not part of Hooker’s command (and this was a bone of contention that became the raison d’etre for Hooker’s relief just days later).  Hooker “desired” that French cooperate with the forces moving up from Edwards Ferry.  Clearly Hooker felt that sector was the critical point to parry Lee’s invasion of the north.  Although he only mentioned one cavalry division in the dispatch to French, as we see from the orders mentioned above, Hooker was sending more troops to what he felt was the critical sector.

How many more?  Well on the morning of June 25, Major General John Reynolds received orders placing him in command of a “wing” of the the army including his First Corps, the Third Corps, and the Eleventh Corps along with that division of cavalry mentioned in the correspondence with Harper’s Ferry.  Imagine, you wake up this morning and receive notice – you now must take about a two-fifths of the army with you across a river and prepare for a major fight.  Oh, and by the way, “The movements must be rapid…”

Edwards Ferry_7July 009

There’s an acre of woulda-coulda-shoulda in the events of June 23-25.  I guess what sits bad with me is how that played out on the ground.  Imagine yourself one of those Eleventh Corps soldiers camped out at the confluence of Goose Creek and the Potomac.  Rumors flying wild and your next instructions in the air.  Your only comforts are a cup of coffee and a nibble of hard-tack, as you wait for the generals to figure out what they need to figure out.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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