Monthly Archives: October 2012

150 Years Ago: Pontoon bridges over the Potomac

Strategic mobility.  That’s what the pontoon bridges provided the Army of the Potomac.  I’ve written at length about the bridges used in June 1863 at Edwards Ferry.   But that is getting ahead a year in sesquicentennial coverage.

The important pontoon bridges in the last week of October 1862 were over the Potomac at Berlin, Maryland and Harpers Ferry, Virginia (it was still Virginia then).   A series of photos of bridges at Berlin (now days it is Brunswick) capture what those bridges looked like.  Most captions provided for these photos indicate they were taken by Alexander Gardner in October-November 1862.  However, I’ve seen a few places where these are cited as part of the July 1863 crossing at the same place in the aftermath of Gettysburg.  I’m apt to accept the former date.

I find this photo remarkable for many reasons.  There’s a lot of “action” implied here, particularly with the wagon train in the foreground.  Look closely at that.

There are three means of transportation in evidence here – wagon, train, and canal.  See the box cars?  Means the B&O was already repaired from any damage done in September.  The “iron horse” brought supplies to the Army of the Potomac. Those railroad tracks, or at least the modern version of them, are still at Brunswick today.

Look closely to the upper left corner… or here’s a better view.

Appears the wagons are being loaded directly from the box cars.

And looking up to the houses behind that, just before the destroyed bridge’s piers, sites Lock 30 on the C&O.

The near side pontoon bridge abutments are obscured by the bank of the canal towpath.

There was a significant slope down from the towpath to the river.  And file this away as we discuss below – the landing for the bridge to the right has a tree next to the river bank and some sort of lift next to it.  There’s a lot of brush between the two bridges.  There’s also another tree on the land-side of the canal, roughly the same height as the other tree.

Looking across the river, there is one of those “ghost” blurs often seen on glass plate, time exposure negatives.

That must be a wagon train finishing its crossing.

Notice the detail on the landing of the far side.  The pontoon bridges reach Virginia on a spit of land sticking out from the shore.

And look to the left of that at the houses on the distant bank.

Follow the bridge piers across.  The last one, actually on the Virginia shore, appears to have walls on the superstructure.  There are two, maybe three, structures where the old bridge ran through.  I can feel the warmth of the fireplace in that house in the lower center, even through 150 years.

An Edwin Forbes drawing depicting the scene on October 27, 1862, looks at first glance to be a pencil version of the Gardner photo.

But, Forbes shows only one pontoon bridge in place.  So, does this validate the time of Gardner’s photo or not?

There there are more photos of Berlin’s pontoon bridges, or I should say bridge, to consider.  One copy at the Library of Congress collection is from a book of illustrations.  The photo was taken looking from Virginia back to Maryland.  While crisp, I’m not fond of that view, as it does not show the working details I love to pick up.  Instead I like this one from nearly the same angle:

This is the messy “business” side that I like to examine.  Movement going on to the left.  Good close up of the pontoon bridge landing.  Likely someone will chime in to say the mounted guy on the right is one of Gardner’s assistants.   The only down side is the resolution is not sufficient to allow picking off details on the far shore.   But this is the “spit” of land seen in the first photo above.  But again, just one pontoon bridge.

And another view from the Virginia shore:

Remember the houses referenced above?  Those structures match right up to the outer wings.  No comfy fire going in the house though.  And there’s the bridge pier with “walls” right at the end of the old bridge abutment.  But again, just one pontoon bridge.  Let’s look closer.

Follow up from the two individuals standing at the old bridge abutment/pier.  Look to the Maryland shore.  There is a tall tree on the river side of the towpath, with brush between there and the single pontoon bridge.  Where the second bridge should be, there are a couple of box shaped items laying on the bank.

Those boxes also appear in the other “Virginia side” photograph, just to the right of the guard on the bridge.

In profile, there are the two trees, one by the river and the other a bit further back.

My explanation?  According to McClellan’s report of operations, a pontoon bridge went across at Berlin on October 25.  The Ninth Corps crossed on October 26 and 27, which is what Forbes depicted.  So perhaps Gardner took one series of photos around that time but from the Virginia shore.  Later, after the engineers placed a second bridge, he went back to the Maryland side and took another photo.  If so, the “Virginia side” photos mentioned above may capture the engineers laying out equipment for that second pontoon bridge.

Looking at the site today, the river shoreline has shifted.  The “spit” of land is gone.  But it is not hard to pinpoint where Gardner put his camera.  Or where Forbes sat to make his sketch. And knowing those locations, we could say with some accuracy the location of those pontoon bridges…. Bridges that transported the Army of the Potomac from one great battle to the next.

150 Years Ago: The Union cavalry operates as … cavalry!

Writing his final report for operations in Loudoun Valley during the fall of 1862, Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton wrote briefly of the activities undertaken by his Cavalry Division at the close of October:

On the morning of October 26, I crossed the Potomac at Berlin, with the Second Cavalry Brigade and Pennington’s horse battery, and took up a position in front of Purcellville, on the 27th, having occupied Hillborough with two squadrons of the Sixth Cavalry.  After some skirmishing with the rebels, and having driven them out of Purcellville, they were followed up by Colonel Davis, with the Eighth New York Cavalry, as far as Snicker’s Gap, at which point they opened with shell and showed themselves in strong force.

From this time until November 1 the brigade was occupied in scouting the country to Leesburg, Aldie, Middleburg, Philomont, and in gaining information of the enemy’s movements…. (OR, Series I, Volume 19, Part II, Serial 28, page 125)

In short, the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was out doing what cavalry is supposed to do in the advance of an army – finding the enemy.

Pleasonton’s troopers did find the Confederates, but the cavalry commander was not so good at determining where they were going. In several dispatches throughout the closing days of October, Pleasonton made mention of Longstreet “going to Manassas.”  In reality, Longstreet was marching towards Culpeper (the opposite end of our modern day U.S. 29…).

I’d intended to drive through the country-side this weekend and provide “nearly 150 years to the day” photos of several sites between Brunswick (was Berlin) and Purcellville.  But the recent storm prevented me from getting out to the sites at a time when decent photos were obtainable.  So you’ll have to settle for a photo taken “not nearly 150 years to the day”.

Picture 041

Just after crossing the Potomac, many of Pleasonton’s troopers picketed their horses in this field, which lies between the Berlin Pike (Virginia 287) and the New Jerusalem Lutheran Church just south of Lovettsville.  Nothing momentous happened there.  No great fights or skirmishes.  No inspiring speeches to the troopers, that we know of.  No single event of great significance that we can note.

However, prior to October 27, 1862, the story of Federal cavalry, in the east if not the whole, was one of misuse, mismanagement, and disappointment.  The general consensus was the Confederate mounted arm had bested the Federals at every opportunity (though we know that to be oversimplification).  The Federal cavalrymen were a few weeks removed from the embarrassing Chambersburg Raid.  Yet from time of that stay in Lovettsville until the end of the war, the Federal cavalry would only get better, while their opponent would recede.  Maybe not a “turning point” worthy of a monument or even a marker, but at least worth a pause.

In the first days of November, Pleasonton’s troopers fought sharp actions at Philomont and Unison.  The series of actions seem inconclusive to those looking for clear cut victories.  Arguably General J.E.B. Stuart continued to hold the upper hand, delaying Pleasonton and the men in blue.  But the force that later blocked Lee’s retreat at Appomattox was earning its spurs.

150 Years Ago: A flag of truce to discuss “hard war”

One-hundred and fifty years ago today, on October 29, 1862, Colonel Robert A. Cameron filed a report addressed to General Alvin P. Hovey, commanding at Helena, Arkansas. Cameron had just returned from a mission carrying correspondence between Federal and Confederate commanders.  He left Helena on October 21, reached Little Rock on the 24th to deliver his dispatches, then returned.

Robert A. Cameron, as a Brigadier later in the war

Cameron’s report was officially an acknowledgement of completed tasks.  Additionally, Cameron offered some observations of Confederate dispositions.  And, since it fell under the scope of his mission, Cameron also added a lengthy summary of a discussion with Confederate General Theophilus Holmes, commanding the Trans-Mississippi forces.  The gist of that conversation centered on the conduct of war.  The entire report appears in the Official Records, Series I, Volume 13, Serial 19, pages 768-771.  I’ll only cite a portion of that lengthy report here:

… General Holmes said that he desired me to say to you that it was his desire to conduct this war upon honorable principles and upon the rules of warfare among civilized nations–yes, upon Christian principles; that he was filled with horror at the state of woe, desolation, and destruction brought to him by his people, which he was sorry to say he was forced to believe. For instance, a Mr. Moore, living near Helena, reported to his provost-marshal-general that a party of Federal soldiers had entered his house, and finding a feeble daughter and enceinte wife, did threaten and intimidate them and snap caps upon their revolvers, causing Mrs. Moore to produce an abortion and thereby endanger her life. I replied that the general commanding had no knowledge of such an occurrence, and that if it had happened and if the parties could be found they would be brought to punishment. He went on to say that a deserter had come to him and he asked him why he had taken place it would have been known among us, and I had never known of it, and that a man who would desert would tell a falsehood. He, the general, said he did not place implicit confidence in what a deserter might say; “but,” said the general, “it is true that in the route of General Curtis’ army houses were ransacked, women’s and children’s apparel taken without provocation, and all kinds of damage done to the property of citizens.” I replied that I had not seen it, but that I was led to believe that it might in some instances be true to a certain extent, but that I was satisfied it was not with the consent of commanding officers, but contrary to their positive orders, and that I had learned from the people of Arkansas that in some instances the Texans in his army had stolen the people’s meat and chickens, and that I was sorry to say there were some bad in both armies, whom in some instances it appeared almost impossible to control. General Holmes said that he knew General Curtis in his youth, and had expected him to pursue a fair and honorable warfare; that he, for his part, was determined to resist organized forces with organized forces as long as it could be done, but that they would fight until exterminated unless their independence was acknowledged. While they fought with organized forces he expected scrupulously to observe the rules of warfare, and had repressed the patriotic ardor of his people in the neighborhood of Helena for guerrilla warfare; “but,” said the general, “should we be beaten, and our army under Lee in Virginia and Bragg in Kentucky be crushed, we would rise as individuals and each man take upon himself the task of expelling the invaders.” I replied that I did not think his people felt as desperate as he did. “Yes,” said the general, “we hate you with a cordial hatred. You may conquer us and parcel out our lands among your soldiers, but you must remember that one incident of history, to wit, that of all the Russians who settled in Poland not one died a natural death.” I replied I could not, and knew our people did not, reciprocate the hatred he expressed. The general then entertained me with his former love for our flag and his present hatred at the sight of it, but fell into a pleasant vein in regard to his old acquaintances in the Federal Army whom he knew….

Some additional context here.  The deaf (and according to some contemporaries, nearly senile) Holmes was among those “reassigned” after General Robert E. Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia following the Seven Days.  He arrived in Arkansas in late summer.  Cameron also was a transfer from the east.  Having served in the 19th Indiana during the opening campaigns in western Virginia, Cameron asked for a new assignment that winter.  He became colonel of the 34th Indiana Infantry in June 1862.

Neither man had been a party to the “hard war” exhibited across Missouri.  Many of the incidents he mentioned in the discussion had occurred before their arrival. Holmes, in particular, was no doubt working from second- or third-hand information.   While Holmes cited somewhat ghastly incidents of rape and forced miscarriages, Cameron responded with deprivations inflicted upon the state’s citizens by the Confederates themselves.  No doubt each side could have continued that discussion, citing examples at length, for days.  Of course, that would have gotten nowhere.

The threat of guerrilla warfare underscores Holmes’ unfamiliarity with the theater in which he commanded.  Perhaps he was thinking of Virginia, or his native North Carolina.  But it would be hard to find a county of Missouri or Arkansas, north of the Arkansas River, which had not witnessed guerrilla warfare by that time in the war.  John Pope’s “hard war” transplanted from Missouri to Virginia now came back home through the words of old Theophilus.  Still this must be one of the earliest references to “a cordial hatred” of the Yankees… whatever a cordial hatred is.

Take the conversation for what you will.  To me it is an example of the narrow balance of morality that occurs in war, and how “proper” men attempt to deal with it.

Allow me to close by looking at a strictly military aspect of Cameron’s report.  Near the end he mentions that the Confederates, have a 24-pounder for reconnoitering “à la Schenck  at Vienna.”  Cameron was referring to Confederate forces on the Memphis-Little Rock railroad line.  Frequent readers are no doubt familiar with the railroad fight in Vienna, Virginia.  Seems the Richmond rebels were sharing their railroad gun ideas with those in other theaters.