I like comparing situations across time to help with frame of reference. For instance at this time in 1863, the Army of the Potomac was oriented to the west. The last time the army had faced west to give battle was at Antietam. Days before that bloody battle, the Army of the Potomac marched out from Frederick towards gaps in the Catoctin Mountain. After several small, but sharp, cavalry actions (which my friend Laurence Freiheit has written about at length) the army reached passes in South Mountain.
Now nine months later, the army faced the Virginia side of the Catoctin, and Bull Run Mountains to the south. Large, and vicious, cavalry actions occurred between those rims and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. But, Major-General Joseph Hooker didn’t find any “lost orders” on which to guide his movements.
On June 19, 1863, Hooker continued to build the “Bull Run-Catoctin” line (my phrase and observation, not Hooker’s, to be clear) by moving the infantry corps forward. First Corps marched to Guilford Station, just one stop up on the Alexandria, Loudoun, & Hampshire Railroad (rail-less at this time in the war). Major-General George Meade’s Fifth Corps moved up to Aldie. Behind them, the Third Corps moved into the area of Gum Springs. Second Corps started movement for Thoroughfare Gap reaching Centreville.
Beyond Aldie, the Cavalry Corps opened a day long fight with their Confederate counterparts. Let me cover the Battle of Middleburg in a separate post. But while we are thinking about the horse soldiers, Colonel John B. McIntosh’s brigade from Second Division remained in the Thoroughfare Gap and Haymarket area, guarding that important pass. Further out, Colonel Othniel De Forest, sent out the previous day to reconnoiter to Warrenton, ran into resistance there. De Forest’s command was as part of Major-General Julius Stahel’s division. While not part of the Army of the Potomac at the time, within a ten days, the division would be – and under a new set of commanders.
But let me discus two events which put focus on Leesburg. With armies in motion and the possibility of battle practically every hour, the Twelfth Corps paused briefly to exercise martial responsibilities. Brigadier-General Alpheus Williams recorded this in his letters home:
Today we had the most unpleasant duty of shooting three deserters, about the first capital punishments which have taken place in the army for this offense. Two of them, of the 46th Pennsylvania Volunteers, deserted about two weeks ago when we were under orders to march towards the enemy. They bought citizens’ clothes, but were apprehended while trying to get off by Aquia Creek. The other (13th New Jersey Volunteers) deserted a year or more ago and was sent back from home. He neglected to avail himself of the pardon offered by the President in April last…. The whole corps was paraded in a large field and formed three sides of a square. By Gen. Hooker’s orders the execution was under my direction as commander of the division to which the men belonged. The carrying out of details I put, of course, on my provost marshal. Three graves were dug some two feet apart in a slight depression of the field, and on the gentle swell of the ground the troops were formed so every man could see the execution.
One of these days I must trace down the location of this incident (and see if possible to have it marked, of course).
While this grim duty was completed, Major-General Henry Slocum carried on a significant correspondence with army headquarters. In a report at 10:40 a.m., Slocum urged the placement of a pontoon bridge at Edwards Ferry. In response, Army Chief of Staff Major-General Daniel Butterfield sent a barrage of questions:
What advantages are to be gained by putting a bridge at Edwards Ferry? Are there any reasons why we cannot cross at Noland’s and Hauling Fords? We think the enemy are in the Shenandoah Valley, Longstreet and A. P. Hill, one portion, perhaps, this side of the Blue Ridge. Ewell is reported in Maryland or Pennsylvania, but we cannot get any reliable or definite idea from there. The whole country, generals and all, seem struck with heavy stampede.
If General Warren is at the mouth of the Monocacy, request him to report here by safe route through your corps.
Do you hold Noland’s and Hauling Fords? They are held by our cavalry on the opposite side.
Slocum replied with the logic of a man seasoned in the problems encountered while campaigning in enemy territory:
I think the bridge should be built at Edwards Ferry to supply us. I have not force enough to keep the route to Vienna, or to hold many fords on the river in the country filled with guerrillas. Edwards Ferry is most accessible, and is covered by a strong redoubt on this side. Our supplies should be sent from Georgetown, by canal, to Edwards Ferry.
Supply. I’ve covered this in detail over many posts on Edwards Ferry. It is my opinion the placement of this first bridge was driven more by logistical requirements than any need to pass the army into Maryland. The redoubt mentioned by Slocum is Fort Evans. As seen on this map, that work dominates the approaches Edwards Ferry.
Built in 1861-2 during the Confederate stay in Leesburg, the fort remains today as one of the best preserved in Northern Virginia.
Convinced by Slocum’s reply, Butterfield cut orders for the engineers to begin building a pontoon bridge over the Potomac.
One last bit to consider. How was this conversation between Slocum and Butterfield transmitted? Leesburg and Fairfax Courthouse are some 27 highway miles apart. There was no direct telegraph line between. So those messages passed through a mixed network using wig-wags and telegraph, some of which is depicted on the map below:
Each message carried the tag “via Poolesville” indicating the message went from Leesburg to Poolesville by wig-wag, and then through Washington to Fairfax by telegraph. With First Corps moving up to Guilford Station, the telegraph lines extended out to that point down the railroad right of way, but not beyond.
Closing June 19, the army’s itinerary for the day read:
The First Corps marched from Herndon Station to Guilford Station; the Third Corps from Centerville to Gum Springs; and the Fifth Corps from Gum Springs to Aldie. Gregg’s cavalry division, except McIntosh’s (late Wyndham’s) brigade, advanced to Middleburg. McIntosh’s brigade moved from Aldie to Hay Market.
Now five infantry and one cavalry corps occupied Loudoun County.
(Citations from From the Cannon’s Mouth: The Civil War Letters of General Alpheus S. Williams, edited by Milo Quaife, pages 216-7 and OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part I, Serial 43, page 142; Part III, Serial 45, pages 208-9.)