Marching Through Loudoun: June 23, 1863

June 23, 1863 was another day with no major troop movements in Loudoun County.  At this time five infantry corps and the cavalry corps camped across Loudoun. The remainder of the Army of the Potomac sat just across the county line in Fairfax and Prince William Counties.  For all the potential energy, the army lacked a fixed target.  Major-General Joseph Hooker needed to know what his opposite number, General Robert E. Lee, was up to.  Five days worth of cavalry contests in Loudoun Valley failed to reveal that information.  At the same time, this fellow was also busy trying to find the desired information:

Colonel George H. Sharpe

Colonel George H. Sharpe, Hooker’s intelligence chief, pulled reports from a network of spies and scouts.  Early on June 23, he provided an assessment to his boss:

…The line of the enemy’s infantry begins between Piedmont and Rectortown, and runs thence toward Front Royal, where there is considerable force. Divisions of Pickett and Hood lying in rear of Snicker’s Gap, in position to defend it. Three companies of infantry at Millwood, opposite Ashby’s Gap, and the rest of Longstreet’s corps between Front Royal and Winchester.

As regards the enemy’s movements, they heard that Ewell was establishing a line, so as to draw stores from Maryland and Pennsylvania. Learned from a Confederate soldier, disabled in a house, that A. P. Hill was also in the Valley.

How accurate was this report?  The day before, Lee called for Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell to move his corps into Pennsylvania by way of Emmitsburg, Chambersburg, and McConnellsburg.  The front edge of Ewell’s command had already drawn first blood in Pennsylvania.  The other two corps of the Army of Northern Virginia were around Berryville, Virginia, just over the Blue Ridge from Loudoun County.  Cavalry fighting over the previous days had given Lee some pause, prompting him to push Major-General Lafayette McLaws’ division at Ashby’s Gap. In short, Sharpe correctly identified the locations of major commands, though the mention of infantry east of the Blue Ridge was incorrect.  Likewise Sharpe’s assessment of Lee’s intentions were a mixed bag, in so much that Lieutenant-General James Longstreet was not settling to defend the Blue Ridge.

Throughout June 23, observers on Maryland Heights over looking Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (yes, as of June 20) and Shepherdstown, Maryland, reported significant movement of troops and wagon trains heading north. A growing preponderance of information weighed upon the desks at army headquarters.

Keep in mind the discipline of military intelligence is not just concerned about enemy activity, but also includes information about civilian activity, weather, terrain, route (not just road) conditions, and other subjects.  With respect to terrain and route conditions, Hooker’s headquarters also needed to know about the fords of the Potomac.  Early on the 23rd, inquiries went to Major-General Henry Slocum in regard to several potential river crossing sites.  Let me highlight those using one of the Confederate maps (as they seemed to know the fords better!).  Here’s the section upstream of Edwards Ferry:


And here’s the fords downstream of Edwards Ferry to the Loudoun County line:


Slocum reported that Nolan’s Ford was “impracticable” while “White’s Ford, 3 miles above Edwards Ferry, is the best ford in this vicinity.”  Hooker asked again as to the status of fords around mid-day, expanding the scope a bit.  Slocum must have sent out patrols to investigate, as his response came back at midnight:

Chick’s Ford is 1 mile below Noland’s. It is practicable for cavalry and infantry, but not for artillery or trains. White’s Ford is about the same; the bottom is rough. Seneca Ford, 2 miles below Goose Creek, is said to be good. I will send an officer to it early to-morrow. The approaches to all these fords are good. My wagon train is parked near the bridge at Edwards Ferry, and can be run across without delay.

Seneca Ford, I believe, is a reference to Youngs Island Ford.  So with some solid information in hand, Hooker started some movement.  If the army had to cross the Potomac, it would need more than one pontoon bridge.  The previous day, the Engineer Brigade received orders to move components for another bridge to the area, via the C&O Canal.  By mid-day seventy-two pontoons were heading upstream along with other associated materials to build 1,200 feet of bridge (another 200 feet of bridging was at Edwards Ferry).  The orders alluded to bridge placement at the Mouth of the Monocacy.

Hooker also ordered General Henry W. Benham forward, with his whole command, to supervise the construction of this second bridge.  To this Benham fired back:

I do not distinctly understand what is desired by the last telegram, just received, directing me to report with my command ready for the field at the Monocacy.

Nearly all the regulars are at Edwards Ferry. Nearly 360 of the Fiftieth Regiment are there, on the way to the Monocacy, for which place the bridge has gone. Besides the men in the workshops here, I have but little over 200 effective men of the Fiftieth Regiment here to aid in repairing the large number of pontoons now here, out of order, and the 360 three-years’ men of the Fifteenth Regiment are almost in mutiny, and unfit for the field at present; only 180 found on duty at inspection to-day.

Shall I take the 200 men of the Fiftieth and the teams and empty pontoon trucks to the Monocacy, or leave the teams and trucks here, to draw the pontoons now here, when repaired?

I think it very important to have the trains repaired as soon as possible, and it needs the whole force now here to do it speedily. Please let me know where headquarters are.

From Benham’s point of view, there was no love for the engineers. (I’ve depicted the Engineer Brigade, minus, on the map below.)

Hooker also started moving combat formations.  Having returned from the reconnaissance of Fauquier County and points across Prince William County, Major-General Julius Stahel’s division received orders returning to Fairfax Courthouse.  Hooker needed the cavalry force to cover a different sector, so those troopers would get little rest.


Another move made on June 23 involved little marching but a lot of subterfuge at the command level.  Major-General Winfield S. Hancock had some issues with date of rank among his division commanders.  Major-General William French had the edge, and Hancock was fine with his presence, but the two major-generals had the same date of rank.  With plans to consolidate the corps into two divisions, Hancock had two brigadiers – John Gibbon and John Caldwell – who might command the second division.  Hancock preferred Gibbon, but Caldwell had seniority.  Hooker, on the other hand, needed a capable officer at Harpers Ferry who had sympathy to his demands.  The solution for these conundrums was to put French in command at Harpers Ferry.  So on this day French received orders to move to his new command… a beleaguered command that it was.   The brigade at Poolesville, Maryland would move with French to Maryland Heights.

“Blinky”… er… William French

The third order for movement on June 23 to consider moved Captain Samuel McKee’s detachment of US Regulars Cavalry (1st Cavalry if my notes are correct) from the Mouth of the Monocacy to Aldie, crossing “at Chick’s ford, if practicable.”  Cavalry Chief, Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton, needed these troopers to replace Reserve Brigade losses incurred at Upperville.  However this move left significant portions of the Maryland river bank unguarded.

Saving the most important for last, late in the day Major-General Oliver O. Howard received this notice:

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

The coiled spring was about to be released.  But not before a lot of countermanding and counter-countermanding.  That story tomorrow!

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, pages 266-7 and 271-3.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: