“Cause the pontoon bridge to be taken up”: The Bridge at Wellford’s Ford

Very likely you have seen this photograph before:

This is a pontoon bridge placed over the Hazel River at Wellford’s Ford during the winter of 1864.  An excellent study of pontoon bridging, as it was done in the Civil War. And a lot of interesting characters and features in the photograph. On the north side of the ford, Colonel Emory Upton’s brigade from the First Division, Sixth Corps camped around the manor of Presque Isle.

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While Wellford’s Ford was heavily used by both Federals and Confederates during the war, during the winter encampment the main use of this pontoon bridge was to connect Upton’s brigade with the rest of the Sixth Corps.  Although I’ve not a source to state so, this pontoon bridge may have been a temporary arrangement while a more permanent trestle bridge was constructed for that purpose – which may be that pictured here:

However, we know the pontoon bridge was still in place on May 1, 1864, as the Army of the Potomac prepared to break winter quarters.  In fact, orders came down on May 1 to remove the bridge:

Headquarters Sixth Corps,
May 1, 1864.
Major Beers,
Comdg. Battalion Fiftieth New York Vol. Engineers :

Major: The general commanding the corps directs that you move your camp at an early hour to-morrow morning to this side of the river, and that as soon as the brigade of Colonel Upton has crossed, you cause the pontoon bridge to be taken up.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Chas. A. Whittier,
Major and Acting Assistant Adjutant-General.

Like that?  “Cause the pontoon bridge to be taken up.”  As if by finger snap, the bridge places itself onto wagons for transport!

Me being somewhat strict with the timelines and letter of the reports, I find some questions about exactly when the pontoon bridge was taken up.  Lieutenant-Colonel Ira Spaulding, commander of the 50th New York Engineers, stated Beers packed up the bridge on May 2.  Specifically,

On the 2d of May Major Beers took up his bridge at Welford’s Ford [sic], on the Hazel River, except one boat left in the river for a ferry, and went into camp on the south side of the river.

And for what it is worth, some of Beers pontoons went back into the water at Culeper Ford (a.k.a. Culpeper Mine Ford) on the Rapidan on May 4.

On the other hand, Beers’ action was tied, by order, to the movement of Upton’s brigade.  Not to say Upton’s men used the pontoon bridge, as they probably would have used the trestle bridge.  Rather to say Beers was not to “cause the pontoon bridge to be taken up,” until after Upton crossed.  And in his report, Upton states:

The brigade broke camp near the Hazel River at 4 a.m. May 4, 1864, crossing the Rapidan at Germanna Ford, and camped on the plank road 2 miles beyond.

So, either Beers pulled up the bridge on May 2 before Upton moved, giving him time to move to Culpeper Ford; or Beers pulled the bridge out in the early morning of May 4, then rushed through the entire Army of the Potomac to put a bridge over the Rapidan.

Now having established a few “operational” points about this bridge and its connection to events happening 150 years ago, let me go back to the photographs.  There are at least four photographs of this bridge site.  Allow me to introduce them in a sequence for alignment.  First is this one, taken from the south bank of the river, looked over the ford crossing and bridge:

The second, also from the south bank, shot over the dam at the ford towards the bridge:

The third, used as the lead above, looked over from the north bank at the mill complex at the ford, and included ruins of the canal locks:

And the fourth, from downstream with a view of the bridge, dam, and a rider on his horse in the river shallows.

There are several structures and natural features in these photos to use triangulating the points the camera was situated.  Of course, there’s the pontoon bridge itself.  There is a separate boat tied off to the north bank; the mill structures; the dam; and a very distinct tree with broken limb just to the side of the bridge abutments.

I consulted William E. Trout’s Rappahannock River Atlas in regard to the mill, canal, and dam structures.  Adding to that mix the pontoon bridge and other visual references, I came up with this sketch of the site to depict the camera angles:


The four yellow octagons indicate my estimate of the camera locations, numbered with respect to the sequence provided above.  I could spend another thousand words going over the fine details in these photos.  Furthermore, I wonder if we might even pick out distinct marks on the pontoons that might appear in other photographs at other locations in the Overland Campaign.  But for today, let me simply conclude with some photos taken at the site, earlier this winter.

The river was “up” at the time of our visit.  But this view looks across the ford site, roughly were the dam ran across the river:

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This view approximates the wartime photo number two, mentioned above:


And this is a view of Wellford’s Ford Road, up which many Federal and Confederates traveled during the war:

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That leads up to another site where yet another very famous photograph was taken in Culpeper County:

But let’s save that for another day, shall we?

Wellford’s Ford is in pristine condition today, and on private property.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part I, Serial 67, pages 306 and 665; Part II, Serial 68, page 322;  Other sources consulted include The Rapahannock Scenic River Atlas, prepared for the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society by W.E. Trout, III, and of course my friend Clark “Bud” Hall, who provided input and served as guide to the site.)