Thirty-eight bridges, aggregate length 6,458 feet: The 50th NY Engineers on the Overland Campaign

Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant’s concept for the Overland Campaign depended upon out-maneuvering the Army of Northern Virginia.  The problem facing the Army of the Potomac in that regard was the same which confronted Federal forces in 1861 … and 1862… and 1863… a lot of rivers to cross.  One can drag a finger across the map to indicate a line of advance simple enough. But when the troops start marching that line out, they come to an abrupt halt at the first good sized watercourse.  If maneuver is the game, then a commander must have a few bridges in his back pocket.

In the spring of 1864, Major-General George G. Meade had more than a few bridges in his back pocket.  Those bridges were the charge of Lieutenant-Colonel Ira Spaulding and his men of the 50th New York Engineers.  For the campaign, Spaulding organized the regiment into four battalions, all built around sets of bridges:

  • First Battalion – Major Wesley Brainerd, with Companies B, F, and G, had one fourteen boat French pontoon bridge.  First Battalion also supported the Second Corps.
  • Second Battalion – Major Edmund O. Beers, with Companies E, H, and L, had one thirteen boat French pontoon bridge (part of which you are familiar with).  This battalion supported Sixth Corps.
  • Third Battalion – Captain James H. McDonald (and later Major George W. Ford), with Companies D, K, and M, had a thirteen boat French pontoon bridge.  Third Battalion supported Fifth Corps.
  • Reserve Battalion – Under Spaulding’s direct command with Companies C and I.  This battalion had two pontoon trains with twelve canvas boats each.  Captains William Folwell and Martin Van Brocklin commanded one of these apiece. The reserve also had two wing trestles.

In addition to he bridges, each of the three numbered battalions carried the entrenching tools for their supported corps.

From the very start of the campaign, the army used these bridges.  In fact, before leaving Culpeper, the engineers put in a span over the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford in order to facilitate the start of the march south.  As the campaign progressed, the engineers bridged the Rappahannock, Rapidan, Po, and North Anna.

A good photographic study of the crossing of that latter river at Jericho Mills exists in the Library of Congress collection:

Notice those are the canvas boats of the Reserve Battalion.

On May 27, the 50th Engineers began spanning another river, a bit closer to Richmond and perhaps familiar to the veterans – the Pamunkey.  And the crossing there was a “contested” crossing:

May 27, the Reserve Battalion, with two canvas pontoon trains, accompanying General Sheridan’s command, reached the Pamunkey at Hanovertown about daylight. Captain Van Brocklin having the advance put a couple of boats together about a mile from the river, carried them to the river on the men’s shoulders, and sent over dismounted cavalry in these boats to drive away the enemy’s pickets. This was done after a slight skirmish, and Captain Van Brocklin immediately commenced constructing his bridge, completing it in about one hour, assisted by Captain Folwell and a portion of his company; length of bridge, 180 feet. General Torbert’s division of cavalry immediately commenced crossing on this bridge.

That’s how you cross a river under fire and force a bridgehead!  Later that day, a second canvas bridge went over Pamunkey just above the first.

With the cavalry across, the engineers needed to increase the number of crossing points to move the infantry over.  But the problem at that time was most of the wood pontoon bridges were just leaving the water on the North Anna that morning.  Getting those bridges down to the Pamunkey would at best be just in time to be too late.  So Spaulding’s engineers made do with what they had, using part of the other canvas bridges:

May 28, Captain Folwell reached Mrs. Nelson’s crossing at 6 a.m., and at 7. a.m. had a canvas bridge completed across the Pamunkey at this point of 146 feet in length. Owing to the scarcity of material this bridge was built in long spans of 21 feet, the balks alternating on the gunwales, and over this seemingly frail bridge passed without accident two divisions of the Sixth Corps with their artillery.

First Battalion arrived that morning and proceeded to Nelson’s Crossing to lay the first of the wooden bridges over the river at that point.  Second battalion arrived in the afternoon and Beers directed work laying another bridge.  Before the day was done, the engineers added another wooden pontoon bridge at the Hanovertown crossing.  And in addition they placed a canvas bridge over Mattapony Creek, for a total of five placed on May 28.

Grant, Meade, and the Army of the Potomac had “bounced” the Pamunkey.  More fighting lay ahead, and more rivers to cross.  In his report covering the spring campaign, Spaulding included a table listing all the bridges built north of the James River:

BridgesBuiltNorthofJamesR

Thirty-eight bridges to a total length of 6,458 feet.  And that is not counting the most important bridge of the campaign – 2,200 feet across the James. Summarizing the performance, Spaulding wrote:

…I believe the pontoon trains have been promptly on time when ordered, the bridges rapidly and skillfully built, and all other engineering operations of this command faithfully performed. Whatever credit may be awarded for this is mainly due to the energy and skill of the officers in immediate charge of the several works and to the zealous and faithful co-operation of the men under their command.

Those bridges allowed the army to reach places like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Totopotomy, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and eventually Richmond and Appomattox. Though they might not have charged any works, the men of the 50th New York Engineers were every part of that victory.

(Citations from the first half of Spaulding’s report on the Overland Campaign, OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part I, Serial 67, pages 304-316.)

3 thoughts on “Thirty-eight bridges, aggregate length 6,458 feet: The 50th NY Engineers on the Overland Campaign

  1. As usual, interesting stuff. The work of the U.S. Engineer Battalion and its Cos. A, B, C, and D should not go unmentioned. That bridge across the James, for example…..

  2. By all accounts, the commander of the Engineer Brigade Henry W. Benham was an alcoholic, who was frequently drunk during important actions, including during most of the Chancellorsville Campaign. The best account of Benham’s drinking is described in the diary of his aide-de-camp, Stephen Weld. Weld was so embarrassed by Benham’s drunken antics–including falling off his horse while trying to lay a bridge across the Rappahannock River–that Weld transferred to the staff of 1st Corps commander John F. Reynolds. If Benham was a drunk, he must have been a highly functional alcoholic because he retained command of the engineers for the entire war and served in the post-war army until he retired in 1882.

    Weld would eventually command the 56th Massachusetts Infantry Infantry during the Overland Campaign.

    • Yes, and his service as a field commander (Secessionville) was not much better.

      However, I’d give him credit for two contributions to the Overland Campaign. He prepared and staged siege materials at the Washington depot. And he supervised the construction of docks at both Belle Plain and Port Royal. Though any engineer could have accomplished those tasks, I suppose. However, the confusion about the 15th NY’s bridging equipment through the first week of June must have been concerning to the AoP staff. That parallels similar problems – keeping track of just what was where – occurred in June 1863, so it was not out of character. Perhaps we can simply say Benham did his job, and politely leave it at that?

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