“With the greatest exertion…”: Engineers complete the approaches for the James River crossing

Picking up from yesterday’s post, let us turn again to the report of Brigadier-General Godfrey Weitzel, Chief Engineer, Army of the James, in regard to preparations made to cross the Army of the Potomac, 150 years ago.  For June 13, Weitzel indicated that his capable subordinate, Lieutenant Peter Michie, was at Fort Powhatan and engaged:

June 13, without waiting for a reply, I directed Lieutenant Michie to proceed to the place and prepare the timber necessary for the corduroy across the marsh, as it seemed probable that it would be wanted. With 150 axmen, 1,200 feet of timber, in sticks averaging 6 inches in diameter and 20 feet long, was cut and prepared before dark, and over 3,000 feet was brought down to the creek above Fort Powhatan ready to be rafted across.

For reference, again here’s the map provided from Weitzel’s report:

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Later that afternoon, Weitzel received conformation as to the location. He had anticipated correctly:

At about 3 p.m. I received a dispatch from General Grant informing me that the head of his column would be at the bridge-head at 10 a.m. the next day, and directing me to build approaches to the bridge at once at the point designated. An officer was immediately dispatched to Lieutenant Michie, with instructions to begin at once, using the detail that he had with him, and that I would join him as soon as possible with a heavy detail to carry on the work. With the greatest exertion on the part of both officers and men the approaches on both sides of the river, with a pier 150 feet long over the soft marsh on the east bank, was completed at 9.45 a.m., a quarter of an hour before the time indicated by General Grant; and the bridge would have been built, ready for the passage of the troops, at or before 10 a.m. on the 14th if the pontoon train had arrived, as it should, at this time….

There are several moving parts to this operation.  Not the least of which is the engineers bringing up the bridges.  And that was the problem:

Through inexcusable tardiness, and more than culpable neglect of duty, Captain [James L.] Robbins, of the Fiftieth New York Volunteer Engineers, did not appear in sight with his pontoons until after 12 o’clock at noon on the 14th, although he had but eighty miles to come from Fort Monroe, and received his orders to go as fast as he could at 2 p.m. on the 13th.

Robbins was part of the Engineer Brigade operating directly with Brigadier-General Henry Benham out of Fort Monroe at that time.  Weitzel soon found Captain Robbins:

So anxious was I that there should be no delay that I sent a dispatch boat to look for the pontoons down the river, with orders to go until  they were found and hurry them up. Fifteen miles below Jamestown Island they were found at anchor, the captain being asleep.

In addition to the preparations mentioned above, Weitzel or Michie (or both) had six schooners – three each above and below the bridge site – setup as anchor points for the intended bridges.

While Weitzel and Michie completed work facilitating the crossing, north of the James River, the 50th New York Engineers (minus of course Robbins and his tardy pontoon bridge), were busy preparing the roads that would get the Army of the Potomac to crossing points.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part III, pages 754-5; Volume 40, Part I, page 676-7.)

 

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