Build a bridge – immediately – at Fort Powhatan: A busy day for Henry Benham

At some point in the future, I wish to examine the 1864 crossing of the James River to the level of detail offered for the 1863 crossing at Edwards Ferry.  There were numerous moving parts to the operation.  Each of which adds color to an important story.  As in June 1863, the Army of the Potomac didn’t just skip over a river.  And just as with the crossing at Edwards Ferry, the crossing opened a path leading to – in the case of the James River crossing, ten months later – victory.  (And a quick plug here, Brett has compiled many resources pertaining to the 1864 crossing on Beyond the Crater.)

Just as with the 1863 crossing, a central player in the effort to cross the James was Brigadier-General Henry Benham.  Readers may recall a lot of friction between Benham and army headquarters during the June 1863 crossing.  And one has the perception that Benham left the bridge building details to his subordinates (capable subordinates, I would add).  A similar situation existed in June 1864.  Except, however, Benham was getting order from multiple directions… though all flowing down from Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.

For Benham, June 14, 1864 began at 5:15 a.m. when he received an order from Army of the Potomac Headquarters, sent out the previous evening:

The major-general commanding directs that all pontoons and other bridge materials in your possession be brought immediately to Fort Powhatan.

At this time, Benham was still quartered at Fort Monroe, managing the materials shifted south from Washington in support of the campaign.  He had already forwarded on pontoon train, by boat, up the James River, under Captain James Robbins the previous day.  And as mentioned yesterday, Robbins was late.  Now on the morning of June 14, the pontoons were not at the crossing site.  And Benham was miles away, apparently out of touch.

At 10:45 a.m. Major-General Andrew A. Humphreys, Chief of Staff, Army of the Potomac, again messaged Benham:

The commanding general directs that immediately upon the receipt of this communication you bring all the bridge material you have, or that may be at Old Point Comfort, to Powhatan with all the expedition possible, and report its arrival.  Similar orders were sent you last night, telegraphed through the White House.

And… because Humphreys was watching this task as a good Chief of Staff should, he sent another message at 11:15 a.m., with more instructions:

The commanding general directs that immediately upon the arrival of the bridge material at Fort Powhatan you construct the bridge across the James River at the point selected by General Weitzel, and the approaches to which are now being prepared.

And we think cell phones, text messages, and emails are bad today!

Benham didn’t respond to the first message until just before 11 a.m., and likely had not received the 10:45 or 11:15 a.m. message.  He told Humphreys:

Yours received at 5.15 a.m. to-day.  I sent pontoon bridging according to orders yesterday, as advised you at 9 a.m. At 10.15 to-day I received orders from General Butler to send them and go up myself. Presuming that these must be by authority of General Grant, I am now starting at 11, and will communicate with you as soon as possible.

Benham followed this up with another message to headquarters at 4 p.m., while  on the steamer J.A. Warner, near Wilson’s Landing.  He acknowledged receipt of the 11:15 a.m. orders, but had left Fort Monroe, as indicated, by 11 a.m.  Now the question arose, “is the bridge complete?”  At 9:30 p.m. Major-General George Meade sent that inquiry directly to Benham:

What progress in throwing the bridge, and at what time can you complete it, so far as you can now tell?  I desire the work to be continued all night, if practicable.

Benham responded:

The bridge has now the last boat in position and the raft is ready to close the gap completely whenever it is safe to do so with reference to the boats below, about which I am greatly in doubt. The bridge can be completed in fifteen minutes if you so order it.  If it is important for the troops here to cross at once it can be done by closing the gap and holding the troop steamers and quartermaster’ boats below and let them pass in a body afterward, if you so order it.

Keep in mind, what Benham described here is an opening in the middle of the bridge, with a set of pontoons pulled out of line, to allow passage of ships upriver.  The engineers built the bridge with that in mind, so as to allow steamers to support crossing of infantry and equipment at other points along the river.  Unlike the June 1863 crossing, the Army of the Potomac could call upon watercraft to effect the movement.  Already at this time portions of Major-General Winfield S. Hancock’s Second Corps were crossing by boat.  But with no means of loading wagons or artillery on boats, the bridges were still vital to the movement.Meade’s response came at 11:30 p.m. (received by Benham at 12:45 the next morning):

Complete the bridge. General Burnside, with the Ninth Corps, will be ordered to cross at once. Request, in my name, the officer in command of the Atlanta to stop all boats below the bridge, and to-morrow a time will be fixed and a selection made of such as it is important to pass through. Take charge of the bridge. General Burnside will be directed to refer to you in passing over his command. Acknowledge receipt.

But… Meade would audible yet another change within minutes of that order:

I have changed the orders, and now have directed Burnside, Wright, and Warren to send over their trains and surplus artillery with guards.  I don’t like to cross any troops till the big train gets nearer to us.

With that, those at the bridge stood ready to support the crossing.  Of note, Meade mentions the USS AtlantaThere she was, former Confederate ram, now employed to keep the Confederate ironclads bottled up in the James River.  An interesting side note, if you will, with respect to the naval support for the Overland Campaign.(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 40, Part II, Serial 81, pages 4, 22-4.)