The Folwell letters, June 23, 1863: “We have no reliable news.”

Let me get back to Captain William W. Folwell and his bridge builders on the Potomac.  When we last checked in, Company I of the 50th New York Engineers were at Edwards Ferry, along with other engineers from their own regiment and the US Regulars, having built the first pontoon bridge at the site.  Having accomplished their task, the engineers were sentenced to sitting to wait on  the rest of the Army.  And waiting they did…

Edwards Ferry, Md.,

June 23rd, 1863.

Twelve hours of unbroken sleep makes me a new man again.  Bain [Lieutenant Mahlon Bainbridge Folwell] and I made our beds together.  We had two rubber blankets, our overcoats, and our woolen blankets under us, and over us my white double woolen blanket.  The previous night, we had slept cold, but last night we were as snug as could be.  We had a nice breakfast of broiled ham, fried potatoes, boiled eggs, bread and butter and coffee.  The eggs were cooked to absolute perfection….

That sounds like a pretty good breakfast, if you ask me!

But these guys weren’t there to sit around the campfire and drink coffee.  There was a war on:

We have no reliable news. This is an out-of-the-way place.  It seems quite certain that the Rebs. have been (in small force) in Frederick.  I do not think they have any considerable body north of the Potomac. If they have, we can’t help it.  Hooker can’t spare a man from the ranks as long as Lee is on his front with 180,000 men.  I hope we can avoid battle for some weeks.  Indeed, I wish there might be no more fighting this season, and that during it and the following winter, an army of 1,200,000 men be raised and organized.  What an eternal shame to us that the Rebels, with less by far resources of all kinds, should constantly outnumber us.  Here’s Lee with 120,000 men (as I was informed yesterday by a deserter from Longstreet’s Corps) while Hooker can barely parade 75,000.  The deserter was an intelligent fellow and well-informed.  he says the Rebels hold us in greater contempt than ever since they flagged us at Chancellorsville.  They had but 65,000 men there.  Longstreet’s whole corps was at Suffolk.  We had 120,000 men and were disgracefully and ignominiously beaten by little more than half our number.  I am astonished that Mr. Lincoln retains Hooker in command.  The giving the order to retreat ought to have broken him.  Oh, such a shame to have lost the battle, and 20,000 men hors du combat.

Another frank assessment of Hooker’s leadership from Folwell.  A prevailing opinion in the ranks at that time of the war.  But I would read into this further.  Folwell was convinced, at that moment in time, the Confederates had considerably more men than they would ever be able to concentrate at this time in the war (if ever at all!).   I’d argue this goes further to an underlying belief, instilled during the early phases of the war, that the Confederates had been able to recruit, equip, and field a massive force.  A presumption that clouded thinking from the highest to the lowest levels.

Beyond that, I’ve never really understood why the word of a deserter was taken as firm truth.

More war news to close out his entry for the day:

Bain has just handed me a copy of a telegram from Gen. Butterfield to Capt. [Charles] Turnbull, giving an account of the Cavalry fight on Sunday.  Pleasonton thrashed Stuart completely.  Drove them back to Ashby’s Gap, captured prisoners, 2 pieces of artillery, small arms, enemy leaving dead and wounded upon the field.  Our loss small.  Well, this is encouraging, but these cavalry skirmishes scarcely affect the general result.  We are to move our camp in a short time.  We can make a very nice camp on the hill.  [Captain Martin] Van Brocklin [of Company C] and I intend riding out to Leesburg this morning to see the country and hear the news.

The news of the cavlary fighting, from days before, was as sign of things to come.  Somewhat like a distant thunder in the distance on a summer day, portending a moving storm front.  The question that lingered, like the smell of rain to come, was “where?”  Fate would not grant Folwell’s wish that the rest of 1863 would be quiet.

As for the trip to Leesburg… I hoped would follow a description of the town and surrounding area.  Would be most interesting to those of us studying the Civil War here in Loudoun.  But I doubt Folwell made the trip.  June 24, as we know, was the first of several busy days for the engineers at Edwards Ferry.

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 415-7 (pages 421-23 of scanned copy))

 

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One thought on “The Folwell letters, June 23, 1863: “We have no reliable news.”

  1. All the Folwell bridge-building stories remind me of a chapter in one of the best soldier-written books to come out of the War, “How Private George W Peck Put Down the Rebellion, or, The Experiences of a Raw Recruit.” Peck was a humorist and raconteur second only to his contemporary, Mark Twain, as a public speaker, and he was first in popularity among the veterans of the “late unpleasantness.” Chapter XI of the book details the bridge-building episode, with an interesting “rest of the story” aspect as the site is revisited after the war with heart-warming results. Free to read or download on Google Play Books, and print editions available. I give this book a 5 star recommendation.

    http://books.googleusercontent.com/books/content?req=AKW5QadMMTzZ7i8kkHhDXgk5Vr65srKgyGVnQzYJI8PSmAT4MZL2nEnKATUyX9yygrNg6xkJbGAAWlGhWwzaA_E7j63Y6ImrHdZYSqOIOEP_z4E0v3_XtrVGvr0QTYnZSYKvibhl1XAv3vK5-jEUEj_0C0rU-haGGKaetT5SJJWJEZrs4shfHVIZd4B-elnrfzJcNDRThlVJ_R7ameZbA3HFCP7-iUNaSukvARGJGjhSYcWcmeW4ZXbJQOGcSQXWjhXFT3rG0_vy-7kXmXEoLTJ1a2ZPT6YwZg

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