The Folwell letters, June 28, 1863: “I thought the Rear Guard would never get over.”

Over the course of three days, June 25-27, 1863, the Army of the Potomac crossed at Edwards Ferry into Maryland.  These troops would move up the roads through Maryland and within a few days be engaged at Gettysburg, some say to decide the course of the war.  But all of that was in the future on the morning of June 28.  No one in the army knew were the marching would lead.  Not the least of which was the army’s new commander, Major-General George G. Meade.

While his army’s commander was busy taking the reins of command, Captain William Folwell remained with his charge at Edwards Ferry, having witnessed the historic crossing of the Potomac.  We have no entry for June 27 and can only assume Folwell was kept too busy for writing.  But he did have observations worth recording for a letter the next morning:

June 28th, 1863, 9 A.M.,

Edwards Ferry, Md.

Lieut. [Thomas R.] Lounsbury came into my tent during my absence night before last, and wrote his name as you see near the left upper corner of this page.  A short time after, he found me.  I walked over the Bridge to his camp with him, and he, getting leave, returned with me and got supper and slept in my tent.  During the night, his Corps, the (2nd) crossed and in the morning we took the horses and rode on to overtake his Regt. We found it bivouaced a mile away.  I had the pleasure of meeting Col. [Eliakim] Sherrill, Capts. [Benjamin F.] Lee and [Winfield] Scott, and other gentlemen.  The Regt. moved and I bade him Good Bye, but the troops moved only a short distance and Tom came down to dinner.  He looks well and says the life agrees with him.  Col. Sherrill spoke highly of him and said he intended to promote him as soon as possible.  His Capt. (Scott) is, was, a Baptist preacher, a good fellow, but not much of an officer….

Somewhat prosaic, I’d offer.  The sort of encounters that must have happened frequently during the war.  With pre-war acquaintance, Lounsbury, Folwell meets with other officers from the 126th New York Infantry.  Significant enough that Folwell recorded names.  Of the four officers mentioned, within a year one was dead and two others badly wounded.  Sherrill, having assumed command of the brigade on the field at Gettysburg on July 2, was mortally wounded while leading the defense of Ziegler’s Grove on the next day.  Lee was also wounded on July 3, and discharged the following April.  Scott was wounded so grievously on May 8, 1864 at Spotsylvania to be discharged later in that fall.

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Lounsbury would serve out the war, never getting the suggested promotion, with the 126th.  After the war, he went on to teach English and literature at Yale with an admirable record. Lounsbury and Folwell maintained a relationship after the war, as evidenced in the former’s papers at Yale.  How many Folwells and Lounsburys were there in the Civil War?  And how did their experiences factor into their careers?

But that was years into the future… for the moment there on the banks of the Potomac, Folwell’s next immediate task would involve dismantling the bridges which had facilitated the movement:

At noon, we received orders to prepare for dismantling the Bridge.  Accordingly, all hands went to work at cleaning ground for loading room and preparing roads to get the wagons down.  At little past four P.M. the last Regt. of the 6th Corps (Sedgwick) having filed over on to the Bridge, we began taking up the lower Bridge.  I had charge of dismantling with Cos. H and I,  Cos. F and C loaded the material on the wagons. (By the way, the Brigade is encamped at Poolesville). We were ordered to load 52 pontoons on wagons, together with the necessary appendages.  This was done by 9 P.M. The Regulars, meantime, broke the Goose Creek Bridge and the Upper Bridge into rafts, and our men went to work navigating them in to the Canal through the “left lock”. At 20 minutes to 1 A.M., we had leave to go to Camp.  We were out at 5 o’clock this morning, and have completed our work.  The loaded train has gone to Hdqrs. and the balance of the stuff is made into rafts and in the canal….

I find some important validations in this passage, confirming some assumptions made about the sequence of events.  First, one of the bridges was removed in the afternoon of June 27, with the passage of the Sixth Corps.  Second, the engineers used the river lock, on the Maryland side, to facilitate the movement of the bridging equipment downstream to Washington. Lastly, the majority of the dismantling operations were completed just after midnight.

And that point is important to place in context.  At the very time Folwell and his men were going to bed, downstream from them Major-General J.E.B. Stuart was attempting a crossing at Rowser’s Ford.  If there had been sufficient illumination for the engineers to work the complicated tasks with their bridging equipment, then we must also know there was ample illumination for Stuart’s men to conduct a reconnaissance of Rowser’s Ford, just nine miles away.  Nor did Folwell complain about rains slowing the task.  Point being, Stuart’s crossing was not as “dark and gloomy” as sometimes portrayed.

One other point to make here in regard to Stuart’s movement.  Folwell does not mention any disruptions in traffic or movements due to Confederate activity downstream.  Neither the pontoon rafts sent to Washington; nor the engineers marching through Maryland; nor the supplies being moved about appear to have crossed paths with Stuart.  The Confederate cavalry moved through like a fast summer thunderstorm.

That next morning (June 28) found Folwell waiting for orders…

We are now awaiting orders.  Two of the four Cos. here are to march to H.Q. and join the Regt., and the other two go to Washington with the rafts, whence they report to Frederick as soon as possible.  The designation of the companies has not yet been made.  I don’t care which Cos. go to Washington.  I should like to go to the city myself, but the trouble I would have to keep my men sober and in order would make me content to stay away….

Interesting, and perfectly understandable, sentiment from a company commander.

This gave Folwell time to consider what he’d witnessed the previous day:

All is very quiet on the other side.  No Rebs. in sight.  Our men are bringing over a few stragglers in the life boat.  We alone remain here covered by a couple of batteries above us on the hill. The Q.M.s and Commissaries having loaded their stuff on to Barges, have started down the Canal.  It is again quiet as before the crossing. The number of our Cavalry has astonished me.  I thought the Rear Guard would never get over.  The string of wagons was endless almost.  Gen. [John] Sedgwick stood at the head of the lower Bridge and urged on the teams nearly all afternoon.  He wore a loose sack coat without straps and a horrid bad slouch hat.  One would have thought him a very officious wagonmaster….

Sedgwick a wagonmaster?  Calls to mind a scene from the move “Patton.”

But few contrabands followed the Army.  This morning, our men bro’t over one man, three women and several bushels of babies and children. I asked if he had his *free papers.”  Oh, pretty neah, Sah, he replied, and his eyes shown like a pair of big peeled onions….

I have found only a handful of first hand references to contrabands during the move through Loudoun.  There are, to be sure, accounts.  But those are less in number than I would expect.  My suspicion is that most of the slaves who could flee had already left the previous year.  Furthermore, there was an established freedmens population in Loudoun at the time.  But Folwell’s mention here, along with a few others, confirms there were contrabands following in the army’s wake that summer.

 I do not hear about the books yet, and must write Geo. about them.  I presume they are still safe in some Express storehouse.  Our box from home hangs fire somewhere between there and Washington.  The scenery along the upper Potomac is hardly surpassed in any country. The view of the river, shore and hill-side from my tent door would make a lovely picture.  Well, I wonder the orders did not come.  We are all ready to march and would rather be off to save marching at night. If we are not to go, I should be at work on my pay rolls for May and June.

Ah, the paperwork ware continued, even as the army marched off to battle.

(Citations from William Watts Folwell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 421-23 (pages 427-9 of scanned copy))