The Folwell letters, June 19, 1863: “Farewell to my visions of clean shirts and stockings.”

In the previous installment, we followed Captain William W. Folwell as he, Company I of the 50th New York Engineers, and pontoon equipment barged up the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal on June 18, 1863, heading for Nolan’s Ferry.  At times, Folwell’s narrative seemed dreamy, somewhat distant from the war.  Yet at other parts, the war seemed poised to strike light lightning.  His letter closed with Company I nearing their destination… and expecting rain.  That is where his letter of June 18 picked up:

Monocacy Aqueduct, June 19th, ’63, 10 A.M.

The rain came on and fell in the biggest kind of torrents for three hours.  It, however, ceased as we were closing up on the main body of the train at this place, about 8 o’clock P.M. I got the order to tie up and lie by for the night.  The men spread their blankets on the boats, drank their coffee, and went to sleep.  Several officers got leave to sleep in a house on the tow-path side.  We left the door open, and so slept well till daylight.  The housekeeper made us a good breakfast of our own provisions and gave me some milk in addition.

First point of order here is an explanation of the location.  When departing Georgetown, Folwell’s party was going to Nolan’s Ferry.  But the party stopped instead at the Mouth of the Monocacy… or, well, technically at the Monocacy Aqueduct.  Let me pull up a map from the Sesquicentennial postings in order to put these placenames in perspective.:

PotomacCrossings1A

In the upper right we see were the Monocacy River joins the Potomac.  There were several named (recognizable names, to us Civil War types) in that vicinity.  Several transportation routes, including the canal, converged at that corner of the map.  However, Folwell’s engineers were supposed to proceed roughly two and a half miles up the canal to Nolan’s Ferry.  The pause at the Monocacy was in some part due to White’s raid at Point of Rocks on the night of June 17.  But also factoring here are the vaccinations as Hooker, and staff, tried to sort out the situation.  And that is the stuff I’ve built several blog posts about.

Moving back from the big picture, Folwell’s breakfast must have been a welcome departure from eating over a campfire.

12:15 P.M. Went up the canal with the Major and Capt. Turnbull of the Regulars, to select a point for getting our material into the river.  We have to unload balks, chess, etc., and carry them down to the river, and then haul the boats out on the tow path and drag them down the bank into the water.

Very interesting, and important, assessment of a tactical problem.  The equipment was but a few yards from the river.  But those few yards were the towpath and bottom land next to the river.  Queue up the “easier said than done” cliche.  We will see later the engineers found a better way to unload when actually putting up the bridges at Edwards Ferry a few days later.  But for now, let’s stick with June 18.

This we do when orders rec’d.  Meantime, we are encamping upon a nice piece of ground on the heel path.  Our company wagons have come up, also our horses.  By some ill luck, our own personal baggage has been left behind.  The Quartermaster in order to equalize the load, took this baggage from my company wagon, and put it on to a separate empty wagon, which vehicle has remained in Washington.  Farewell to my visions of clean shirts and stockings.  My company desk has all my private company papers in and your picture.

So it is “hurry up and wait” for Folwell.  Though I cannot pin it to a specific instance, the orders received were one of a series of commands and countermands while Hooker and staff sorted things out.  And we know Hooker would continue to change his plans with respect to bridging the Potomac through those late June days.  The next move would take Folwell back down the canal to Edwards Ferry.  And that’s the next installment.

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 411-12 (pages 417-8 of scanned copy).)

The Folwell letters, June 18, 1863: “We live an Iliad every month….”

When we left Captain William Folwell, he had settled down for a night’s sleep, on the night of June 17, 1863, laying across bridging equipment on a raft heading up the C&O Canal, proceeding to Nolan’s Ferry.  That was an earned, uninterrupted sleep after a hard day of work.  Now we pick up on the morning of June 18:

When I fairly awoke, I stripped and jumped into the canal, and enjoyed a delightful swim.  During a short halt, we made to feed the animals, I had the men cut a quantity of boughs and stick them about the sides of the boats.  They furnish us a delightful shade.

I am half siting, half laying on my blankets, under the boughs dressed in the most free and easy stile. I wear simply my hat, shirt and trousers, boots and stockings, under clothing, – coat and vest are all piled at the end of my bed.  Now and then, I hand my legs over the side of the boat and let my feet drag in the water.  I intend jumping over-board soon and taking another swim. All aboard.  Level here – and away we go.

Folwell and his men seemed to enjoy the trip up the C&O Canal.  Other than their charges (equipment and animals), their duty was simply that of riding the rafts.  They could move no faster than the animals towing their equipment.  So nothing to do but sit and wait.  Such contrast to a report filed by Brigadier-General Henry Benham on the same day.  Benham painted the picture of an Engineer Brigade hard pressed.  He described the movement of Major Ira Spaulding’s detachment, of which Folwell’s command was a part, as delayed and somewhat frantic due to the need to cross-load equipment from steamers to the canal.  Benham cited a lack of manpower in Alexandria to recover and refit equipment recently used at Aquia Creek.

But all that mess was downstream from Folwell.  His ride up was as peaceful as one might have in a theater of war.  Folwell took the time to give us a description of his surroundings and the soldiers’ activities:

It is worth a while to make this voyage here for the scenery.  The canal (Chesapeake & Ohio) follows the Potomac river bank all the way. The banks are steep and thickly wooded.  The bed of the river is rocky and tortuous, and along the edge of the water grown many willows. Talk of going up the Nile.  That voyage could not be more interesting than this.  We have no naked Arabs and Fellahs, but we have half-naked Yankee soldiers who can make vastly more fun.  What fun to see them diving off the raft, and tumbling along in the water.  If they fall behind swimming, they only have to get on to the tow-path and run up and jump in ahead of us.  Yesterday, when several of them were merry, they sang Methodist hymns with great energy and not in bad taste.  [Artificer] Allen Taylor pushed [Sergeant] Tommy Owens overboard. I have given Tommy leave to dunk Mr. Taylor the first good chance he has.  On the other boats is a group playing Muggins very industriously.  Corporal [Charles] Bodle is mixing a lemonade.  [Sargent Levi] McGill has just finished a cup of bread and milk, and has promised to buy a canteen full for me at the first opportunity. This with some bread will make my dinner.

I like this passage for several reasons.  Foremost, this reminds me of those days when I “soldiered” when we were, like Folwell’s command, in transit with nothing to do but wait for journey’s end.  And during those intervals, you see the personalities come forward.  Folwell mentions these men, all enlisted, in a familiar tone.  This is not the “fatherly” tone one might see from a commander.  Rather one who wishes he too could partake of such play, condoning it as a break in the military discipline, but recognizing he, as the captain, cannot pass over that line.  We will read more on this later in the letter.

And this all stands in sharp contrast to Benham’s report… not to mention the infantry on those hot, dusty marches into Loudoun County!

Folwell seemed to enjoy this way of “going to war.”  But he stopped to add context:

Do you wonder how I can rattle on at this rate, as if I were on a pleasure excursion, and the salvation of the country did not depend on our having a Bridge down at Nolan’s Ferry by dark of to-day.  What do I know?  I have seen and read one or two newspapers this week, but with so much on my mind I could not fairly make out their contents. I think I understand that the Rebels are advancing up the valley, and that their Cavalry is threatening Pa. and that Hooker’s Army, having broken “camp near Falmouth,” has fallen back to cover Washington and possibly to follow Lee into Maryland.  I am inclined to think that Hooker’s Army or some portion of it will use this Bridge, which I understand is to be laid at Nolan’s Ferry near the mouth of the Monocacy.  What a trepidation must the Dutchmen of Penna. be in, and I dare say the people of this “Southern Hier” begin “to tremble in their shoes”. On some accounts, I am not sorry for this demoralization of the Rebels.  Our Copperheads used to see what kind of a war they are waging.  We have had no mail since last Saturday, and it will be some day before one can reach us.

Folwell seemed to grasp the general situation of June 1863, perhaps better than some of the generals did at the time.  I think it significant, though don’t know what to make of such, the reference to “Hooker’s Army” instead of “our Army” or other phrase.  Not to mention the remark about the Copperheads.

 

Bringing us back to the canal, Folwell recounted:

One of the mules has just been kicking, and has broken his harness.  While we lie still, a dozen men slide out of their clothing, and plunge into the water.

And that lead Folwell to channel classic figures of old:

One would think some of the fellows to have been sons of Neptune and Amphitrite, and to have been reared in the rocky mountains of the Hereids and Oceanidae.  Oenid. Bah for classics.  We live an Iliad every month, and the wanderings of Ulysses are of no account in comparison with the devious marches of the Engineer Brigade.  The charms of the Siren fade beside the blandishments of Georgetown apple and cider women.  Scylla and Charybdis present no great difficulties than the narrow lock gates of the Chesapeake & Ohio canal.  The rocks of Ithaca and the sands of Pylus all find counterparts in the bed of the Potomac. We have met no Polyphemus yet.  It is curious to see a snake swim.  There’s one and a dozen men a swimming.  What do they care.

And from there, Folwell began to think to a future beyond the war.

This is a suitable dolce for niente. I wish I had the Lotus Eaters here to read, for I can’t recall a line of it now.  I know how we can have fun if we have leisure.  Take our Yacht from Venice to Montreal and thence to Lake Champlain, and down the Hudson to N.Y.  Up the Passaic and then through the canal in to the Delaware river, down that and across in to the Susquehanna and so on, as we like. All the way around to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi, and through the Illinois canal into Lake Michigan and so home.  Was sagst du? Another lock.  The sun gets around and I shall have to move to keep in the shade.  I think I must swim. There.  I feel as cool and moist as a cucumber pickle just from the cellar.

These luxuries you women know nothing of.  Possibly, I ought not to mention except under the disguise of six syllabled words.  Here are some beautiful bits of scenery around the bend in the river. I can not tell you how the luxuriance of the trees and grass delights me.  The other day, I told Col. [William H.] Pettes that in case my brother couldn’t be mustered in and should be discharged that I should offer my resignation.  “No use, sir.  I shouldn’t let you go,” he said, and I suppose it would be impossible for me to get out of service now.  The more I think about Venice, Ohio, the more I am persuaded that I should like to go there, if I were sure you would enjoy health there.

And here we see a personal reflection, which I think relates to the familiar tone used about the men in the earlier passage:

When I come from the War, I shall be a very different man from the one you first knew.  I am forgetting and losing my taste for poetry and literature, and find myself less susceptible of fun and frolic.  Sterner and busier. The habit of command, forming now, will probably remain during my life, and I fear I am becoming captious and impatient of control.  You will have to tame and soften and civilize me when I get back home….

I hate to read into things, but considering this passage with the earlier one strikes a cord with me.

Ah, it gets hot.  I think I will put up a piece of tent to make shade.  With a little help from [Private Ira] Decker, I have a shelter under which a breeze sucks through deliciously.  We have just lengthened out the tow line to relieve the team, and to keep the head of the raft from inclining toward the tow path.  It will be night when we reach our destination.  I fear in that event we shall have to work all night.  Well, that will be nothing new.  I am getting too lazy to write and I think you are probably glad of it.  Nicht wahr? Whew!  how hot the sun is the moment the wind dies away.  I must get in the canal again.  here goes.

Perhaps we can forgive the engineers for “recreating” on the canal, because we know they would put in some very long hours doing difficult work in the days that followed.

1 P.M. Been dozing.  Allen Taylor being still drunk, discharged his gun without leave, and I have put him in arrest.  What a fool the man is.  Besides, he might shoot some one of us.

Records show that Artificer Allen Taylor was demoted to private on July 11, 1863.  I will have to research more to determine if the incident of June 18 was the cause of Taylor’s demotion.

Corporal McGill does not get back with the milk for dinner.  I grow hungry.  It is advisable to eat lightly on marches, when it is impossible to take meals statedly. Wonder where the boy is they have sent us from home.  I presume we shall get it at length. Shall I get in the canal again.  It’s “awful hot.” No, the sun will scorch my back.  I will wait till later in the day.  Here’s McGill come back with empty canteens.  So, no dinner.  Never mind, try again.  He brings news told him by the Capt. of the tug we just met.  That some Rebs. crossed at Point of Rocks last night and burned the town. It is not known whether they returned to Va. or have gone over to Md.  We may have a fight before night.  I suppose I ought to put my boots on and be ready to fall my men in.  I hope, however, the Rebs.will not molest us.  The “joys of battle” are very fine in the story-books.  The poets rejoice in them, but soldiers are not eager for the fray as said poets feign.

The Confederate raid alluded to here was on the night of June 17, and conducted by Lieutenant-Colonel Elijah V. White against the stations at Catoctin and Point of Rocks.

Starting the next passage, Folwell mentioned an eight mile stretch between locks.  I will venture a guess this was either just below Edwards Ferry’s lock, or just above. The time was late in the afternoon.

Here’s a long level – 8 miles, they say.  The sun is under a cloud.  There’s a breeze. I am cool and comfortable.  What a delicious little nap I have had.

8 P.M. Another nap and another swim.  The mules stopped for a drink.  It was hot, oh, beastly hot.  I slid in the water. The men followed my example and 20 of us were paddling around the raft.  Here are some magnificent elms on the heel-path.  Oh. how cool I am under my tent, barefooted.  Quite a different individual from him of the “tea-pot photograph.” This life will make a barbarian of me.  Any man is a barbarian away from home and the Church.  There’s a shower in the clouds.  It thunders in the distance. As the showers usually follow the water-courses, I think it best to provide against this by rolling up my blankets and dressing myself. I will fold these sheets which I have written over and enclose them.  I hope they will amuse you a little.  I have whiled away several hours of what otherwise would have been a tedious day.  The rain is coming.

And with that, Folwell closed his letter and thus the narrative for the day.  I’ve let this post run on longer than normal, as the letter offers an insightful view of “soldiering” from the perspective of a company commander.  And… a wandering mind!

The next installment will pick up with Folwell and command at the Mouth of the Monocacy, amid a heavy rain.

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 406-11 (pages 412-17 of scanned copy).)

 

The Folwell letters, June 17, 1863: Loading pontoons for a trip up the C&O

Last week, I offered a transcription of a letter from Captain William W. Folwell, Company I, 50th New York Engineers, dated June 17, 1863.  We left Folwell as he went about preparing his command for movement from Alexandria across the Potomac (by steamer) to be loaded onto canal boats on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.  Folwell’s company was part of a force under Major Ira Spaulding, equipped with pontoon bridges, ordered to Nolan’s Ferry.  With that short introduction, let us turn to Folwell’s lengthy letter for June 18.  Folwell began by describing the activities starting at 9 a.m. the previous day (thus the “discrepancy” in my headline for this post):

On the “Raging Canal”

Near Seneca, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, June 18th, 1863.

Before I drank the cup of coffee and ate the cookies the men gave me, I thought I was not well. Now, I am all right except that the constant labor and rapid change of scene which we have experienced for the last few days has put me all out of joint.  My mind is in such a state of diffusion that I hardly remember myself. I wrote you a hasty note yesterday morning from Alexandria.  We left there at 9 A.M. on board Steamer “Sylvan Shore.” After putting Gen. Benham’s horses off at 6th St. Wharf, (I saw the place where I bade you and Jennie what I thought to be my last good bye) we proceeded to Georgetown, where we found the Regulars with the train, which we had made up the night before. Disembarked, stacked arms, and went to work at locking our rafts, 4 boats in each., [through the] locks from the river into the canal. Bain [Lieutenant Mahlon Bainbridge Folwell, brother] was unwell and Lt. [Daniel M] Hulse had gone to Washington to get his pay.  I was alone with my Co. and had to work very hard. The men were beset with swarms of women and boys, having pies, cakes, gingerbread and “ice cold lemonade” for sale.  Before we got through, many of them found out the “gin mille” and began to be merry for work. it cost me my most diligent efforts to keep my men together at work.  I am glad that Co.I, although very many of the men drank somewhat, had more but were able to do duty.  Of the regulars, dozens of them lay dead drunk on the boats.  Others were left along the bank.  It was three o’clock when, having been ordered by the Major to bring up the rear, I got my last raft through the locks.  At 4, I got the mules hitched on (3 to each raft) and followed the body of the train.  I don’t think I could be more tired than I was. The day was terribly hot, and we are unused to the close air of cities.  The canal runs right through Georgetown.

This passage is full of the candid observations that attracts us to soldier’s letters.  One can sense the fatigue as Folwell considers the day’s work that hot summer day.  But what stands out most is the “distractions” from work all around the docks.  Again, I would remind readers of the heated inquiries directed towards the engineers during the later half of June.  At Army headquarters, the impression was the engineers were moving slowly and in particular that Benham didn’t have control.  Well… pies, lemonade, and some of that stronger drink will cause some delay!

The particulars here are worthy of pause to consider.  Folwell started boarding transport across the Potomac at nine that morning.  Not until four that afternoon were they ready to move up the canal.  And please note the engineers floated the pontoons in the canal (not shipped inside the canal barges).  Four pontoons were joined to make one raft.  These pontoons were roughly 31 feet long and 5 ½ feet wide.  C&O barges came in several classes, but varied between 50 and 92 feet long, but were usually 14 ½ feet wide.  The latter dimension, determined by the width of the canal’s locks, was the important governing factor. We can, from that, venture educated guesses as to the exact arrangements made to form pontoon rafts.

One last note, Folwell mentions the steamer Sylvan Shore.  She was a sidewheel steamer, reported at 217 tons.  The ship was first chartered by the Army in August 1861.  She operated in North Carolina and Virginia. In fact, just two months earlier, the Sylvan Shore was  involved with operations on the Neuse River.  Milton Martin, who owned the steamer, originally contracted the vessel for $200 per day.  But in May 1863, Army officials altered that deal to $100 per day.  Why do I know so much about this vessel?  Well it was the subject of a post-war court case, in which Martin called for reimbursement at the original, higher rate.  I have not, however, been able to conclusively match the steamer to an image of a similarly named vessel.  (Of note, the orders moving the Spaulding’s engineers mentioned the sidewheel steamer Rockwell.  So at least two steamers were required to move the bridging equipment, men, and animals.)

Those details out of the way, let us continue with Folwell’s eventful cruise up the canal:

The ride up the canal is delightful.  The luxuriance of the hard wood forest, such strong contrast to the barren plains and pines of the “near Falmouth” region.  Before dark, we reached Chain Bridge, which, by the way, is not a chain Bridge, nor even a Suspension Bridge, but a wooden arch truss bridge….

34797r

The scenery about it is very romantic.  At sunset, I ordered the Sergeants with their squads to relieve each other during the night in navigating the raft, and unstrapping my blankets, I made a bed on top of some bulks and lay down to sleep.  I had taken a bath in the canal, which disposed me to sleep, and presently I forgot all my cares, and thought no more of them till after daylight this morning. I slept, of course, in my clothes, with a handkerchief tied about my head and a shelter tent spread over me.

As that closed Folwell’s eventful June 17.  For ease of reading, let us stop the transcription here and pick up the rest of the letter in the next post on this thread.

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 405-6 (pages 411-12 of scanned copy).)

Bridging the Potomac: Diary of William W. Folwell, 50th New York Engineers – Part 1

As a historian, particularly one who’s day job is not history, one of the greatest gifts a friend can offer is a primary source previously not seen or consulted.  Any good historian is always looking for additional sources that may help with the unanswered questions, provide more detail and clarity, or at least offer corroboration for other sources.  History, in my view, is the process of accumulating parts of the story. A process that is never really complete, no matter how authoritative the perception might be.

Last year, John Hennessy shared just such a source in an email titled… as these are apt to be… “Have you seen this?”  The link was to a wartime letters of William Watts Folwell, who served as an engineer officer in the Army of the Potomac for most of the war.  The letters are part of the digital, online collection of University of Minnesota Library.  These appear to be letters home, but have been transcribed into a typewritten page.  Of course, my interest was immediately focused on Folwell’s entries from June 1863 and his accounts of the bridge-laying at Edwards Ferry.

Born in 1833 in Romulus, New York, Folwell attended Hobart College, graduating in 1857.  After a brief position teaching mathematics at the college, he was studying philology in Berlin at the outbreak of the Civil War.  In February 1862, Folwell mustered into the 50th New York Engineers as a first lieutenant in Company G.  He was promoted to Captain in December of that year, commanding Company I.  Then advanced to major in February 1865 (with rank from October 15, 1864).  Some sources indicate he was given a promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel before mustering out in June 1865.  After the war, Folwell briefly lived in Ohio before accepting the position of President, the first president as a matter of fact, of the University of Minnesota in 1869.  And that would be how Folwell’s diary ended up in the university’s collection.

william_watts_folwell

Specific to the Gettysburg Campaign and the movement through Loudoun County in June 1863, Folwell was in command of Company I, 50th New York Engineers.  And that unit was very busy laying bridges that brought the Army of the Potomac from Virginia to Maryland.  As such, I am going to enter his account into my collection of Edwards Ferry resources here on the blog.  Though there are interesting entries from earlier in June (and at other times in the war), for sake of scope, I will start with the entry for June 17, 1863.  At that time, Folwell was in Alexandria:

Bivouac 50th N.Y.V. Engrs., near Alexandria, Va., June 17, ’63, 7 A.M.

Major [Ira] Spaulding takes Cos. C, F and I and one pontoon train to Nolan’s [Noland’s] Ferry on the Upper Potomac.  We are going just at noon as the Steamer comes, and we expect her every moment.  We worked like beavers last night till 2 A.M., making up our train. We had to dismantle the rafts made up at Belle Plain, unload the wagons on those, and then reload the material for shipment by canal.  We take steamer to Georgetown, then enter the canal up which we tow our boats by teams if we can get them; if not, by hand.

Last evening, Capt. Woodward and his wife rode down to camp from their hotel. Bain [Lieutenant Mahlon Bainbridge Folwell, brother]  and I called on them in the evening.  Saw Mrs. Ben. Woodward, also.  Ate sundry and drivers ice-cream and straw-berries, and drank soda waters.

We are both well, barring a slight head-ache Bain has.

I can’t tell you any War news. Don’t know any.  Hooker is probably moving w. between here and the Bull Run Mountain, while Lee goes up the valley.  I wish you could see your husband at this present.  He wears a dirty hat, do. coat, do. vest, do. trousers in the left knee of which is an immense hole through which his drawers display themselves conspicuously. My baggage is over in Maryland somewheres.  When I shall see it, I can’t tell. I have nothing with me but one rubber blanket, one woolen do., one shelter tent, and my sword.

I must try to find an envelope for this before it is too late.  Direct to me as usual.

One detail I must track down is the referenced Captain Woodward.  The meeting with Woodward and his wife seems a pleasant respite from an otherwise hot and dusty campaign.

This account plugs in well with the movements described in the Official Records by way of dispatches.  The bridges had last been used at Aquia Creek.  And at the time of writing, staff officers in the Army of the Potomac were anticipating the need for a bridge over the Potomac at some point near Leesburg. The day before (June 16), Brigadier-General G.K. Warren detailed some of the crossing points on the river between Hancock and Leesburg. Captain Charles Turnbull, of the US Engineer Battalion, had one set of pontoons at Georgetown and was ordered to move up the canal to the Monocacy River on June 17.

On the same day Folwell wrote his letter, Colonel William Pettes, commanding the 50th New York Engineers, received orders from Brigadier-General Henry W. Benham, commander of the Engineer Brigade, to

… detail Major Spaulding, with 200 men from your regiment, to proceed per steamer Rockland to Georgetown, to join the trains which started under Captain Turnbull. The steamer will be at the railroad wharf as soon as possible.  Your men will take four days’ rations with them. The boats, after getting into the canal, will be pushed forward as fast as possible to Noland’s Ferry, where the bridge is ordered to be laid before noon of the 18th.  Teams, if possible, will be procured from Washington, to haul the boats along the canal….

We see, generally, the details of the letter match those of the order.  However, “as soon as possible” was interpreted to allow for ice cream, strawberries, and soda water.

I’ve always found it odd that none of the dispatches or orders issued at this phase of the campaign specify the purpose of the bridges to be laid.  Just a few days after this, on June 19, a clear suggestion came from Major-General Henry Slocum to place a bridge to provide a supply link back to Washington.  And the location for that bridge was Edwards Ferry, where eventually most of the army would cross into Maryland.

But if we walk back to June 17, there is a question as to why the Army of the Potomac wanted a bridge at Noland’s Ferry.  That site is almost fourteen miles upstream from Edwards Ferry, and beyond even White’s Ford.  In my opinion, the most important reason to place a bridge at Noland’s Ferry on the date specified on the orders would be to support movement from Harpers Ferry to Loudoun… emphasis on FROM Harpers Ferry.  As things stood that day, Major-General Joseph Hooker was maneuvering the Army of the Potomac as if to meet the Army of Northern Virginia in the vicinity of the Bull Run Mountains. He had given no indication about movements across the Potomac. But he had asked about the availability of the Harpers Ferry garrison.  Mine is conjecture based on what we surmise of the situation.  But that does open room for logical extensions into the “what if” world.

My plan is to continue transcribing these letters as time permits, with commentary to provide context within the detailed blog posts about the crossing.  It should be “entered into evidence.”

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 404-5 (pages 410-11 of scanned copy); OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, page 179.)

Walk in the Army of the Potomac’s footsteps – Bridging the Potomac, Edwards Ferry Tour: June 30, 2015

Over the last couple of years, I’ve received several inquiries about repeating the tours of Edwards Ferry given at the time of the sesquicentennial.  Last year everyone, including me, was tied up with 1864 events.  But we don’t have that excuse this year!

Here’s the details:

What: Bridging the Potomac: Edwards Ferry, 152nd Anniversary of the Army of the Potomac’s crossing, during the Gettysburg Campaign.

When:  June 30, 2015.  Starts at 6 pm.  Ends around 8 pm.

Where: Kephart Bridge Landing (Elizabeth Mills Waterfront Park), 43942 Riverpoint Dr, Leesburg, Virginia, 20176.

The best way to reach the site is off the Leesburg Pike (Virginia Highway 7), onto Belmont Ridge Road.  The map below offers the best route through the subdivision to reach the park:

The tour will include a hike down to the crossing site (about two miles round trip).  The terrain is not formidable, but along the creek bank.  So I advise wearing good walking shoes at least.  And being in the “bottom land,” I’d recommend a dose of bug spray!

Hope to see you there!

Marching Through Loudoun: June 28, 1863

As the morning broke over Loudoun County on June 28, 1863, not only had the Army of the Potomac completed its passing, but also the Army of Northern Virginia… of course save some Confederate cavalry posted on the Blue Ridge and what stragglers remained from the long marches.

The engineers completed the task of pulling up the bridges at Edwards Ferry that morning.

June28Positions

Orders from army headquarters had the “land pontoon,” that Brigadier-General Henry Benham mentioned the previous day, moving up to Frederick and following the Fifth Corps on the line of march. The remainder of the bridging, at Benham’s suggestion, was supposed to move down the C&O Canal to the Navy Yard for repairs. But there was a problem with that plan – Stuart had damaged the canal at Lock No. 23. So for the time being a lot of equipment lay at Edwards Ferry.

That bridging equipment laying at the crossing site was a resource the army might need on short notice, should fortunes turn. So it had to be secured. At 2 p.m., Major-General Henry Halleck, in Washington, asked Major-General George Meade about Edwards Ferry:

It is reported here that the supplies at Edwards Ferry and returning by the canal are left unprotected. If so, Lee’s cavalry will probably destroy them. It is reported that Lowell’s battalion of cavalry, left at Poolesville, was sent to Sandy Hook, contrary to my orders. If so, there is not a cavalry picket on the line of the Potomac below Edwards Ferry, and we have none here to send out.

Meade replied promptly indicating he’d directed Lowell back to Poolesville. It would be several days, July 4 according to a report from Benham, before the equipment was in Washington.

That closes my sesquicentennial coverage of the march of the Army of the Potomac through Loudoun and the crossing at Edwards Ferry. I could probably offer up a dozen more long winded posts about particular aspects of those two subjects, which I’ll save for “slow” blogging days where I need a filler. But for now let me revisit some of the conclusions I offered up a few years ago with respect to Edwards Ferry:

Hooker anticipated major fighting in Loudoun prior to June 24, and prepared to meet Lee. Three infantry corps fronted the Bull Run and Catoctin Mountains, with three more within immediate supporting distance.

First bridge at Edwards Ferry supported supply route. Such alleviated the pressure on the road network through Loudoun. This also lends the argument Hooker didn’t anticipate moving into Maryland, in force, prior to June 24.

The road network brought the army to Leesburg. One or more of the river crossing sites around Leesburg had to be used when the army moved across the Potomac.

Hooker wanted second bridge at Monocacy on June 24. But, with the report of Confederate activity west of Leesburg, he opted to co-locate the second bridge at Edwards Ferry. A well planned river crossing for an army like that Hooker commanded should have at least two lines, within mutual supporting range but not so close as to cause traffic problems. I’d submit Hooker’s hand was forced by those false reports. (And I’ll admit, there are no primary “a-ha!” sources stating such exactly. My presumption is based on the timeline more than anything else.)

Confusion over movement and bridge placement cut into time line. At least half a day on June 25 is lost due to these issues. Double bridge placement added to congestion. I’d offer no set figure of time lost. But with Hancock, Crawford, and others reporting wagons from the preceding corps still crossing at Edwards Ferry, even on the last day of the crossing the trains were still tangled up.

Improper positioning of cavalry allowed Stuart to cross the Potomac. We can “armchair general” this all day. But lets also consider the cavalry was stretched thin with the requirement to cover the movement across the Potomac.

Edwards Ferry crossing enabled success at Gettysburg. I think that part is somewhat self evident. Given that Hooker’s “strike for his line of retreat” was never really an option, the Army of the Potomac had to move into Maryland and eventually Pennsylvania. A crossing point upstream of Edwards Ferry was not practical for several reasons, namely security. A crossing point downstream was not practical due to poor access points and the width of the river. And of course a march into Washington and back out to Maryland would add several days to the movement. By that time, Lee’s infantry might be past the Susquehanna. As it was, the speed at which the Army of the Potomac was able to move up during that last week of June took a little initiative away from Lee, forcing him to concentrate the far flung Army of Northern Virginia. The events of June 25-27 lead to the events on July 1-3.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part I, Serial 43, page 63.)

Missed assignment at Rowser’s Ford

For this post, let me pitch a curve ball – let it hang out there over the plate – and see if anyone crushes it.  I’ll say this is but an interpretation that I ask you to roll around a bit to see how it fits.

If you’ve studied Major-General J.E.B. Stuart’s ride to Gettysburg, you are familiar with the story.  Colonel Charles R. Lowell, commanding a battalion of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, was supposed to be guarding Rowser’s Ford on the night of June 26-7, 1863.  But a set of contradictory orders from Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, and Major-General Samuel P. Heintzelman, commanding the Washington Defenses (22nd Corps if you wish).  This missed assignment can be traced through a series of events to a proximate cause… well perhaps.  So let me walk this one backwards to demonstrate.

First, the area of operations we are discussing – the western side of Montgomery County, Maryland:

PoolesvilleArea

This is a snip from Martenet and Bond’s map of Montgomery County, Maryland and more a political map than topographical (which is always my preference).  But it will do.  The map is oriented about 45° off to the right, with true north pointing roughly to the upper left corner.  You see Poolesville in the middle with Edwards Ferry below;  Rowsers Ford on the right and the Mouth of the Monocacy on the left.

Charles Russell Lowell

As mentioned an earlier post, on June 25, Lowell received orders to cover the Potomac crossings, from the Mouth of the Monocacy to Great Falls.  His command based out of Poolesville.  Let me offer Lowell’s own words, from a letter to his future wife Josephine Shaw* written on July 1, 1863, the command confusion that occurred over those days in late June:

On Friday night [June 26] at half past ten, I got orders to report next day to General Slocum.  As I had to get in my patrols from a space of over thirty miles and had besides to reduce the baggage of the Regiment from eight wagons to two, I didn’t start til 8:30 the next morning, made a comfortable march of twenty-five miles, reported as ordered, and went quietly into bivouac for the night, as I supposed. But at 11 came two dispatches from General Heintzelman, one ordering me to remain at Poolesville, or to return if I had left, the other notifying me that General Halleck sent the same order.  I was considerably disturbed, and telegraphed at once to General Hooker and to General Heintzelman and notified General Slocum.  In the morning, 4 o’clock, I got order from General Hooker to report to General French, and from French to report immediately; also orders from Heintzelman to take no orders that did not come through his, Heintzelman’s, Headquarters.  This was embarrassing, but I decided with much reluctance to obey Heintzelman….  So I moved down the Potomac about fifty-seven miles, and, when I reached the mouth of the Monocacy, met some of my wagons with the news that the rebels in strong force had crossed the Potomac at the very ford I was especially to watch….

So this explains why no Federal pickets covered Rowser’s Ford on the night of June 27-28, leaving an open door into Maryland for Stuart.

But why was Lowell’s cavalry there in the first place?  Days before they were covering the southern approaches to Alexandria (which, had they not moved, might have put them in contact with Stuart on June 26-7).  But a shifting of cavalry detachments in Maryland left an opening that Lowell’s command had to fill.   Lowell’s orders placed him in the operational sector controlled by Hooker, replacing a unit from Hooker’s Cavalry Corps.  Over the previous week, Hooker had issued orders to other formations out of the Washington Defenses, particularly Major-General Julius Stahel’s division, without input from Heintzelman.  So you might say Hooker had reason to assume Lowell was his to order about.

What was the unit shifted out of Maryland?  A detachment of cavalry from the Reserve Brigade, Cavalry Corps, under Captain Samuel McKee had patrolled the area around the Mouth of the Monocacy from mid-June until June 23.  At 11:35 p.m. on the evening of the 23rd, McKee received orders to “Report with your command to General Pleasonton at Aldie tomorrow.  Cross at Chick’s Ford, if practicable.”

McKee’s men had to cross into Virginia and then of course cross back again in a few days.  Why was McKee ordered to move?  Well, on June 22, Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton, in a report to Hooker’s headquarters, suggested the move:

If it is deemed necessary that a force from this corps should remain on the Upper Potomac, I would request permission to relieve Captain McKee by a regularly organized force, but would respectfully suggest that some of the cavalry which is in Washington may be put upon that duty.

Why did Pleasonton want McKee back?  Explaining his status after the fighting in Loudoun Valley, Pleasonton wrote, in the same report:

As an example of the reduction in numbers, I would state that, when the Reserve Brigade, consisting of the First, Second, Fifth, and Sixth U.S. and Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, went into action on the 21st instant, it only numbered 825 men, the remainder of the men of this brigade being either dismounted or at the mouth of the Monocacy with Captain McKee, who has or should have 1,100 men. Under these circumstances, I have the honor to request that Captain McKee’s command and all other effective men of this command may be ordered to join me at once, and that prompt measures may be taken to supply the number of horses that I need.

Most of the Reserve Brigade’s casualties came near the close of the fighting at Upperville.  The brigade made an ill-fated charge on Vineyard Hill and suffered heavily for it.

If Pleasonton had not sent the Reserve Brigade into a difficult charge at Upperville, he wouldn’t have needed McKee at Aldie.  Lowell would have remained in Virginia and might have encountered Stuart in Fairfax County instead of missing him in Montgomery County.  And maybe someone would have been covering Rowser’s Ford on June 27-28. Or maybe not.  Regardless, the reason Lowell was in Maryland to begin with was due to something that happened days earlier in Loudoun Valley.  At a minimum, this demonstrates that operational moves don’t happen in a vacuum.

* Josephine Shaw was the sister of Robert Gould Shaw. This of course explains Lowell’s interest in events at Darien, subject of another post I’m working up.

(Citations from Life and Letters of Charles Russell Lowell: Captain Sixth United States Cavalry, Colonel Second Massachusetts Cavalry, Brigadier-general United States Volunteers, by Edward Waldo Emerson, pages 268-9;  and OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, pages 258-9 and 273.)