Crossing the Pontoons: Forbes recalls his crossing of the James

Edwin Forbes was among the best known illustrators of the Civil War.  Working for Frank Leslie’s Magazine, Forbes produced some vivid drawings depicting the action… and inaction… of life with the armies.  Forbes also provided a great narrative of his wartime experiences in Thirty Years After: An Artist’s Memoir of the Civil War.  Here’s his account of crossing the James River, 150 years ago:

A most interesting movement in my army experience was the crossing of the James River during the advance of the Army of the Potomac on Petersburg. The longest pontoon bridge that was build during the war was here made use of, and was crossed by the left wing of the army, while the right wing made use of steamboats further up the river near City Point.

I took position near the head of the bridge, and watched the column in its course. Regiments of infantry came surging along at route step, ragged and footsore, their faces much discolored with powder-stain and dust.  Officers were scarcely discernible from privates.  The latter were laden with all kinds of traps and plunder, and the pack mules and horses had more than the usual burden.  Everything bore the terrible imprint of a month’s hard fighting, and made sad contrast to the hopeful men who in new uniforms had so recently started out from the winter camp near Culpepper, under the great commander, Grant.  The forces had been terribly reduced in numbers, but with the same determined spirit that always pervaded the troops, even in defeat, the column marched promptly and cheerfully forward. Out from the shore was a fleet of war vessels to protect the bridge, and upon one of them was a group of newly and jauntily dressed sailors, who had evidently experienced no hard service. With open-eyed wonder they watched the progress of the column, and laughed loudly at the grotesqueness that misfortune had given to many groups of soldiers. There was indeed great contrast in the two arms of the service, but my heart went out in sympathy to the poor fellows with tattered clothing and blackened faces. All day the throng poured over the bridge, and with each moment came changing scenes. This was heightened by the many steamboats and sailing crafts anchored in the river, and on the steep bluff of the farther bank arose Fort Powhatan, an abandoned earthwork, which had been thrown up by the Rebs to dispute the ascent of the stream.  Low muttering like distant thunder was after a time heard from the southwest; the advance had arrived at Petersburg.

But before long the sun sank into the rest, and evening brought a beautiful picture. Hundreds of bright camp fires on the river bank lit up the bridge, which, with the colored lights flung out from the vessels, looked like fairyland. The trains clattered noisily along, and the many sounds of a moving army rose in the still night air, and were accompanied by the boom of distant cannon – that solemn suggestion of deadly conflict. Long into the night I watched this moving panorama, until from sheer exhaustion I sought repose.

One view of the crossing of the James, 150 years ago.

(Citation from Forbes, Edwin. Thirty Years After: An Artist’s Memoir of the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993, pages 189-90.)


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.)


“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:


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.)


“In anticipation of the crossing of the James…”: Engineers begin preparing for Grant’s move 150 years ago

In the evening of June 11, Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant sent a dispatch to Major-General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Army of the James on the south side of the James River.  In part, that message read:

The movement to transfer [the Army of the Potomac] to the south side of the Jame River will commence after dark to-morrow night.  Colonel Comstock, of my staff, was sent specifically to ascertain what was necessary to make your position secure in the interval … and also to ascertain what point on the river we should reach to effect a crossing…. Colonel Comstock has not yet returned, so that I cannot make instructions as definite as I would wish….

Grant went on to detail the proposed movements, starting with the Eighteenth Corps to move its infantry by boat.   That corps trains and the balance of the army to march across the Chickahominy at Long Bridge, and thence across the James.  Grant had already issued orders to Major-General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac.  And Meade already had orders ready for the corps to move.  Keep in mind the intricacy and sensitivity of this move – the Army of the Potomac was to disengage on an active front, march dozens of miles across unsecured ground, cross a major river, and then reform south of the James preparing to give battle.  And all that with the trains trailing along.  A long haul:


But, as Grant indicated, on June 11 there was no point fixed where the bulk of the Army of the Potomac would cross the James.  Details to be worked out, as he instructed Butler:

I wish you to direct the proper staff officers, your chief engineer and chief quartermaster, to commence at once the collection of all the means in their reach for crossing the army on its arrival.  If there is a point below City Point where a pontoon bridge can be thrown, have it laid.

Brigadier-General Godfrey Weitzel was the Chief Engineer of the Army of the James.  Weitzel had just completed a survey of the defenses along the James in the Bermuda Hundred sector, but now shifted his attention to facilitate the planned movement:

June 12, in anticipation of the crossing of the James River by the Army of the Potomac, I sent Lieutenant Michie, U.S. Engineers, to examine the river in the vicinity of Fort Powhatan to get all information on the subject. He reported the width of the river at the three points (A, B, C) to be, respectively, 1,250 feet, 1,570 feet, 1,992 feet; that the two approaches on the east bank at A would be from an old field across a marsh 1,000 yards wide; at B over a marsh about 800 yards wide; from these a spit of sand and gravel bordering the river from the bridgehead, averaging about forty feet wide and easily made into a good roadway sufficient for the passage of two columns of troops.

Lieutenant Peter Michie is no stranger to readers.  The previous summer he supervised construction of the Left Batteries on Morris Island.  Major-General Quincy Gillmore brought Michie north with the Tenth Corps.  (A good selection if I may add.)  The map below demonstrates the four possible crossing points surveyed by Michie and mentioned by Weitzel:


Weitzel went on to describe other preparations to support the crossing:

On the west bank the approaches to the two first were already prepared, leading by gradual ascent to the bluff on which Fort Powhatan is situated. It would require, to make approaches to the third, the clearing away of trees, making a ramp of one-third leading to the field above, the filling up of ruts and gullies and making a roadway to the Petersburg and City Point road. In consequence of these facts, I telegraphed to Lieutenant-Colonel Comstock, senior aide to General Grant, that if the passage was to be made here I would only require, at the farthest, previous notice of thirty-six hours to have the approaches for the bridge ready.

Grant had a crossing point.

Now came the difficult work – getting the army to the crossing point, laying pontoons at the crossing point, building and improving wharves, and improving the road networks.  150 years ago this day, the Federal engineers were coming to the fore… again.

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


Virginia’s 1864 150ths: More details on the summer programs

I mentioned the Petersburg National Battlefield 150th events in an earlier post.  But let me revisit that, as the park now has more details for the programs through the summer along with a nice PDF version of the visitors guide for advance reading: Petersburg 150 – May to September, 1864 – Overland to Siege.

The guide is consistent in layout and content to those offered for earlier Overland Campaign events at Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania and Richmond.  But some modifications to the event groupings are required to best relate the nature of the siege operations.  Several additions to the schedule worth noting.  Particularly the real-time interpretation of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery assault on Petersburg, timed to Wednesday, June 18. That regiment lost 632 men of 900 on that day.

As related earlier, Richmond National Battlefield Park shares in these siege events.  One event of note, is a series of programs running September 27-30 focusing on the battles around Fort Harrison and New Market Heights.

But the summer of 1864 was not all about the siege at Petersburg and Richmond.  Looking over to the Blue Ridge, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields web page offers a plateful of events to consider.  I’ll highlight a few here, with emphasis on the “real-time” events for which I have a liking:

A lot of events getting us to the end of September.  More to follow in the fall.





Whitworths and a rail gun: Confederates haul guns out from Richmond

I’ve written a bit about the changes to the Federal artillery park during the Overland Campaign – specifically about the inclusion of Coehorn mortars.  As mentioned a few days ago, though they lacked Coehorns at that time, the artillerists of the Army of Northern Virginia employed howitzers in a similar role at Cold Harbor (and afterwards).  But this was by no means the only “unusual” Confederate artillery making an appearance in June 1864.

Because these guns are on prominent display at Gettysburg, even those who care little for artillery recall the Confederate use of 12-pdr Whitworth breechloaders – or as I prefer to avoid confusion over the “pounder” designations, 2.75-inch Whitworth Breechloading Rifles.

GB Day1_20

And for record, it is important to specify “breechloader” and “muzzleloader” with respect to Whitworths of this caliber, as both types were used by the Confederates.

Wash NY 1 Aug 035

In my opinion, the two Whitworths used at Gettysburg receive more attention than merited.  The tactical situation did not allow employment which might take advantage of the weapon’s attributes.  At the same time, the deficits of the weapon, chiefly slow rate of fire and light payload, diminished any contribution of the two guns.  Reading contemporary primary source accounts, I get the sense the Confederate gunners considered these weapons sort of useful substitutes in lieu of Napoleon guns or other light rifles.

In the spring of 1864, Confederates retained several of the Whitworths in and around Richmond. Though not part of the Army of Northern Virginia’s park, as the campaigning armies neared Richmond, the Whitworths made an appearance in a reinforcing role.  The Federals first encountered these guns at Totopotomy Creek.  Captain Charles Turnbull, engineer with Second Corps, reported on May 30:

The enemy has a Whitworth gun in position and firing on Generals Gibbon’s and Barlow’s skirmishers. The gun cannot be seen, and it is supposed to be firing at long range. They have also been throwing shells at the Shelton house, where we have a battery. Their guns will be silenced as soon as they can be seen. General Hancock is developing the line of the creek.

Here, unlike at Gettysburg, the tactical situation allowed the Confederates to exploit the one great attribute of the Whitworth – long range accuracy.  Keeping the gun under cover of terrain, they could keep up a harrassing fire on specific targets.  Very much akin to the sharpshooting done with the shoulder fired Whitworth rifled-muskets.  Brigadier-General David M. Gregg, commanding Second Division of the Cavalry Corps, reported encountering Whitworths used in a similar mode on June 4.  And on June 7, Major-General G.K. Warren reported “the enemy has a Whitworth gun firing at very long range” on his line at Cold Harbor.

What allowed the use of the Whitworths to advantage here was the static nature of the line.  Able to select a target, and a location from which to engage the target, the Confederates could deliberately prepare the battery for action. Where a good target presented itself, or where a particularly annoying Federal position required a response, the Whitworths were called upon.  Further south, defending the approaches to Petersburg and the vital roads between that place and Richmind, on June 9, General P.G.T. Beauregard called for a Whitworth to deal with just such a particular target:

Enemy has erected an observatory at Cobb’s which overlooks surrounding country. The 12-pounder Whitworth at arsenal is absolutely required to destroy it. Please send it by express forthwith, with ammunition complete.

Later correspondence indicates the Whitworth in question was in demand at other sectors.

Another “novelty” artillery which made another appearance at this time 150 years ago was the rail gun.  Or more accurately, I should say “re-appearance.”  In 1862, the Confederates built and employed a gun on an armored railroad car.  The gun’s first appearance was during the Seven Day’s battles.  On June 7, Warren noted:

I have the base of a shot fired from the iron-clad car on the railroad.  It is a 32-pounder.

In all likelyhood this was the same gun employed by Confederates at Savages Station on June 29, 1862.  And, that is likely the same weapon seen in a series of photographs taken after the fall of Richmond.

Certainly that 32-pounder outclassed the field artillery at hand for the Federal artillerists.  But of course the main limitation on that big weapon was the availability of railroads.  And months before the Federals had foreseen the need to counter big guns like this.  Those were the reason Colonel Henry Abbot was instructed to secure several large Parrott rifles for use with the siege train.

Just a couple of examples where uncommon artillery were employed as the 1864 campaigns entered the summer months.  With operations in Virginia turning from those of maneuver towards static lines, more of the “novel” artillery made appearances.  There is indeed a good justification for the Petersburg National Battlefield to have a diverse collection of artillery on display outside the visitor’s center.

Petersburg 4 Mar 12 179

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part III, Serial 69, pages 324, 675, and 885.)


“The cleaning operation is one that must have become fearfully needed”: Personal hygiene at Cold Harbor

For some, the Battle of Cold Harbor was all about twenty or thirty minutes and a fruitless assault on June 3, 1864.  The reality is Cold Harbor was a battle lasting longer than a week.  It was not a “one assault and we are done” battle.  And what was done on the days after June 3 tells us much about how the leaders approached the war in its third year.  It also tells volumes about how the soldiers adapted and lived in these situations.

With the Army of the Potomac now firmly entrenched, facing an adversary who likewise entrenched, the battlefield was not as crowded … say as compared to some of the shorter, likewise bloody, open field battles of 1863.  Somewhat as occurred on Morris Island during the previous July, a military formation can afford to thin the front lines where earthworks are employed. (Though, let’s be quick to point out – Morris Island was mere yards of frontage, not miles. So a portion of a regiment might hold the entire front, and share in a rotation of the combat duties.  At Cold Harbor, with longer lines, the responsibilities were grander by arithmetic portions.)

This situation allowed the troops to correct, perfect, and clean their trenches.  It also allowed the commanders to pull men off the front lines to more comfortable settingsAccording to Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, Artillery Chief of the Fifth Corps, June 6, 1864 was a “cleaning day.”

The cleaning operation is one that must have become fearfully needed by the line officers and the men of the infantry.  What with the mud and dust which they have alternately been called upon to march through and sleep in, and the fact that for a week at a time they have stood or lain in line of battle, night and day, the amount of dirt accumulated must be great. The men have been really better off than their company officers, for there have been time when they could get an hour or two to strip, wash themselves and their clothes, and so prepare for another spell.

Wainwright went on to provide a description of how the situation impacted the hygiene and habits of the line officers:

The officer cannot strip by the roadside in the midst of his men; the operation is too familiar if he wishes to maintain his position. Nor is he even so well off as to change of clothing, for being required to move about more, his overcoat, canteen, and small haversack are about all he can carry; while his servant, who in theory is supposed to carry his master’s change of clothing, five days’ rations, and cooking utensils, besides what he needs himself, being a contraband soon loses everything intrusted to him except eatables and frying pan. …

He went on to describe how the officers really needed a pack mule to help with the load bearing, “as in the French army.”  But, channeling Brigadier-General Rufus Ingalls, a mule per company would add even more traffic on the line of march.  Speaking of Ingalls, what about the baggage train of the Army of the Potomac?

Today all the baggage waggons are up, which have been miles away from us since we crossed the Rapidan, and everyone is fitting himself out for another spell of hard work.

During most of the previous three years, the army was seldom more than a few miles from the baggage.  When folks speak of the “change” seen in the Overland Campaign, they often focus – however right or wrong – on the earthworks.  I think we should also bring into mind how different the spring 1864 campaign was in terms of service support activities.

Wainwright also provided us a comparison of life in the infantry to that in the artillery – among the officers:

Almost every day on this campaign I have been obliged to remark, even more than ever before, how superior is the position of a light battery officer to even a colonel of infantry, so far as comfort goes, in times of general discomfort.  They have a mechanic and tools always close at hand, and their little cart to carry the mess-chest, a bag each, and the company desk, while either a tent is struck on top of the forage waggon, or if their battery is in position, they have their paulins.  All these enable them to go through a month as this last with quite as much comfort as a general officer with his spring waggon, and at times they are better off, as their cart, being ordnance property, and part of the battery, is never sent to to the rear, but moves with the battery at all times.

Join the cavalry?  I think not!  I’ll stay with the guns, thank you!

Keep this observation in mind, however, when considering the battlefield decisions that took place 150 years ago. Dirty and fatigued, men – and as Wainwright holds, particularly the officers – were not in their best sorts.  After just over a month on the march, the wear and tear on the army could be measured by more than shoe leather.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 407-8.)