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:

ORAtlasPl68Mp6

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.)