The Folwell letters, June 29, 1863: “Co. I is rear guard of the grand army”

On June 28, 1863, Captain William W. Folwell lamented on the wait for the rear guard to cross the bridges at Edwards Ferry, as his command prepared to remove those pontoons.  June 29th found his company BEING the rear guard of the Army of the Potomac.  This was a two letter day for Folwell.  The first was posted in the morning:

Buckeys Town, Md.,

June 29th, 1863, 8 A.M.

Here I am.  Co. I is rear guard of the grand army.  We got to camp at 3 A.M. Got 3 hours good sleep and a good breakfast.  We march to Union Town.  We are well.

Just a short note. But some details that allow us to validate the movements of the engineers.  Aside from the pontoons sent back down the C&O Canal, the remainder of the detachment (parts of the Regulars and the 50th New York Engineers) was sent on a march toward Frederick, Maryland.  The march, which must have begun around mid-day on the 28th, took the detachment of engineers past Poolesville, over the Monocacy, and up to Buckeystown.

And this was the trail end of the Army of the Potomac.

Later in the day, Folwell had time to write another letter home:

Camp Engineer Brigade,

Frederick, Md.,

June 29th 1863.

I wrote you a hasty note in pencil this morning, which I mailed at Buckeystown, while marching hither.  Two miles this side of that place, we came up on the 5th Corps, which followed our trains.  I was then relieved of my duties as Provost Marshall.  I had some very active duty hurrying up some 11th Corps stragglers.  One fellow I had to handle roughly, and finally set two men with fixed bayonets to drive him on.  I was very glad to be relieved. Communication is cut off between us and Washington, the R.R. having been damaged at Mt. Airey Station some miles below here.  I presume, therefore, that said note will be slow in reaching you, as also this is likely to be.  Still, I wish to do all I can to keep you advised of my whereabouts and welfare.  We halted here at noon today, and pitched camp.  In the morning at two o’clock, we march, probably towards [Middleburg], the present H.Q. of the A.P. The news is scarce and uncertain.  Gen. Hooker is relieved and Gen. Meade is in his shoes.  It is said that both Reynolds and Sedgwick declined the appointment.  Co. I is rear guard again tomorrow, and no knapsacks will be carried.  Good Night.

Interesting, if the identification is correct, that Eleventh Corps soldiers would still be straggling on June 29.  That corps had crossed Edwards Ferry first, back on June 25.  There is, of course, a world of possibilities… to include mistaken identification.

I do find interesting that Folwell mentions a break in communications, but no problem with supply or delayed movements.  As I mentioned in the previous installment, Stuart’s cavalry moved through as a fast summer thunderstorm – there and gone.  Of course, Folwell was not getting all the news and knew nothing of the wagon train captured outside of Rockville the previous day.

At the end of the march, the engineers closed on Fifth Corps.  And the anticipated march for the following day was towards the Pipe Creek line. However, while the news of Meade’s assumption of command was correct, the rumors as to alternate commanders was not.

At this stage of the campaign, we leave the operations of the Potomac Crossing and the campaign transitions into the movements that would take the army to Gettysburg.  Folwell’s Company I was not to be in that fight.  Rather, they were placed back with their pontoons.  While not specific to my “lane” on Edwards Ferry, I’ll continue to post Folwell’s letters, so we may hear all of the engineer’s story.

(Citations from William Watts Folwell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 423-24 (pages 429-30 of scanned copy))

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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))

The Folwell letters, June 26, 1863, afternoon entry: “It is an old story to see the Army cross”

Looking at the pace, progress of the crossings at Edwards Ferry, the flow of troops on June 25, 1863 was not sufficient given the critical operational situation.  The three corps which crossed that day – the Eleventh, First, and Third, in that order generally – did so with delayed progress.  Not only delays as the engineers placed a second bridge, but the units making the crossing brought their own delays… not the least of which were the additional horses brought by the Eleventh Corps.   And we see the rains, which were recorded by Captain William Folwell’s letter of the day, which caused the Third Corps much misery as the crossing and march into Maryland continued into the early morning hours.

By contrast, June 26 was a flood of men and equipment.  Although on paper, again only three corps crossed – the Twelfth, Fifth, and Second, in that order.  Add to that movement the Artillery Reserve, Army Headquarters element, and the majority of six corps worth of wagon trains.  The march must have seemed endless to any eyewitness.  And Folwell was just such an eyewitness.  Just after noon on June 26, he resumed writing a letter home, this being a post-script to a letter written the previous evening:

P.S.  June 26th, 1863, 1 P.M.

The letter I wrote last evening must lie over till tomorrow as we can only send and receive a mail on alternate days.  We get our mail at present by the little steamer packet which runs on the canal from Georgetown to this place.  To-day we have a fine misty rain, falling steadily, which keeps all of us not on duty under cover.  I have written you a short letter and would have done you a long one if the Major ([E.O.] Beers) and some of the other officers had not come in and spent a large part of the forenoon with me.  The 12th Corps had crossed this morning and the troops of another, (I think the 2nd) have just appeared on the opposite hills.  Gen. Hooker and staff came over just before noon and followed the advance of the Army.  We have yet no information as to the destination of the forces.  Gen. Hooker seemed anxious to have the wagon trains hurried up and commended on of our officers (Capt. [Martin] Van Brocklin) whom he saw moving them on. I have not been out of camp to-day.  It is an old story to see the Army cross, for me.  Bain [Lieutenant Mahlon Bainbridge Folwell] is well and full of business as both adjutant and Quartermaster of detachment.  I hope his troubles are over.  We shall know soon, for Hdqrs. left Washington yesterday and will probably reach here to-morrow.

Though just a brief addendum to the letter, there are many observations which match well into the narrative of the crossing.  The time line given by Folwell is consistent with that of the official reports. The mention of a misty rain is duly noted.  Furthermore, Hooker’s concern, clearly recorded here by Folwell, about the wagons and further delays, should receive a highlight.

On a lower level, we get a small glimpse into engineer operations during a crossing.  There is much “just wait, watch, and stand ready” for them during such a crossing.  As Folwell said, “an old story” by this point in the war.  It is significant that Beers spent time at Folwell’s tent during the morning.  I’ve always felt, based on comments by other officers, Beers was the type of leader to be at the most critical point.  And Folwell’s place, on the Maryland side of the crossing, would be that critical point –  should repairs be needed, another bridge be required, or yet another set of orders come down.

We often associate the C&O Canal with mule-drawn boats.  But steam-powered boats were operated, as the C&O Canal Association reminds us.

lrg-539-1592-155-2-7

Poor Mahalon, though.  His “troubles” were that of additional duties.  Presumably, those would be over when the main body of the 50th New York Engineers moved up from Washington.  A small, personal aspect of the crossing which would probably have escaped record, had we not consulted Folwell’s letters.  Later in the evening, Folwell would start a fresh new letter, offering more observations on a most active day at Edwards Ferry.

(Citations from William Watts Folwell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 420-21 (pages 426-7 of scanned copy))

The Folwell letters, June 25, 1863, evening entry: “I wish you were here to see the Army cross. It forms a splendid spectacle.”

In the last entry of Captain William Folwell’s letters that I transcribed was an entry from the morning of June 25, 1863.  As we well know, that date held significance at Edwards Ferry, being the first day of the Army of the Potomac’s crossing.  A third of the army marched over the bridges laid by Folwell and his fellow engineers, with the stream of men continuing into the night and early morning hours.

The first, brief, entry from Folwell on that day alluded to the Eleventh Corps moving up to the bridge and, erroneously in my opinion, the crossing of some reserve artillery.  But that entry was cut short.  Folwell had work to do.  And he provided some details of that work in an evening letter:

June 25th, 1863, 6 P.M.

Edwards Ferry, Md.

You must excuse the appearance of this, as of most of my letters.  There is a fine misty rain falling, and the air is so damp as to thoroughly moisten my paper.  I have my desk again and my tent.  This morning, Major [E.O.] Beers arrived from Washington, having Co. H and 72 Pontoon Boats and the necessary appendages.  About 10 A.M. he ordered me to take my Co. and Co. H. and take ½ of the material and begin laying a Bridge from the Va. shore.  Cos. F and C began from the Md. shore.  At three P.M., we had a fine bridge over the Potomac, just below Goose Creek….

Circling back here for context.  On June 24, the engineers were ordered to place a second bridge at Edwards Ferry.  But, not knowing exactly where that was needed, the officers in charge of the site sent requests for clarification to Army Headquarters.  Receiving no instructions, Beers decided to place the bridge downstream of the mouth of Goose Creek, meaning it was downstream of the first bridge so as to not interfere with ongoing operations.  Captain Charles Turnbull made a report of this at 11 a.m. that morning.  If Folwell’s time is accurate, Beers probably started necessary actions to build the second bridge an hour earlier.

Folwell’s command (Companies H and I, of note) worked from the Virginia shore, somewhere near where I took this photo:

Edwards Ferry 016

You see the boat ramp on the Maryland side to the left of frame.  Just to the right of frame is the river lock, which Folwell and others used to aid movement of the pontoons.  This “spit” of ground into the river is a typical feature you’ll find downstream from a confluence, formed as the currents form eddies as they join.  While we cannot say that spit was there in 1863, such a formation would be the natural location for the landing of a pontoon bridge.

Beers reported the bridge complete and in use by 2:30 P.M. that day.  But I would give Folwell the grace of a half hour. The bridge might have been in use, but many small chores remained for the engineers to “tie down”… literally and figuratively.

Continuing this entry, Folwell recorded the order of march:

As I wrote you this morning, the 11th Corps crossed to this side.  The 1st (Reynolds) followed.  The 3rd (Sickles) was ready to use our new Bridge.  The 2nd, 6th, and 12th are still in Va., but will probably follow the rest of the Army.  The Corps which have crossed have taken the roads up the River.  I wonder that the Army did not attempt to cross above the Monocacy.  It is possible the Rebs. hold that region.  However, we can get to Harper’s Ferry very near as soon from this point and if Hooker wishes to occupy Frederick, this is the better and safer route, and I wish you were here to see the Army cross.  It forms a splendid spectacle….

And this, we find, is very accurate in regard to the crossing order.  His speculation about crossing at Monocacy feeds into one of my ongoing lanes about the choice of crossing sites.  But, having discussed that already, at least in part, let us move forward.

What do engineers do when a bridge is in use?

When the Bridge is down, we have only to take our ease until the Army is over, and then comes our work.  Capt. [Myron A.] Mandeville, a QM of Brigade, 1st Corps, has just called on me.  He used to keep Franklin House in Geneva and was familiarly known by the habitues as “Mandy.”  What our next move will be, I can’t even guess at.  Hooker’s Army may be beaten and driven in to Washington, or may be victorious and follow Lee to Richmond.  Let us hope and pray for victory.  Jim, who comes today, announces supper. Well we had supper, Boston crackers and tea, butter and some stewed prunes.  We had a late dinner and did not care for more.  Mr. [Lieutenant Daniel M] Hulse has command of the guard on the bridge tonight.  It is raining hard and he will have a hard time of it.

With the time to spare, we find Folwell’s closing thoughts of the day were towards a future outside the army.  And, recall, he was a college teacher by trade:

Just a week tonight since we came up here. My paper is fairly wet, however this is the last sheet.  I rec’d a fine, long, glossipy letter from A.S.W. this morning, full of college news.  He says Havanna Coll has rec’d a very large endowment and thinks it likely that there will be my best stepping-stone.  I am very thankful that I am independent just now of all colleges and seminaries.  It is true distasteful as it may be to you that I do not have my old relish for books and book knowledge.  I will only use a book and get some information for present use. The Peoples Coll. endowed largely, under Dr. Brown, will be a great institution, and be largely useful.  It will not be distinctively religious, although not by any means irreligious.  The time has passed when any merely religious college can be great and –  Monks and priests do not now hold the keys to knowledge.  Indeed, they possess a very small share of really useful information beyond their professional lore.  Colleges must educate for the bar and the farm, for the shop and the field, and must leave to the theological schools the training of the clergy.  We must have the fossils ousted at Geneva before that college can flourish.  There are only two, three with Mr. — fit to teach young men.  All the rest are doing harm; they are making one-sided men.  I think I would not take a place under Jackson, and beside Metcalf, Towler and Bates.  Spite of many faults, while the War goes on as now, we have only to wait and hope.  Just now, I had rather go to Venice than anywhere else, if I could be sure your health would not suffer.  They write me from home that Father has been delayed in getting workmen to repair the house.  I hope they can ask you to come at a time convenient for you.  If not, you will appreciate the reason.

There is much here that I am ill-equipped to provide context, particularly the names of fellow instructors.  The reference to Havanna College may be a school in the Cincinnati area.  Of course, Folwell taught there briefly after the war before moving to the University of Minnesota.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this passage is the insight into Folwell’s approach to the profession.

But, as my focus is on the military operations at the crossing, I circle back to that opening line in the passage – “Just a week tonight since we came up here.”  Folwell and his fellow engineers had left Washington, D.C., using the C&O Canal, on June 17.  They spent most of the time between that transit and June 25 simply waiting on orders.  Such is the nature of an army on campaign.  And I ask, why is it we only focus on the battles?

(Citations from William Watts Folwell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 418-20 (pages 424-6 of scanned copy))

The Folwell letters, June 25, 1863, morning entry: “We are to lay the other Bridge here….”

Captain William Folwell provided two entries for June 25, 1863.  The first was early in the morning, and apparently written as an addition to the June 24th letter:

June 25th, 7 A.M.  Lt. [John] Davidson brought this letter back to me, having met his Co. on the way up.  We are to lay the other Bridge here and not at Monocacy.  The reserve artillery crossed here last night, and the 11th Corps is coming now.  All bound for Harper’s Ferry, they say.  Must get breakfast now and then to work.  We expect mail today.

Brief, but alluding to a couple of points in the larger story of the crossing at Edwards Ferry.  And June 25th was a busy day at Edwards Ferry, to say the least.

Let us focus on what occurred between midnight and 7 a.m. on that day:

  • Sometime after midnight:  Major-General Oliver O. Howard, then at the Virginia side of Edwards Ferry, receives orders to cross the Eleventh Corps the following morning.
  • 3:45 a.m.:  Eleventh Corps breaks camp.
  • 5 a.m.:  Major E. O. Beers, 15th New York Engineers, arrives at the Maryland side of Edwards Ferry with equipment to lay a second bridge at that point.  But the engineers are still unsure as to where the bridge is needed (upstream or downstream of existing bridge?).
  • Between 6 and 7 a.m.: Orders issued to most of the Army of the Potomac to move towards Edwards Ferry for crossing.  This included the Artillery reserve which was at that time near Fairfax Court House.

And… not until 10 a.m. did a response come down from Army Headquarters providing clarity to the question about bridge placement.

I think, given what we know of the “big picture,” 7 a.m. was an important point on the time line.  Troops were beginning to move towards Edwards Ferry… lots of troops.  A second bridge was about to go in the water.  And all sorts of things would be in motion from that point.  But at 7 a.m., things were paused… perhaps stalled… as all these components were breaking the resting inertia.  Those orders trickling out of headquarters were the force to break that inertia, setting things in motion.

One unit that was already in motion which I did not mention above was Major-General Julius Stahel’s cavalry division (not officially at that time, but soon to become the 3rd Division, Cavalry Corps).  Stahel’s command returned from their picket lines on June 24 (generally on the Bull Run Mountains, for brevity here).  The division was immediately ordered to cross the Potomac and march for Harpers Ferry and support the garrison there.  Their assigned line of march was across Young’s Island Ford.  But this is where the time line for them gets muddled.  Likely, Stahel’s troopers did not reach the ford until the morning of June 25. At which time, they found the ford impassible for the entire column.  At most, some of the troopers crossed.  But the wagons along with the 9th Michigan Battery, which was assigned to the division, had to cross elsewhere.  From dispatches on June 25 and subsequent days, it is clear Stahel’s baggage train didn’t cross with the command (and added to the traffic problems at Edwards Ferry… and to the logistic problems in Maryland).   The only real accounting of their crossing comes from Major-General Hooker, indicating “General Stahel crossed the river this morning near Edwards Ferry….”  Of course Young’s Island Ford was plenty near Edwards Ferry, so this is not a precise description.

I bring up Stahel’s cavalry here in an attempt to reconcile a discrepancy between Folwell and the dispatches in the Official Records.  Small discrepancies in a short passage, but some that need be addressed.  We have Folwell’s mention of the Reserve Artillery.  There is a mountain of evidence indicating the Reserve Artillery did not arrive at Edwards Ferry until the evening of June 25.  The artillery crossed the following day, following the Fifth Corps.

So what was the artillery Folwell mentioned?   It is unlikely any of the reserve batteries were detached at that time, as we have no record of such.  More likely is that Folwell, having enjoyed a good night’s rest, was simply passing along what came to him in conversation… in other words – rumors.  Something with horse teams and wheels crossed that night, but it wasn’t the Reserve Artillery.  I would hold out the possibility that some other artillery crossed early in the morning of June 25. The most likely candidate would be the 9th Michigan Battery, assigned to Stahel.  And such would confirm my long standing assumption that a substantial element of Stahel’s command actually crossed at Edwards Ferry that morning.  But, if I had to bet on this, my money would be on Folwell repeating rumors.

The most important part of this passage, however, is mention of the bridge to be laid.  Folwell, writing at 7 a.m., knew a bridge was to be laid.  But neither him or any other engineer at Edwards Ferry, at that time, knew where the commander wanted that bridge to be laid.  And bridges, once laid, are difficult to move.  Sort of a “you only get one shot to get it right” situation, with the entire Army of the Potomac due to arrive on the Virginia side looking for a dry crossing to Maryland.  More work for Folwell and the rest of the engineers on June 25.  And he would relate that in his second installment for the day, which we will look at next.

(Citations from William Watts Folwell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 417-8 (pages 423-4 of scanned copy))

The Folwell letters, June 24, 1863: Waiting on orders and hoping for mail

If pressed to put a label on June 24, 1863, from the perspective of the Army of the Potomac, I’d have to say “hesitations.”  Such would allude the posture at army headquarters as Major-General Joseph Hooker deliberated about how to apply his force to a ever changing situation.  A cloud lay over his situational awareness.

I detailed the situation, and lack of appreciation thereof, back in the sesquicentennial.  Tactically the most important movement of the day was the Eleventh Corps marching to Edwards Ferry.  However, the Engineers suffered as headquarters issued orders, only to countermand and issue new orders later in the day.   Here’s the summary of the brigade’s dispositions at the start of the day, from that sesqui post:

[Brigadier-General Henry Benham] … had 300 engineers of the Regular battalion at Edwards Ferry.  Another 360 of the 15th New York Engineers were at the Monocacy, waiting bridging equipment.  At the Washington Navy Yard, he held 135 men to repair equipment brought up from the Rappahannock and 250 more of the 50th New York Engineers.  Benham wanted to remain in Washington, with those 385 men, to supervise the repairs, which he estimated would take a week.  Headquarters agreed to continue the repairs, but still ordered Benham to the field at Edwards Ferry.

So in the morning the intent was to have a bridge near the Mouth of the Monocacy to complement the one at Edwards Ferry.  The bridge at Edwards Ferry was already heavily used, with supply trains going across to Virginia (so much that replacement parts were requested).  So it would reason a second bridge might be needed as supply needs increased.  Indeed, sage wisdom from many grey-haired logisticians says an army in the field should have a minimum of two supply lines.

But before we label this planned bridge at the Monocacy as “supply line #2”, consider the proposed location.  Such would be on Loudoun County’s “Lost Corner” where the Potomac bends out at an exposed angle.  The Virginia side of the crossing was exposed to attack from the west, over Catoctin Ridge.  Furthermore, the location is but 5-6 miles downstream from Point of Rocks, where Confederates had just raided.  So, my conjecture is that if a bridge was needed for a second supply line, then it would have been downstream of Edwards Ferry (say… Young’s Island or the Seneca Creek area… either of which brings up other “what if?” inquiries).   And thus the proposed Monocacy Bridge was instead intended for troop movements.

All this said, and speculated, the bridge at the Monocacy was not to be.  By the end of the day, the engineers then at the Monocacy and those transiting to that position were instead ordered to concentrate at Edwards Ferry.  I think (again, my speculation) that reports from Major-General Henry Slocum, then in Leesburg, about Confederate movements about Snicker’s Gap caused Hooker to reconsider the bridge.

In the middle of all this changing situation sat Captain William Folwell and Company I, 50th New York Engineers, minding their bridge at Edwards Ferry.  And Folwell’s entry for the day was short… perhaps better said… abrupt:

Edwards Ferry, June 24th, ’63.

Lt. [John] Davidson of Co. H. came up yesterday in charge of animals and returns today.  Strange enough Chaplain did not send our mail.  However, we have so far opportunity to send off the letters we write.  Yesterday afternoon, we moved camp across the canal on to a fine place of sloping ground. My tent stands on a spot from which there is one of the most charming prospects imaginable. The winding of the river, the wooded shores backed by green fields of grain and grass, the bridges and the people on them altogether form a very beautiful scene. I presume I shall have to leave it soon, for we have a telegram announcing that another company is on the way with 1000 ft. of Bridge, which is to be laid at Monocacy.  Probably Co. I will be ordered to assist.  It is a little hard on us who are here that they will not think enough of us at Washington to send us our mail while they are living in high style.  Some of the officers having sent for their wives.  Yes, we are to move up to Monocacy tonight.  I hope Co. A. Capt. [George W.] Ford will arrive with the boats, 1400 ft. of Bridge material will be sent.  Here’s Davidson.  Off –

On a personal side, what stands out is this discussion of the mail.  The Chaplain mentioned would be Edward C. Pritchett, who served the regiment through most of the war.  And shame on those “rear area” officers who were “living in high style” back in Washington!

We also see the bridge at Monocacy as an anticipated task.  We sense the “coiling of the spring” as Folwell prepared to support that endeavor.  I don’t quite know what to presume from the cut off at the end of this entry.  I’ve presented it here precisely as it appears in the type-written transcription.  Is that to say “we are off!” Or is that the first word of a new sentence cut off?

The next entry picks up on June 25th at 7 A.M.  A day and time which we know, from the historical record, was perhaps the most difficult of the campaign for the engineers.  We’ll pick up Folwell’s account there.

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 417 (pages 423 of scanned copy))

 

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

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

Edwards Ferry, Md.,

June 23rd, 1863.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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