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))

 

The Folwell letters, June 22, 1863: “Still at Edwards Ferry”

For Monday, June 22, 1863, Captain William W. Folwell offered a short entry:

Monday [June 22], 8 A.M.

Still at Edwards Ferry.  Beautiful morning.  All quiet.  We shall probably move or rather make our camp this morning across the canal on to a pleasant hill-side. [Lieutenant James L.] Robbins goes to Washington to-day, I presume. He will attend to sending up our baggage and Co. books.  He will send up an express box with “goodies” from home. We could live very well up here if we could get bread. The natives around here scarcely use it, but make all kinds of short cakes and biscuit, which to me are an abomination.  We hope to have a mail within two or three days. Oh, I am so stupid.

Unclear to me if the last sentence was in reference to some missed opportunity with the mail, or a general self-deprecating remark.  Something lost to time.

Very little here of the war situation.  Just an uneventful day in an eventful campaign.  When that occurs, the focus is, as we see in the entry, upon things such as mail and food.  As a Loudoun County resident, I can take some pride that the “abominable” short cakes and biscuits which Folwell referenced were on the Maryland-side.  You know, over in Montgomery County.

Adding some that broader context here, June 22 saw an attempted ambush of Major John S. Mosby’s command.  Then later in the day came orders for the engineers to place a bridge over Goose Creek near the mouth.  The engineers were also to look into blazing a path from the Eleventh Corps camps (near where modern Dulles Toll Road crosses Goose Creek) down to Edwards Ferry.  And in addition, elements from the First Corps constructed a bridge over Goose Creek at the Alexandria-Leesburg Turnpike.  We’d call these tasks part of the “mobility” function of combat engineers.  In other words, making it easier to move friendly troops.  Specific to the situation on June 22, the bridges and blazed path would allow movement of the First and Eleventh Corps to reinforce the Twelfth Corps then in Leesburg.  Furthermore, as events would later dictate, would allow the movement of the army to Edwards Ferry and thence across the Potomac.  Those mobility corridors, built by the engineers and other detailed troops, would save the army hours of marching time in the days which followed.

Something that gets overlooked when we focus on valuable minutes on the battlefield of Gettysburg is that hours were saved, spent, and, at times, wasted on the roads from the Rappahannock to Adams County… by both sides.

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

The Folwell letters, June 21, 1863: “…we had a fine bridge 1340 ft. long.”

Last week, we left Captain William W. Folwell at Edwards Ferry with night approaching on June 20, 1863.  That date and place are important to the discussion of the Gettysburg Campaign.  The first bridge over the Potomac at that point would later provide the path for the Army of the Potomac to move north.  Not to play this up too much (well… it is my shtick), as without doubt the army would have found someplace to cross the river eventually.  But as the events did play out, Edwards Ferry is where the army crossed.  As such, to understand the “downstream” events, we have to understand the particulars upstream.  In other words, if you want to start talking July 1, 1863 then let’s roll back to understand how the armies got there in the first place.

And with respect to what happened ten days later, June 21 was important for at least two events – The battle of Upperville and the laying of the first bridge at Edwards Ferry.  The former changed the way Federal leaders perceived the developing situation.  The latter, originally suggested by Major-General Henry Slocum for logistic reasons, would take on greater importance just days later when Federal leaders decided to act upon those changes to the situation (as they perceived it…).

Looking at all this at the lower, detailed level, we find Folwell on the Maryland side of Edwards Ferry and about to be involved with the second of those important events:

Edwards Ferry, Md., June 21st, 1863.

Friday night, as I have already written you, we, the Regulars and our three Cos., C, F and I [50th New York Engineers], came here from Monocacy.  Yesterday, we lay here all day idle.  In the afternoon, it rained and I put up some shelter tents and went to sleep under them….

As things are apt to play out, men involved with great events tend to be surrounded by a lot of mundane, ordinary “living my life” events.  Such as a soldier trying to keep dry.  But in the next sentence, the bridge building started:

At dark, the order came to build the bridge.  We backed our rafts into the river and poled them to place.  The Regulars began from the Md. shore.  Capt. [Charles] Turnbull decided it was too dark to attempt building from both shores at once, and therefore, ordered our Cos. to lay down on the raft and rest till day-light. I lay down with my men wrapped in a blanket and slept so soundly that had I not found my blanket soaking wet this morning, I should not have known that it had rained.

I hate to chop this up with annotations, but this is somewhat important in the bridging story.  We have here a first hand account indicating the use of the river lock at Edwards Ferry:

Edwards Ferry 26 Apr 044

This river lock was built with the intention of moving boats from the Goose Creek Canal (on the Virginia side) over to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.  Just days before, when Folwell and others were contemplating a bridge at Nolan’s Ferry, the engineers had to work out arrangements for moving boats and equipment over the canal berm into the river.  The river lock made such unnecessary at Edwards Ferry.   So the boats, as packed and formed into rafts at Georgetown, could be taken out to the river without leaving the water.

But after the equipment was on the river, the engineers opted to wait until daylight.  Was that an unnecessary delay?  Well, on that evening the moon was in waxing phase. Illumination that night was 17%.  The moon sat just after 10 P.M.  In short, Turnbull’s decision was probably wise, provided one wished to have an orderly bridge that connected in the middle!

So after one more night of rest, in the rain mind you, Folwell and company had work to do on June 21:

At daylight, we carried our material to the Va. shore, threw out our pickets, and began work; by seven o’clock we had exhausted our material, and lacked two boats to complete the bridge.  The regulars furnished them, and very soon after we had a fine bridge 1340 ft. long.  They replaced the boats with trestle.  Since finishing our work, I have breakfasted, washed, rested, and would now dine if I had anything to eat.  Strange enough, it is really Sunday here.

At 11:45 that morning, Turnbull reported, “The bridge has been finished two hours, and reported to General Slocum. Bridge 1,340 feet long.”  While matching Folwell’s description as to the length, perhaps Turnbull didn’t consider the bridge complete until the last boats and trestle was in place, thus accounting for the time between 7 and 9:45 that morning.  This is the only mention I know of a trestle section on the first bridge.  The application is logical in this case, covering a section where boats were in short supply.

With work completed, Folwell and company tended to their personal needs:

The little store by the lock is shut and the inhabitants do not sell provisions.  We made no provision for it yesterday.  Bain [Lieutenant Mahlon Bainbridge Folwell] and Dan [Lieutenant Daniel M Hulsehave] gone out to a house to get dinner, but I do not think it proper for me to leave Camp.  I am getting hungry and hope they will bring me back something to eat.  There is a great battle going on today off in the direction of Aldes and Linker Gap.  The Rebs. are probably trying to force the passage of those gaps.  We ought to prevent them, and I think a skillful General would do it.  I have but small hopes of Joe. Hooker, He lacks ability and locks courage, – nerve.  4 P.M. finally, William got me some dinner.  Ham broiled, potatoes, coffee, Hoe cake, hot.

So, let us just say Folwell was no fan of Joe Hooker.  And of course he was hearing the fighting in Loudoun Valley near Upperville.  I suspect he was referring to Ashby’s and Snicker’s Gaps.  Or Aldie and Snicker’s Gap.  At any rate, I would not ask Folwell for directions around Loudoun County.

I had not finished them when Lieut. [James L.] Robbins [Company A] arrived with the advance of another fleet of pontoons, 16 in number, and on my invitation proceeded to discus the residuun. The careless fellow bro’t no mail, no Jim Scott, no baggage, no tents.  Well, he couldn’t help it, he had to hurry away at a moment’s notice.  The Regiment is encamped on the old ground at Camp Lesly [Leslie].  This Sunday afternoon is very beautiful and all is quiet, but the thunder of the battle which is still raging, at times furiously.  Just now there is a lull.  Robbins brought five days rations for our men. We had just drawn five days yesterday.  At Washington they do not seem to know anything of our whereabouts and destination. They think us at Monocacy.  We were there two days ago.  I am writing very stupidly.  I have been without sleep so many nights, and on the move so may days, that I don’t know whether I am dad or alive.

This last section alludes to confusion within the Engineer Brigade. And that confusion was much due to confusion at Army headquarters.  But at least Folwell’s men had plenty of rations!

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 413-5 (pages 419-21 of scanned copy); OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, page 246.)

 

The Folwell letters, June 20, 1863: “We make the river 1475 feet wide”

On June 19, 1863, Captain William W. Folwell and Company I, 50th New York Engineers were among a detachment of engineer troops at the Mouth of the Monocacy.  Their original orders had them moving to Nolan’s Ferry with the intention of placing a bridge over the Potomac at that point.  They had even conducted a leaders’ reconnaissance of the site to determine the best way of handling equipment out of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal to the river.

But, we know, from the distance of 150 plus years, the Army of the Potomac wasted a lot of paper and telegraph transmissions changing and countermanding orders. The situation was in flux.  And as such, a soldier – particularly an engineer with the task of laying a bridge – went through the cycle of hurry up; wait; start; stop; repeat.  That, more so than pitched battles, was the experience of the soldier.

The next entry in Folwell’s diary/letters is actually transcribed (in the typewritten version on line) as June 26.  I believe that in error, with the correct date being June 20.  But thought I would mention that here in case my assertion is incorrect.  Regardless, we find Folwell at our favorite spot – Edwards Ferry:

Saturday, June [20], 1863.

Here we are at Edwards Ferry, 12 miles below Monocacy where we lay all day yesterday.  It was just dark when the order came for us to get down to this place.  No sooner had we started than the rain began pouring in torrents and continued for some hours.  About midnight it ceased.  We were going all night.  Fortunately, there are only three or four locks on the way, which allowed our men to get some rest.  Towards morning, I spread my blankets and lay down for a nap and took a very good one.

We still wait orders. Majors [Ira] Spaulding and [Wesley] Brainerd go to Washington this A.M. This leaves [Captain Michael H.] McGrath in command.  This grinds me, for I laid Pontoon Bridges before ever McGrath tho’t of getting in to the Regt. I have told the Major what I think, and hope that an arrangement will be made by which I can be relieved. We make the river 1475 feet wide, i.e., 75 bays of Bridge required, 74 boats.  We have only 64 along. The Major is writing a dispatch to Gen. Benham stating the case. What a change of base since last Saturday night when we took up the Bridge over the Rappahannock.  Of the situation, I know nothing.  Have heard no news in several days.  I am getting on better than you would think without my baggage and [my] chest.  It may be days before I see them.  My horse is safe; that is one comfort.

There’s a lot to consider in just two short paragraphs.  Let’s break this down in sequence.

Why were the engineers ordered to Edwards Ferry?  Or more accurately what drove that change?  Well, we can go back to correspondence between Army of the Potomac Chief of Staff Major-General Daniel Butterfield and Twelfth Corps commander Major-General Henry Slocum. That corps arrived in Leesburg on June 18, becoming the anchor for the army’s right flank as it pivoted to face west.  On the 19th, Butterfield pressed Slocum for, among other things, an assessment of Potomac crossing points.

Late in the evening, Butterfield asked, “What advantages are to be gained by putting a bridge at Edwards Ferry? Are there any reasons why we cannot cross at Noland’s and Hauling Fords?” To which Slocum replied, as if to deflect the subject:

I think the bridge should be built at Edwards Ferry to supply us. I have not force enough to keep the route to Vienna, or to hold many fords on the river in the country filled with guerrillas. Edwards Ferry is most accessible, and is covered by a strong redoubt on this side. Our supplies should be sent from Georgetown, by canal, to Edwards Ferry.

The dialog is important to the storyline.  Not only does this answer the why and what, but gives a glimpse into the situation as understood by the participants at the command level.  As I’ve tread over the commander’s intent at this stage of the campaign in earlier posts, let us focus for now on the intent for the bridges.  Up until at least midnight on the 19th, Butterfield (and by extension Major-General Joseph Hooker in command of the army) was focused on a bridge to move troops.  But Slocum wanted a bridge to shorten, protect his supply line.  Slocum’s reasoning won out by dawn of June 20.  And that, I would submit, tells us a bit about what Hooker had decided was the main course of action he should pursue at that point in time.  In other words – on June 20, the intent was to stay in front of Washington and anticipate battle in Loudoun.  Of course, that would change in a few days.

Moving beyond commander’s intent, we see again the heavens opened and the rain came down in buckets.  I contend that when the Army of the Potomac marched, the weather was always either too hot, or too wet, or a lot of both.  In this particular case, the rains would also have the effect of swelling the Potomac which the engineers would shortly need to bridge.

And to that point, the estimate was 1475 feet, with the particular equipment needed detailed by Folwell.  So let’s back up to June 16 and a report from Brigadier-General G. K. Warren.  While listing the various potential crossing points of the Potomac, assessed for ease of access, capacity, and river width, Warren wrote:

Conrad’s Ferry, near Leesburg, is a good place for a pontoon bridge, requiring 600 feet.  Above Edwards Ferry we can make a pontoon bridge, requiring about 700 feet.  There is here at least an outlet lock from the canal into the river; also a bridge over the canal.

Conrad’s Ferry is today’s White’s Ferry, and crosses upstream of Harrison’s Island and Balls Bluff. And readers should be familiar with Edwards Ferry’s location in relation to Leesburg.  If not, here’s the map again:

PotomacCrossings1A

But 600 and 700 feet, respectively?  No.  Not even in the middle of a hot, dry summer (which 1863 was not).  Today, the river at Conrad’s/White’s Ferry is 975 feet wide, based on my field notes.  Standing upstream from Goose Creek, the width at Edwards Ferry is 1,260 feet… again today, 150 plus years after the war.  Clearly Warren did not visit these sites in person… or if he did, his manner of estimating distance was faulty.  And this error by Warren would cost the engineers, and by extension the Army of the Potomac, valuable hours.  (Warren, I would offer, was much better at calling for reinforcements to beleaguered sectors of the battlefield than making proper engineering assessments… after all, what does a Chief Engineer get paid for?)

Let us give some allowances here for the river being up due to the rains that Folwell mentioned.  But more importantly, Folwell and team had to add some length to the bridging as they accounted for abutments and other needs – raw crossing distance vs. actual feet of bridging needed.  Still, Warren’s assessment was horribly wrong.  The impact?  The engineers at Edwards Ferry did not have sufficient equipment to do their job.  This became a problem for Spaulding, Brainerd, and… at the top of this all… Benham.

So the estimates were wrong.  Just order up some more pontoons, right?  Well in the first place, Benham was busy refitting, repairing pontoons which had just been used opposite Fredericksburg and at other points in the march north. Furthermore, we have to consider those pontoons as a strategic resource, to be husbanded by Hooker and even further up by Halleck and Lincoln in Washington.

Thus we see a curious exchange of messages between the engineers and headquarters. At 5:20 p.m. Butterfield ordered the engineers to lay a bridge at Edwards Ferry, along with a bridge over Goose Creek.  Responding at 7:20, Captain Charles Turnbull indicated he didn’t have enough pontoons, but would start the work anticipating more equipment from Washington.  But at 9:20, Butterfield inquired about the river widths at other points, adding, “If 1,400 feet, general [Hooker] does not want bridge laid at Edwards Ferry.”

My take on all this – Hooker had a card to play with these pontoons.  He was informed by his top engineer that 1400 feet would give him TWO crossing points.  But when it came time to play the card, he is informed the pontoons would not cover even ONE crossing point!  Granted, the army could get more pontoons.  But that translated into a little “rob Peter to pay Paul” when Hooker’s staff started projecting towards future operations.  Hooker would “pay” for that bridge, but it strained resource more than anticipated.

All of which impacted Folwell’s work.   In addition to the bridging, we see he was concerned about command arrangements.  I don’t have much on McGrath.  He mustered as a first lieutenant in Company F in July 1862.  Then was advanced to captain in October of  the same year (though his rank was only advanced on December 26, 1862, back-dated to October).  He replaced Spaulding in command of Company F.  So there would be some natural inclination from Spaulding toward his former command, perhaps.  But date of rank was more likely the justification. Folwell’s data of rank, to captain, was December 11, 1862.  In the military, with respect to command assignments, date of rank carries more weight than experience.

However, I find much of Folwell’s concern a minor issue, no matter how much it did “grind” him.  The man in charge of the bridging was Turnbull.  He “commanded” the engineers at Edwards Ferry on the evening of June 20.  And it was Turnbull who would give instructions to Folwell.  So as the afternoon turned to dusk and then to night, Folwell’s orders involved placing a bridge at Edwards Ferry.  That’s where we will turn next in this series.

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 412-13 (pages 418-9 of scanned copy); OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, pages 149, 208-9, and 229.)