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 17, 1863: Loading pontoons for a trip up the C&O

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

On the “Raging Canal”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34797r

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

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

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