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.)

 

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