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))