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:


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.)


April 1, 1865: “This has been the most momentous day of the war so far”: Five Forks, Sheridan, Warren, and what Wainwright saw

Colonel Charles S. Wainwright was right place to witness many things on April 1, 1865.  And he minced no words as to his emotions that Saturday on which a campaign turned:

White Oak Road, April 1, 1865, Saturday: This has been the most momentous day of the war so far, I think; a glorious day; a day of real victory. But to begin at the beginning and tell what I saw myself. During the night, that is, soon after five o’clock and before daylight, I was awakened, and on joining [Major-General Gouverneur] Warren, he informed me that he was going to move to [Major-General Phil] Sheridan’s support with all his infantry; that [Major-General Romeyn] Ayres’s division had already gone down the plank, and he was just starting across country with the other two to try for the flank of the force opposed to Sheridan….

Thus Wainwright, and the Federal Fifth Corps, moved towards Five Forks on the morning of April 1, 1865.  Around 1 p.m. that afternoon, Warren called on Wainwright to support the flanking attack with two batteries.  The infantry was not, at that moment, joined with the Confederate line, but closing upon it.  Wainwright moved with two of his New York batteries.

When I got up to Warren the whole of the Fifth Corps was just about to attack at this angle, and along the east flank, swinging around to the west with its pivot of the White Oak road, Ayres’s division held the left, [Brigadier-General Frederick] Winthrop’s brigade crossing the road diagonally.  [Major-General Samuel] Crawford was on Ayres’s right, and [Major-General Charles] Griffin in rear of Crawford. Much of this I have, of course, learned since, mostly from Ayres, who gave me a clear account of the dispositions.

When I reached Warren, he was in conversation with General Sheridan, close behind Ayres’s second line. Our skirmishers were just engaging, the men beginning to advance, and rebel bullets coming over our way somewhat thick.  I waited several minutes for Sheridan to get through what he was saying before I spoke to Warren.  As there was nothing for me to do, I rode back out of the way of stray bullets, to an open ridge south of the road and not far from a small church, called Gravel Run Church, where our hospital was being established.

As our men passed through a narrow belt of woods, I could not see the actual charge on the works, only the smoke of the battle. The cheers of our men, however, told me that all was going well, and long files of prisoners coming in soon shewed that the works were carried….

Wainwright estimated, from the time he left Warren until the first prisoners came down the road, only twenty minutes had elapsed.  As for those prisoners:

These men all moved along cheerfully, without one particle of sullenness which formerly characterized them under similar circumstances. They joked with our men along the line and I repeatedly head them say, “We are coming back into the Union, boys, we are coming back into the Union.” It was a joyful and an exciting sight, seeming to say that the war was about over, the great rebellion nearly quelled.

Wainwright proceeded to Five Forks itself where an administrative duty became his task of the day.

At the Forks, I found two guns, three-inch, just in their works, and [Colonel Alexander] Pennington sitting on one of them.  I stopped here and had a talk with him and several other cavalry officers, formerly light battery commanders.  They told me that they had charged the works at this point and carried them with any number of prisoners. While there Crawford came down the Ford road, from the north, looking for Warren, and told me that there were more guns up the road which his men had taken.

Wainwright went up the road to find three more 3-inch rifles. Always concerned about propriety and not wishing to slight anyone’s honor, Wainwright didn’t want to take possession of any guns until everyone got their due credit.

I turned back and pushed along the White Oak road to find Warren. I must have gone at least two miles, and about one mile west of the end of the rebel works before I found him.  It was growing dark, the sun having already set; the bugles were sounding the recall; the pursuit was over, and the divisions getting together for the night. I told the General about the guns, and asked if I was to look after their removal.  For this he referred me to Sheridan, as he said there might be some jealousy on the part of the cavalry.

We rode back together looking for Sheridan, and found him with his staff about a fire near the west end of the rebel works. Here I waited while General Warren had a short conversation with Sheridan. Then I dismounted, reported to Sheridan the number of guns I had found, and asked if he wished me to remove them; at the same time stating that Pennington claimed to have captured at least two of them.  Sheridan was very pleasant, said that there was glory enough for all, and wished me to look after the guns.

With that, Wainwright rode off to tend to those trophies.  And note that Wainwright places Warren and Sheridan at the the latter’s headquarters apparently having a even tempered conversation.  Leaving Sheridan, Wainwright proceeded to catch up with Warren:

… Warren had ridden on with Bankhead. When I overtook them, they were both dismounted, and Warren talking earnestly. I also got off my horse, told Warren what directions Sheridan had given me, and inquired where the corps headquarters would be for the night. Warren replied that General Sheridan had just informed him that he had relieved him from the command of the corps, and turned it over to Griffin; that he had given no reason for doing, but referred him to General Grant, to whom he was to report for orders.

Wainwright was puzzled by the turn of events.  But his reaction goes to demonstrate some of the personality of Warren:

I was astonished at this news and could not imagine what the trouble was. The only thing that occurred to me was that Warren might have got into one of his ugly fits and said what he ought not to. But in that case he would have been relieved at once instead of it being put off until the fight was all over.  Besides which I had left them just at the commencement of the battle in apparently amicable talk.

Not until the next day did Wainwright learn the justification for Warren’s removal.  Crawford’s division had ventured too far to the right.  After sending staff officers to reign in Crawford, Warren went to the flank himself.  While tending to that task personally, Warren was conspicuously absent from the corps headquarters when Sheridan inquired “Where is Warren?”  Wainwright repeated the opinion of Brigadier-General Joseph Bartlett in that Crawford was to blame for the mix-up.  “[Bartlett] referred to Spotsylvania and one or two other cases where, by his bungling or what not, Crawford had brought him great trouble.”

But what was done was done.  Wainwright expressed his opinion of the new corps commander:

I do not exactly like the idea of serving under Griffin; we have never got along well together, and I do not like him.  It was one o’clock when I got to bed; up at that time and later there was a steady and very heavy cannonade kept up from dark along the old lines in front of Petersburg. We can see the shells burst at times and watch the flight of some of the big bombs.  We start again at daylight.

And they did start again that next day.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 510-5.)

Wainwright’s Diary, March 31, 1864: “He rode along the line in a slouchy unobservant way”

An ongoing theme in Colonel Charles S. Wainwright’s diary through the winter of 1864 was the Army of the Potomac’s consolidation.  Though the consolidation and reorganization  orders for the infantry divisions came out earlier in the month, not until the next-to-last day of the month did Wainwright receive order pertaining to the artillery:

March 31, Thursday. The order finally organizing the artillery brigades did not come out until yesterday: it assigns me to the Fifth Corps, and gives me the batteries I expected; so now I have to go to work and organize my trains and staff.  From the waggons and teams in the two corps I ought to be able to get a very nice outfit.  The changes in my staff are likely to be my losing my commissary, Cranford, whom I shall be sorry to have leave me; and my surgeon, Richmond, whom I shall not regret much….

Earlier in the week, Wainwright’s batteries participated in a review.  The ceremony provided Wainwright his first assessment of Major-General Gouverneur Warren, the Fifth Corps Commander, and also another view of Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.

On Tuesday the corps, that is the old First, no other part of the present corps being about here, was turned out for review by General Grant.  The ground about a mile south of the village along the railroad was quite good.  Warren knew enough to put the artillery on the right of the line where it belonged; I had the six batteries here out, all looking quite well.  When we arrived Warren was already on the ground to assign each command it s position: he promises to be a very different man from Newton in this respect. General Warren is a small man, about thirty-five years old, dark complexioned, with black eyes, and long, straight black hair; he has a little of the look of an Indian, and evidently is of a nervous temperament. Just as General Grant came on the ground it commenced to rain; he rode along the line in a slouchy unobservant way, with his coat unbuttoned and setting anything but an example of military bearing to the troops. There was no enthusiasm, and as the rain increased, we were quickly dismissed without passing in review.

Wainwright also received Brigadier-General Henry Hunt’s endorsement of the proposed volunteer artillery organization.

I have a most capital letter from Hunt, “heartily approving” mine to Morgan.  In it he very truly says: “The battery is the unit of organization for artillery, corresponding to the battalion of infantry, and squadron of cavalry; two, three or more of which constitute a regiment for administration, but for purposes of combat, a brigade. So, six or eight batteries constitute a brigade of artillery; a command fully as important and extended and much more complicated than a brigade of infantry, and requiring from the ground it covers and its distribution a large staff.” He also gives the organization of the British artillery, as he received it from Colonel Turner commanding our arm of the service in Canada at this time; and who was down here last week. “A brigade of eight six-gun batteries” (just the command I now have) “is commanded by a colonel with the army rank of major-general”; then there are “two colonels and four lieutenant-colonels, one of these last for every two batteries.” How different is this from our organization! …. In this army there will be when we start about 280 guns; with one brigadier-general, four colonels, and perhaps two or three lieutenant-colonels and majors: on the British footing we should have at least five major-generals, one for each corps and the reserve; a lieutenant-general probably as chief of artillery of the army; seven colonels and fourteen lieutenant-colonels.

There was merit making the comparison to the British Army, where the Royal Regiment of Artillery played a similar role as that suggested by both Hunt and Wainwright. However, in regard to staffing ranks for the positions, the British Army had Major-Generals commanding divisions.  So the higher ranks when compared to those in respective positions in the American army must come with a grain of salt.  But the gist of Wainwright’s and Hunt’s observations sat on firm ground – the Army of the Potomac, and other American field armies, sorely lacked senior artillerists.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 338-9.)

Meade submits the reorganization plan: Army of the Potomac down to three corps

On this day (March 4) in 1864, Major-General George Meade submitted this request to Army Headquarters in Washington:

Washington, D.C., March 4, 1864.
Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck,
General-in- Chief:

Sir: I beg leave to submit for your consideration and that of the honorable Secretary of War the following plan for the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac:

I propose to reduce the number of corps, now five, to three. In doing this I propose to retain the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Corps, educing the three divisions now in each to two divisions. I then propose to consolidate the two divisions of the Third Corps (constituting the old corps) into one division and transfer it temporarily to the Fifth Corps; this division to retain its corps badges and other distinctive marks, and having understood that when the accession of recruits shall justify the organization of another corps, this division shall resume its position as the Third Corps with such additions as can be made.

In the same manner I propose to consolidate the First Corps into a division, and, with its distinctive marks, &c., assign it to the Second Corps. This would leave the Third Division of the Third Corps, which did not belong to the original corps, but joined after Gettysburg, under Major-General French, which I propose to transfer to the Sixth Corps.

The Second and Sixth Corps, being now commanded by officers assigned by the President of the United States, will continue to be so commanded. The Fifth Corps I propose to have commanded by Major-General Warren, by the assignment of the President.

Of the two corps temporarily broken up, I propose to assign the officers of the general staff to vacancies that may exist in the other corps.

After the above general organization is decided on, general officers will be assigned to divisions and brigades on consultation with corps commanders. The present temporary commanders of the First, Third, and Fifth Corps, it is understood, the Department has decided to relieve. A list of general officers whom in my judgment it is expedient to relieve is herewith furnished, viz: Brig. Gen. J. R. Kenly, Brig. Gen. F. B. Spinola, Brig. Gen. Sol. Meredith.

I should be glad, if this organization is decided upon, that those general officers belonging to the Army of the Potomac and now absent on detached duty be ordered to rejoin, as well as such forces as may have been detached for special purposes.

Respectfully, yours,
Geo. G. Meade, Major-General, Commanding, Army of the Potomac.

From the pure military perspective, the consolidations made sense.  On the battlefield (or even in garrison), the smaller number of subordinate headquarters allowed for simplified control and communication.  Instead of dispatching five sets of orders, Meade could get away with only three.  And much easier to track the progress of three corps when the shooting started.

We also see Meade’s deft handling of personnel matters here (or maybe “command arrangements” would be a better way to put it).  He easily rid himself of some troublesome senior leaders, just by re-arranging the chairs.  Major-Generals John Newton and George Sykes?  Gone, along with three brigadiers.  And so long as the President assigned Major-General Gouverneur Warren to the Fifth Corps post, Dan Sickles … a.k.a. Historicus… was left to pen letters to the newspaper.

Though unlikely, the wording of Meade’s submission allowed for reconstitution of the First and Third Corps.  The men even kept their original badges for symbolic purposes.  Again, shrewd positioning by Meade.  With the leadership at the head of the U.S. Army changing, such allowed the facility to expand the Army of the Potomac.  At the same time, leaders in Washington would find it difficult to pull troops from the Army of the Potomac short of removing an entire Corps.

On the same day, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton inquired if Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock was ready to resume his duties leading the Second Corps.  Hancock responded, “I consider myself able to take the field when ordered,” though he related that his wound had not completely healed.  With Hancock returning, Warren to be assigned permanently to  Fifth Corps, and steady Major-General John Sedgwick leading the Sixth Corps, Meade had three solid corps commanders and a favorable command climate.

One other change was taking place that day.  Major-General Ulysses S. Grant sent a telegraph from Nashville, Tennessee indicating, “I will leave Louisville on Monday for Washington.”  Congress had already approved Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant-General and overall command of the Federal armies.  The pieces for the 1864 campaign season were falling into place.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 638-40.)