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.)

Advertisements

Build a bridge – immediately – at Fort Powhatan: A busy day for Henry Benham

At some point in the future, I wish to examine the 1864 crossing of the James River to the level of detail offered for the 1863 crossing at Edwards Ferry.  There were numerous moving parts to the operation.  Each of which adds color to an important story.  As in June 1863, the Army of the Potomac didn’t just skip over a river.  And just as with the crossing at Edwards Ferry, the crossing opened a path leading to – in the case of the James River crossing, ten months later – victory.  (And a quick plug here, Brett has compiled many resources pertaining to the 1864 crossing on Beyond the Crater.)

Just as with the 1863 crossing, a central player in the effort to cross the James was Brigadier-General Henry Benham.  Readers may recall a lot of friction between Benham and army headquarters during the June 1863 crossing.  And one has the perception that Benham left the bridge building details to his subordinates (capable subordinates, I would add).  A similar situation existed in June 1864.  Except, however, Benham was getting order from multiple directions… though all flowing down from Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.

For Benham, June 14, 1864 began at 5:15 a.m. when he received an order from Army of the Potomac Headquarters, sent out the previous evening:

The major-general commanding directs that all pontoons and other bridge materials in your possession be brought immediately to Fort Powhatan.

At this time, Benham was still quartered at Fort Monroe, managing the materials shifted south from Washington in support of the campaign.  He had already forwarded on pontoon train, by boat, up the James River, under Captain James Robbins the previous day.  And as mentioned yesterday, Robbins was late.  Now on the morning of June 14, the pontoons were not at the crossing site.  And Benham was miles away, apparently out of touch.

At 10:45 a.m. Major-General Andrew A. Humphreys, Chief of Staff, Army of the Potomac, again messaged Benham:

The commanding general directs that immediately upon the receipt of this communication you bring all the bridge material you have, or that may be at Old Point Comfort, to Powhatan with all the expedition possible, and report its arrival.  Similar orders were sent you last night, telegraphed through the White House.

And… because Humphreys was watching this task as a good Chief of Staff should, he sent another message at 11:15 a.m., with more instructions:

The commanding general directs that immediately upon the arrival of the bridge material at Fort Powhatan you construct the bridge across the James River at the point selected by General Weitzel, and the approaches to which are now being prepared.

And we think cell phones, text messages, and emails are bad today!

Benham didn’t respond to the first message until just before 11 a.m., and likely had not received the 10:45 or 11:15 a.m. message.  He told Humphreys:

Yours received at 5.15 a.m. to-day.  I sent pontoon bridging according to orders yesterday, as advised you at 9 a.m. At 10.15 to-day I received orders from General Butler to send them and go up myself. Presuming that these must be by authority of General Grant, I am now starting at 11, and will communicate with you as soon as possible.

Benham followed this up with another message to headquarters at 4 p.m., while  on the steamer J.A. Warner, near Wilson’s Landing.  He acknowledged receipt of the 11:15 a.m. orders, but had left Fort Monroe, as indicated, by 11 a.m.  Now the question arose, “is the bridge complete?”  At 9:30 p.m. Major-General George Meade sent that inquiry directly to Benham:

What progress in throwing the bridge, and at what time can you complete it, so far as you can now tell?  I desire the work to be continued all night, if practicable.

Benham responded:

The bridge has now the last boat in position and the raft is ready to close the gap completely whenever it is safe to do so with reference to the boats below, about which I am greatly in doubt. The bridge can be completed in fifteen minutes if you so order it.  If it is important for the troops here to cross at once it can be done by closing the gap and holding the troop steamers and quartermaster’ boats below and let them pass in a body afterward, if you so order it.

Keep in mind, what Benham described here is an opening in the middle of the bridge, with a set of pontoons pulled out of line, to allow passage of ships upriver.  The engineers built the bridge with that in mind, so as to allow steamers to support crossing of infantry and equipment at other points along the river.  Unlike the June 1863 crossing, the Army of the Potomac could call upon watercraft to effect the movement.  Already at this time portions of Major-General Winfield S. Hancock’s Second Corps were crossing by boat.  But with no means of loading wagons or artillery on boats, the bridges were still vital to the movement.Meade’s response came at 11:30 p.m. (received by Benham at 12:45 the next morning):

Complete the bridge. General Burnside, with the Ninth Corps, will be ordered to cross at once. Request, in my name, the officer in command of the Atlanta to stop all boats below the bridge, and to-morrow a time will be fixed and a selection made of such as it is important to pass through. Take charge of the bridge. General Burnside will be directed to refer to you in passing over his command. Acknowledge receipt.

But… Meade would audible yet another change within minutes of that order:

I have changed the orders, and now have directed Burnside, Wright, and Warren to send over their trains and surplus artillery with guards.  I don’t like to cross any troops till the big train gets nearer to us.

With that, those at the bridge stood ready to support the crossing.  Of note, Meade mentions the USS AtlantaThere she was, former Confederate ram, now employed to keep the Confederate ironclads bottled up in the James River.  An interesting side note, if you will, with respect to the naval support for the Overland Campaign.(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 40, Part II, Serial 81, pages 4, 22-4.)

 

“With the greatest exertion…”: Engineers complete the approaches for the James River crossing

Picking up from yesterday’s post, let us turn again to the report of Brigadier-General Godfrey Weitzel, Chief Engineer, Army of the James, in regard to preparations made to cross the Army of the Potomac, 150 years ago.  For June 13, Weitzel indicated that his capable subordinate, Lieutenant Peter Michie, was at Fort Powhatan and engaged:

June 13, without waiting for a reply, I directed Lieutenant Michie to proceed to the place and prepare the timber necessary for the corduroy across the marsh, as it seemed probable that it would be wanted. With 150 axmen, 1,200 feet of timber, in sticks averaging 6 inches in diameter and 20 feet long, was cut and prepared before dark, and over 3,000 feet was brought down to the creek above Fort Powhatan ready to be rafted across.

For reference, again here’s the map provided from Weitzel’s report:

ORAtlasPl68Mp6

Later that afternoon, Weitzel received conformation as to the location. He had anticipated correctly:

At about 3 p.m. I received a dispatch from General Grant informing me that the head of his column would be at the bridge-head at 10 a.m. the next day, and directing me to build approaches to the bridge at once at the point designated. An officer was immediately dispatched to Lieutenant Michie, with instructions to begin at once, using the detail that he had with him, and that I would join him as soon as possible with a heavy detail to carry on the work. With the greatest exertion on the part of both officers and men the approaches on both sides of the river, with a pier 150 feet long over the soft marsh on the east bank, was completed at 9.45 a.m., a quarter of an hour before the time indicated by General Grant; and the bridge would have been built, ready for the passage of the troops, at or before 10 a.m. on the 14th if the pontoon train had arrived, as it should, at this time….

There are several moving parts to this operation.  Not the least of which is the engineers bringing up the bridges.  And that was the problem:

Through inexcusable tardiness, and more than culpable neglect of duty, Captain [James L.] Robbins, of the Fiftieth New York Volunteer Engineers, did not appear in sight with his pontoons until after 12 o’clock at noon on the 14th, although he had but eighty miles to come from Fort Monroe, and received his orders to go as fast as he could at 2 p.m. on the 13th.

Robbins was part of the Engineer Brigade operating directly with Brigadier-General Henry Benham out of Fort Monroe at that time.  Weitzel soon found Captain Robbins:

So anxious was I that there should be no delay that I sent a dispatch boat to look for the pontoons down the river, with orders to go until  they were found and hurry them up. Fifteen miles below Jamestown Island they were found at anchor, the captain being asleep.

In addition to the preparations mentioned above, Weitzel or Michie (or both) had six schooners – three each above and below the bridge site – setup as anchor points for the intended bridges.

While Weitzel and Michie completed work facilitating the crossing, north of the James River, the 50th New York Engineers (minus of course Robbins and his tardy pontoon bridge), were busy preparing the roads that would get the Army of the Potomac to crossing points.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part III, pages 754-5; Volume 40, Part I, page 676-7.)

 

Henry Benham, pontoons, and a lot of photos: What the engineers did over the winter

On January 25, 1864, Brigadier-General Henry W. Benham, commanding the Engineer Brigade of the Army of the Potomac, completed a lengthy report for Brigadier-General Joseph G. Totten, the Chief Engineer of the US Army.  The report touched upon several subjects, but largely concentrated on improvements to bridging techniques then in use. This was not a new round of correspondence.  Benham wrote a similarly lengthy and detailed letter to Totten in November 1863, discussing changes in the drill for pontoon bridging.

The reports, including enclosures from subordinate officers, include over fifteen pages total in the printed OR.  Far too much for a single blog post.  So I might examine in fine detail at another date.  Feel free to browse the November 1863 letter or the January 1864 report if I don’t get to that examination in short order.  I suspect a detailed examination would elicit a long sigh at the discussion anchor bolts, abutment sills, and claw-balks.  So let me focus on something less “engineer-y” and perhaps a bit into the historiography side of things.  At the end of his November letter, Benham mentioned some photographs sent along with the correspondence:

I have the pleasure of inclosing you, for the further explanation of the method of laying these bridges, some photographic views taken during the progress of construction.

No. 1 shows the pontoons ready with the material, and the boat squads ready for the construction (at foot of East Fifteenth street).

No. 2 shows the progress of construction of the raft after four to five minutes’ labor.

No. 3 shows the progress of the bridge raft after six to seven minutes’ labor.

No. 4 shows the bridge completed, with the bridge squads formed ready to march off. Parts of a trestle and canvas pontoon bridge across a cove along the shore are in view here.

No. 5 shows, from a nearer point of view, the pontoon bridge ready for service.

No. 6 gives the view down the Eastern Branch with pontoon bridge to beyond Navy-Yard Bridge, and oarsmen having oars raised ready to move the bridge for dismantling. Parts of pontoon balk-head used for laying the bridge raft are shown in foreground as it was placed to save the men from the water, though rather delaying than expediting the work. (emphasis added)

Believing that they would also be interesting at the Department, I have also added two other photographic views.

No. 7, showing the old or generally practiced method of laying bridges by successive pontoons.

No. 8, a view of the pontoon bridges laid by the engineer brigade under my command on the morning of April 29, 1863, at Franklin’s Crossing, 2½ miles below Fredericksburg. This shows in the distance the ruins of the villa of Mansfield, the site of General Bayard’s death.

Photo “No. 8” referenced by Benham may be one of those examined by John Hennessy and Eric Mink in 2011.   Of the others described (or is it “captioned”) by Benham, I’ve found no direct matches.  However this photo from the Library of Congress collection is a close match to “No. 6”:

This shows two pontoon bridges across the Anacostia River, looking from the Navy Yard.  Lots of neat stuff to discuss in this photo.  But for today, let’s just consider this as establishing Benham’s practice of using photographs to support his suggestion (and I bet Benham would have loved PowerPoint!).

That in mind, consider a section from the January 25, 1864 report:

The modification I propose (of which I inclose sketch) in the French pontoon is to take off 3 feet in length from the bow and 2 feet from the stern, while the “floor” remains of the same length, the ends to the depth of one plank downward to be of a thick plank or timber, with a shield or bunter which should slope about 3 inches outward.

Benham went on to say this modification would prevent some of the damage to the pontoons while on the march and make handling much easier.  Here’s the line drawing included with the report:

Benham_Mod_Pontoon

Fairly typical comparison diagram, using dotted lines to demonstrate the differences between the original and proposed modification.  Probably sufficient to demonstrate the particulars for an engineer of Totten’s experience.  But what do they say – “A picture is worth a thousand words”?  How about this picture, might it offer a thousand words comparing two types of pontoons?

Notice the difference between these two pontoons, particularly at the bow end.  While not precisely matching the dashed lines in Benham’s drawing, the pontoon on the right is close to his proposed modification.  Was this a photograph taken for the benefit of Benhan to demonstrate his suggested changes?

Working against my suggestion, the Library of Congress record for this photo does not provide a location.  The original caption on the back of the stero-view card does not mention any special nature of the two boats:

This view shows two of the boats (of which the army bridge is made) on wheels ready for the march.  Each pontoon wagon is drawn by six mules.  These pontoons were always getting stuck in the mud, and the soldiers, struggling along under their own burdens, were obliged to haul on the drag ropes, and raise the blockade.  Probably no soldier will see this view without being reminded of the time when he helped to pull these pontoons out of the mud, and comforted himself by searing at the mules.

Doesn’t sound as if this photograph captured a comparison of two type of pontoons. Maybe the studio felt the public would not appreciate the comparison, and thus offered a “pedestrian” caption.

However there are several other views of pontoons dated to the winter of 1864, taken at the Engineer Brigade camp at Rappahannock Station.  And some seem ready made for a comparison of the two types.  This photo carries the Library of Congress caption “Pontoon wagon and boat, 50th New York Engineers, Rappahannock (i.e. Brandy) Station, Va., March, (i.e. Feb.) 1864.”:

So the right time and place.  And this appears to be a standard “French Pontoon.”

Compare to this photo, also citing the 50th New York Engineer camp at Rappahannock Station in March 1864:

If not an exact match for Benham’s drawing, it does look like the pontoon on the right side of the photo above.  And another photo must have captured the same (or similar) boat from the front:

With more of these in the background… see them?

There’s even a photograph of a wagon without the pontoon:

And let’s not forget the canvas pontoon:

That photo, in particular, just stands out as if tailor made for illustrating some manual.  The men are in the background, not the foreground.  The subject here is the equipment, not the personnel.  These pontoon photos are like some “walk around” we would use today to demonstrate the particulars of a piece of equipment.

Maybe the photographer was just hanging out with the engineers taking in shots of the equipment.  But this is not some point-and-shoot camera we are talking about.   These were expensive (relatively speaking) glass plate photos.  So why waste a plate on some static equipment displays?  On the other hand, perhaps these and similar photos taken at the 50th New York Engineer camp were intended to help Benham illustrate his reports.

Something I’ve learned over the years – when studying Civil War photographs, it is just as important to know the “why” story as the “what” of the subject.

Marching Through Loudoun: June 28, 1863

As the morning broke over Loudoun County on June 28, 1863, not only had the Army of the Potomac completed its passing, but also the Army of Northern Virginia… of course save some Confederate cavalry posted on the Blue Ridge and what stragglers remained from the long marches.

The engineers completed the task of pulling up the bridges at Edwards Ferry that morning.

June28Positions

Orders from army headquarters had the “land pontoon,” that Brigadier-General Henry Benham mentioned the previous day, moving up to Frederick and following the Fifth Corps on the line of march. The remainder of the bridging, at Benham’s suggestion, was supposed to move down the C&O Canal to the Navy Yard for repairs. But there was a problem with that plan – Stuart had damaged the canal at Lock No. 23. So for the time being a lot of equipment lay at Edwards Ferry.

That bridging equipment laying at the crossing site was a resource the army might need on short notice, should fortunes turn. So it had to be secured. At 2 p.m., Major-General Henry Halleck, in Washington, asked Major-General George Meade about Edwards Ferry:

It is reported here that the supplies at Edwards Ferry and returning by the canal are left unprotected. If so, Lee’s cavalry will probably destroy them. It is reported that Lowell’s battalion of cavalry, left at Poolesville, was sent to Sandy Hook, contrary to my orders. If so, there is not a cavalry picket on the line of the Potomac below Edwards Ferry, and we have none here to send out.

Meade replied promptly indicating he’d directed Lowell back to Poolesville. It would be several days, July 4 according to a report from Benham, before the equipment was in Washington.

That closes my sesquicentennial coverage of the march of the Army of the Potomac through Loudoun and the crossing at Edwards Ferry. I could probably offer up a dozen more long winded posts about particular aspects of those two subjects, which I’ll save for “slow” blogging days where I need a filler. But for now let me revisit some of the conclusions I offered up a few years ago with respect to Edwards Ferry:

Hooker anticipated major fighting in Loudoun prior to June 24, and prepared to meet Lee. Three infantry corps fronted the Bull Run and Catoctin Mountains, with three more within immediate supporting distance.

First bridge at Edwards Ferry supported supply route. Such alleviated the pressure on the road network through Loudoun. This also lends the argument Hooker didn’t anticipate moving into Maryland, in force, prior to June 24.

The road network brought the army to Leesburg. One or more of the river crossing sites around Leesburg had to be used when the army moved across the Potomac.

Hooker wanted second bridge at Monocacy on June 24. But, with the report of Confederate activity west of Leesburg, he opted to co-locate the second bridge at Edwards Ferry. A well planned river crossing for an army like that Hooker commanded should have at least two lines, within mutual supporting range but not so close as to cause traffic problems. I’d submit Hooker’s hand was forced by those false reports. (And I’ll admit, there are no primary “a-ha!” sources stating such exactly. My presumption is based on the timeline more than anything else.)

Confusion over movement and bridge placement cut into time line. At least half a day on June 25 is lost due to these issues. Double bridge placement added to congestion. I’d offer no set figure of time lost. But with Hancock, Crawford, and others reporting wagons from the preceding corps still crossing at Edwards Ferry, even on the last day of the crossing the trains were still tangled up.

Improper positioning of cavalry allowed Stuart to cross the Potomac. We can “armchair general” this all day. But lets also consider the cavalry was stretched thin with the requirement to cover the movement across the Potomac.

Edwards Ferry crossing enabled success at Gettysburg. I think that part is somewhat self evident. Given that Hooker’s “strike for his line of retreat” was never really an option, the Army of the Potomac had to move into Maryland and eventually Pennsylvania. A crossing point upstream of Edwards Ferry was not practical for several reasons, namely security. A crossing point downstream was not practical due to poor access points and the width of the river. And of course a march into Washington and back out to Maryland would add several days to the movement. By that time, Lee’s infantry might be past the Susquehanna. As it was, the speed at which the Army of the Potomac was able to move up during that last week of June took a little initiative away from Lee, forcing him to concentrate the far flung Army of Northern Virginia. The events of June 25-27 lead to the events on July 1-3.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part I, Serial 43, page 63.)

Marching Through Loudoun: June 27, 1863

In contrast to previous days, June 27th was a relatively orderly crossing at Edwards Ferry. While serious command issues rose and came to a sharp conclusion, the troops kept crossing the river. At least through the morning, Major-General Winfield S. Hancock remained in the Edwards Ferry vicinity, tracking movements.

First in the line of march on this morning 150 years ago was Brigadier-General Crawford’s Pennsylvania Reserves. He reported the command was on the bridges by 9:25 a.m. “I will join General Meade to-night. Sedgwick left Dranesville this morning. Road is encumbered by trains of Third Corps.”

Around the same time, Brigadier-General John Buford’s division crossed at Edwards Ferry, NOT the Mouth of the Monocacy as ordered the previous day. Here is one of those gaps of information that I’d love to resolve. Were the previous day’s orders countermanded? Apparently so, as Assistant Adjutant-General A.J. Alexander reported Buford’s movement. But I’d love to see the full conversation and what prompted the change.

Around mid-day, Hancock reported on the progress as he returned from Edwards Ferry:

General Sedgwick and part of his command have arrived and the trains are rapidly crossing. The supply train of the Fifth Corps and General Crawford’s trains are in advance. General Crawford’s troops have crossed. The artillery are well out on the road I came.

Around 1 p.m., headquarters inquired, via telegram, as to the state of the crossing. The response came at 8:35 that evening, from Brigadier-General Henry Benham, who at last had moved up from Washington:

I have been here awaiting the passage and taking up of the bridges since 11 a.m. During this time the cavalry supply train and about two-thirds of the Sixth Corps have crossed on lower bridge. Vermont Brigade and Wright’s division are now to cross on upper bridge. The First Division of cavalry have passed, and there is now passing the First Brigade of General Gregg’s division. It is now almost entirely across. I understood that this cavalry division was to be the last to cross.

So as the sunlight faded on June 27th, the last parts of the Army of the Potomac had left Virginia. Brigadier-General David M. Gregg brought the rear guard across, and the Army of the Potomac left Loudoun County. The only action left, with respect to activity in Loudoun, was to pull up the bridges.

June27Positions

(UPDATE: Minor change to the map today.  Gregg’s cavalry division “took over the picket line” from Buford’s on June 26.  I interpret that to mean Gregg stayed in the vicinity of Aldie until the morning of June 27.  Gregg arrived in Leesburg around 1 p.m. that day.)

In his report, Benham added his concerns about pulling up the bridges in a timely manner. No doubt that sat well among the headquarters staff with whom he’d argued with over the last several days. Benham had a “land pontoon” train, with under 1,000 feet of bridging, ready to move from Poolesville. He planned to move remainder of bridging, that pulled out at Edwards Ferry, back to Washington by way of the C&O Canal. Some components of the bridges were out of the water by midnight (taking advantage of 83% moon illumination that particular night). But most of the work would wait for the following morning. Somewhat anti-climatic, but the great crossing was over.

One other Loudoun County crossing occurred, starting that evening and completing in the early hours of June 28. Major-General J.E.B. Stuart with three brigades of cavalry reappeared earlier on June 27 after taking a wide route around the marching Federal infantry. The Confederate troopers fought a brief engagement at Fairfax Courthouse. After a rest, the column moved to Dranesville where they found Sixth Corps campfires still warm and captured a few stragglers. But Stuart had orders to join with Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell somewhere in Pennsylvania. To get there, he needed a safe crossing of the Potomac. And good fortune smiled on Stuart that evening. Rowser’s Ford, which depending on where you stand is on the extreme eastern tip of Loudoun County, was free of Federal pickets, according to a civilian who met Brigadier-General Wade Hampton. Although the river was higher than usual from the rains.

Hampton’s brigade crossed early in the night, but reported to me that it would be utterly impossible to cross artillery at that ford…. A ford lower down was examined, and found quite as impracticable from quicksand, rocks, and rugged banks. I, however, determined not to give it up without a trial, and before 12 o’clock that night, in spite of the difficulties, to all appearances insuperable, indomitable energy and resolute determination triumphed; every piece was brought safely over, and the entire command in bivouac on Maryland soil.

In all actuality, the crossing likely continued well into the early morning. But Stuart was across the Potomac, although a little late.

While Stuart crossed, on the other side of Maryland, Major-General George Meade received word he was the next commander of the Army of the Potomac. Exit Major-General Joseph Hooker.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part II, Serial 44, page 693; Part III, Serial 45, pages 353 and 354.)

Marching Through Loudoun: June 24, 1863

Today (June 24) in 1863, from his headquarters at Fairfax Courthouse, Major-General Joseph Hooker forwarded an assessment of the situation to Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington. He dismissed any Confederate advances into Pennsylvania as only for “plunder,” and something best confronted by the militia.  In Hooker’s estimate, no other troops, save those of Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Corps, had crossed the Potomac.  Lee had over-extended, or so Hooker felt.  And Hooker was seeking out an advantage:

General French is now on his way to Harper’s Ferry, and I have given directions for the force at Poolesville to march and report to him, and also for all of Stahel’s cavalry, and, if I can do it without attracting observation, I shall send over a corps or two from here, in order, if possible, to sever Ewell from the balance of the rebel army, in case he should make a protracted sojourn with his Pennsylvania neighbors.

If the enemy should conclude not to throw any additional force over the river, I desire to make Washington secure, and, with all the force I can muster, strike for his line of retreat in the direction of Richmond.

But Hooker still had not found the opening he wanted.  So for another day the marching in Loudoun remained limited.  As indicated with his report, Hooker ordered Stahel’s cavalry division, which was for all practical purposes now the third division of the Army of the Potomac (for simplicity I’ll show that on the map now), over the Potomac in the direction of Harpers Ferry.  And as mentioned in the close of yesterday’s serial, he also ordered Eleventh Corps to move that way.

On the other end of the line, Hooker effectively broke up the division of Brigadier-General John Abercrombie.  One brigade of the division, under Brigadier-General Alexander Hays, reported to Second Corps.  The fresh Vermont Brigade, under Brigadier-General George Stannard, received the assignment to First Corps.  Another brigade had orders for Twelfth Corps, but lacked sufficient service time to make the march worthwhile.  Replacing Abercrombie’s division at Centreville, Major-General John Newton’s division from the Sixth Corps moved down from Germantown.  (You’ll also note I’ve split out the divisions of the Second Corps on today’s map.)

June24Positions

Also on June 24, a battalion of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, under Colonel Charles R. Lowell, moved to Poolesville with orders to picket river crossings from Great Falls to the Mouth of the Monocacy. They replaced the troopers of Captain Samuel McKee, previously posted at the Monocacy.

But the “big” move of the day was Eleventh Corps.  As ordered Major-General O.O. Howard received marching instructions at 9 a.m. (again, the delay in communications because of multiple telegraph, wig-wag, and courier exchanges) and started his men towards Edwards Ferry.  But even before they marched, their orders to cross the river changed.  At 7 a.m. Captain Charles Turnbull at Edwards Ferry was ordered to meet Howard and instruct the Eleventh Corps to camp at the bridges, “and not to cross without further orders.”  Howard arrived around 1 p.m.

Brigadier-General Henry Benham of the engineers continued his disagreement with headquarters into this day. If the dispatch of the previous night was not enough, he repeated his frustrations at 8:45 a.m. He 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.

At Edwards Ferry, one bridge remained in place, with supporting bridges over the canal and Goose Creek near the mouth. One problem facing the engineers was the heavy wagon traffic which was damaging the bridge.  Turnbull requested replacement planks and other timbers.  Those were acquired from the apparently well stocked Navy Yard and forwarded up the canal.

Also on the canal was another set of pontoons was headed up the canal to the Mouth of the Monocacy and the 15th New York.  But orders issued mid-day changed those instructions.  The second bridge would go in at Edwards Ferry, near the first.  And Major E.O. Beers of the 15th was ordered to Edwards Ferry to put the bridge in place.

Why the change?  Perhaps a series of reports from Major-General Henry Slocum that morning.  The Twelfth Corps commander reported the presence of 6,000 Confederates moving east from Snicker’s Gap and reaching Hamilton, just over the Catoctin passes from Leesburg.  Follow up reports placed Lieutenant-General Longstreet himself at Round Hill.  If true, the Confederates might attempt to push Twelfth Corps away from the fords.  And of course Hooker didn’t want to hand over a pontoon bridge, at such an advanced position like the Monocacy, to the Confederates.

Lending support to my guess, Hooker also issued orders for the Eleventh Corps to prepare to support Slocum in Leesburg, and not cross over the Potomac. At 6:00 p.m. Slocum requested that Howard’s Eleventh move to the north side of Goose Creek (over the span at the creek’s mouth) to better support him in Leesburg.  Instead, at 7:30 p.m. Hooker ordered Howard to “guard the bridge and depots at Edwards Ferry, on the north side of the Potomac at that place.”  But that order stood for four hours.  At 11:35 p.m. yet another change ordered Howard to instead, “take up the line of march early to-morrow morning for Sandy Hook, in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry, reaching that place to-morrow afternoon.”

Meanwhile, the engineers at Edwards Ferry sat on an unanswered question.  Captain Turnbull addressed this directly to Major-General Hooker at 5:15 p.m:

Which side of Goose Creek do you wish the second bridge – north or south? The present bridge is on the north side of Goose Creek, with one bridge over Goose Creek at its mouth.  Please answer at once.

That question would linger through the night and well into the next day.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part I, Serial 43, page 55; and Part III, Serial 45, pages 279, 287, and 290-1.)