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.)

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The Folwell letters, June 17, 1863: Loading pontoons for a trip up the C&O

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

On the “Raging Canal”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34797r

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

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

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

Bridging the Potomac: Diary of William W. Folwell, 50th New York Engineers – Part 1

As a historian, particularly one who’s day job is not history, one of the greatest gifts a friend can offer is a primary source previously not seen or consulted.  Any good historian is always looking for additional sources that may help with the unanswered questions, provide more detail and clarity, or at least offer corroboration for other sources.  History, in my view, is the process of accumulating parts of the story. A process that is never really complete, no matter how authoritative the perception might be.

Last year, John Hennessy shared just such a source in an email titled… as these are apt to be… “Have you seen this?”  The link was to a wartime letters of William Watts Folwell, who served as an engineer officer in the Army of the Potomac for most of the war.  The letters are part of the digital, online collection of University of Minnesota Library.  These appear to be letters home, but have been transcribed into a typewritten page.  Of course, my interest was immediately focused on Folwell’s entries from June 1863 and his accounts of the bridge-laying at Edwards Ferry.

Born in 1833 in Romulus, New York, Folwell attended Hobart College, graduating in 1857.  After a brief position teaching mathematics at the college, he was studying philology in Berlin at the outbreak of the Civil War.  In February 1862, Folwell mustered into the 50th New York Engineers as a first lieutenant in Company G.  He was promoted to Captain in December of that year, commanding Company I.  Then advanced to major in February 1865 (with rank from October 15, 1864).  Some sources indicate he was given a promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel before mustering out in June 1865.  After the war, Folwell briefly lived in Ohio before accepting the position of President, the first president as a matter of fact, of the University of Minnesota in 1869.  And that would be how Folwell’s diary ended up in the university’s collection.

william_watts_folwell

Specific to the Gettysburg Campaign and the movement through Loudoun County in June 1863, Folwell was in command of Company I, 50th New York Engineers.  And that unit was very busy laying bridges that brought the Army of the Potomac from Virginia to Maryland.  As such, I am going to enter his account into my collection of Edwards Ferry resources here on the blog.  Though there are interesting entries from earlier in June (and at other times in the war), for sake of scope, I will start with the entry for June 17, 1863.  At that time, Folwell was in Alexandria:

Bivouac 50th N.Y.V. Engrs., near Alexandria, Va., June 17, ’63, 7 A.M.

Major [Ira] Spaulding takes Cos. C, F and I and one pontoon train to Nolan’s [Noland’s] Ferry on the Upper Potomac.  We are going just at noon as the Steamer comes, and we expect her every moment.  We worked like beavers last night till 2 A.M., making up our train. We had to dismantle the rafts made up at Belle Plain, unload the wagons on those, and then reload the material for shipment by canal.  We take steamer to Georgetown, then enter the canal up which we tow our boats by teams if we can get them; if not, by hand.

Last evening, Capt. Woodward and his wife rode down to camp from their hotel. Bain [Lieutenant Mahlon Bainbridge Folwell, brother]  and I called on them in the evening.  Saw Mrs. Ben. Woodward, also.  Ate sundry and drivers ice-cream and straw-berries, and drank soda waters.

We are both well, barring a slight head-ache Bain has.

I can’t tell you any War news. Don’t know any.  Hooker is probably moving w. between here and the Bull Run Mountain, while Lee goes up the valley.  I wish you could see your husband at this present.  He wears a dirty hat, do. coat, do. vest, do. trousers in the left knee of which is an immense hole through which his drawers display themselves conspicuously. My baggage is over in Maryland somewheres.  When I shall see it, I can’t tell. I have nothing with me but one rubber blanket, one woolen do., one shelter tent, and my sword.

I must try to find an envelope for this before it is too late.  Direct to me as usual.

One detail I must track down is the referenced Captain Woodward.  The meeting with Woodward and his wife seems a pleasant respite from an otherwise hot and dusty campaign.

This account plugs in well with the movements described in the Official Records by way of dispatches.  The bridges had last been used at Aquia Creek.  And at the time of writing, staff officers in the Army of the Potomac were anticipating the need for a bridge over the Potomac at some point near Leesburg. The day before (June 16), Brigadier-General G.K. Warren detailed some of the crossing points on the river between Hancock and Leesburg. Captain Charles Turnbull, of the US Engineer Battalion, had one set of pontoons at Georgetown and was ordered to move up the canal to the Monocacy River on June 17.

On the same day Folwell wrote his letter, Colonel William Pettes, commanding the 50th New York Engineers, received orders from Brigadier-General Henry W. Benham, commander of the Engineer Brigade, to

… detail Major Spaulding, with 200 men from your regiment, to proceed per steamer Rockland to Georgetown, to join the trains which started under Captain Turnbull. The steamer will be at the railroad wharf as soon as possible.  Your men will take four days’ rations with them. The boats, after getting into the canal, will be pushed forward as fast as possible to Noland’s Ferry, where the bridge is ordered to be laid before noon of the 18th.  Teams, if possible, will be procured from Washington, to haul the boats along the canal….

We see, generally, the details of the letter match those of the order.  However, “as soon as possible” was interpreted to allow for ice cream, strawberries, and soda water.

I’ve always found it odd that none of the dispatches or orders issued at this phase of the campaign specify the purpose of the bridges to be laid.  Just a few days after this, on June 19, a clear suggestion came from Major-General Henry Slocum to place a bridge to provide a supply link back to Washington.  And the location for that bridge was Edwards Ferry, where eventually most of the army would cross into Maryland.

But if we walk back to June 17, there is a question as to why the Army of the Potomac wanted a bridge at Noland’s Ferry.  That site is almost fourteen miles upstream from Edwards Ferry, and beyond even White’s Ford.  In my opinion, the most important reason to place a bridge at Noland’s Ferry on the date specified on the orders would be to support movement from Harpers Ferry to Loudoun… emphasis on FROM Harpers Ferry.  As things stood that day, Major-General Joseph Hooker was maneuvering the Army of the Potomac as if to meet the Army of Northern Virginia in the vicinity of the Bull Run Mountains. He had given no indication about movements across the Potomac. But he had asked about the availability of the Harpers Ferry garrison.  Mine is conjecture based on what we surmise of the situation.  But that does open room for logical extensions into the “what if” world.

My plan is to continue transcribing these letters as time permits, with commentary to provide context within the detailed blog posts about the crossing.  It should be “entered into evidence.”

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 404-5 (pages 410-11 of scanned copy); OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, page 179.)

Thirty-eight bridges, aggregate length 6,458 feet: The 50th NY Engineers on the Overland Campaign

Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant’s concept for the Overland Campaign depended upon out-maneuvering the Army of Northern Virginia.  The problem facing the Army of the Potomac in that regard was the same which confronted Federal forces in 1861 … and 1862… and 1863… a lot of rivers to cross.  One can drag a finger across the map to indicate a line of advance simple enough. But when the troops start marching that line out, they come to an abrupt halt at the first good sized watercourse.  If maneuver is the game, then a commander must have a few bridges in his back pocket.

In the spring of 1864, Major-General George G. Meade had more than a few bridges in his back pocket.  Those bridges were the charge of Lieutenant-Colonel Ira Spaulding and his men of the 50th New York Engineers.  For the campaign, Spaulding organized the regiment into four battalions, all built around sets of bridges:

  • First Battalion – Major Wesley Brainerd, with Companies B, F, and G, had one fourteen boat French pontoon bridge.  First Battalion also supported the Second Corps.
  • Second Battalion – Major Edmund O. Beers, with Companies E, H, and L, had one thirteen boat French pontoon bridge (part of which you are familiar with).  This battalion supported Sixth Corps.
  • Third Battalion – Captain James H. McDonald (and later Major George W. Ford), with Companies D, K, and M, had a thirteen boat French pontoon bridge.  Third Battalion supported Fifth Corps.
  • Reserve Battalion – Under Spaulding’s direct command with Companies C and I.  This battalion had two pontoon trains with twelve canvas boats each.  Captains William Folwell and Martin Van Brocklin commanded one of these apiece. The reserve also had two wing trestles.

In addition to he bridges, each of the three numbered battalions carried the entrenching tools for their supported corps.

From the very start of the campaign, the army used these bridges.  In fact, before leaving Culpeper, the engineers put in a span over the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford in order to facilitate the start of the march south.  As the campaign progressed, the engineers bridged the Rappahannock, Rapidan, Po, and North Anna.

A good photographic study of the crossing of that latter river at Jericho Mills exists in the Library of Congress collection:

Notice those are the canvas boats of the Reserve Battalion.

On May 27, the 50th Engineers began spanning another river, a bit closer to Richmond and perhaps familiar to the veterans – the Pamunkey.  And the crossing there was a “contested” crossing:

May 27, the Reserve Battalion, with two canvas pontoon trains, accompanying General Sheridan’s command, reached the Pamunkey at Hanovertown about daylight. Captain Van Brocklin having the advance put a couple of boats together about a mile from the river, carried them to the river on the men’s shoulders, and sent over dismounted cavalry in these boats to drive away the enemy’s pickets. This was done after a slight skirmish, and Captain Van Brocklin immediately commenced constructing his bridge, completing it in about one hour, assisted by Captain Folwell and a portion of his company; length of bridge, 180 feet. General Torbert’s division of cavalry immediately commenced crossing on this bridge.

That’s how you cross a river under fire and force a bridgehead!  Later that day, a second canvas bridge went over Pamunkey just above the first.

With the cavalry across, the engineers needed to increase the number of crossing points to move the infantry over.  But the problem at that time was most of the wood pontoon bridges were just leaving the water on the North Anna that morning.  Getting those bridges down to the Pamunkey would at best be just in time to be too late.  So Spaulding’s engineers made do with what they had, using part of the other canvas bridges:

May 28, Captain Folwell reached Mrs. Nelson’s crossing at 6 a.m., and at 7. a.m. had a canvas bridge completed across the Pamunkey at this point of 146 feet in length. Owing to the scarcity of material this bridge was built in long spans of 21 feet, the balks alternating on the gunwales, and over this seemingly frail bridge passed without accident two divisions of the Sixth Corps with their artillery.

First Battalion arrived that morning and proceeded to Nelson’s Crossing to lay the first of the wooden bridges over the river at that point.  Second battalion arrived in the afternoon and Beers directed work laying another bridge.  Before the day was done, the engineers added another wooden pontoon bridge at the Hanovertown crossing.  And in addition they placed a canvas bridge over Mattapony Creek, for a total of five placed on May 28.

Grant, Meade, and the Army of the Potomac had “bounced” the Pamunkey.  More fighting lay ahead, and more rivers to cross.  In his report covering the spring campaign, Spaulding included a table listing all the bridges built north of the James River:

BridgesBuiltNorthofJamesR

Thirty-eight bridges to a total length of 6,458 feet.  And that is not counting the most important bridge of the campaign – 2,200 feet across the James. Summarizing the performance, Spaulding wrote:

…I believe the pontoon trains have been promptly on time when ordered, the bridges rapidly and skillfully built, and all other engineering operations of this command faithfully performed. Whatever credit may be awarded for this is mainly due to the energy and skill of the officers in immediate charge of the several works and to the zealous and faithful co-operation of the men under their command.

Those bridges allowed the army to reach places like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Totopotomy, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and eventually Richmond and Appomattox. Though they might not have charged any works, the men of the 50th New York Engineers were every part of that victory.

(Citations from the first half of Spaulding’s report on the Overland Campaign, OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part I, Serial 67, pages 304-316.)

“Cause the pontoon bridge to be taken up”: The Bridge at Wellford’s Ford

Very likely you have seen this photograph before:

This is a pontoon bridge placed over the Hazel River at Wellford’s Ford during the winter of 1864.  An excellent study of pontoon bridging, as it was done in the Civil War. And a lot of interesting characters and features in the photograph. On the north side of the ford, Colonel Emory Upton’s brigade from the First Division, Sixth Corps camped around the manor of Presque Isle.

Brandy Station 23 Feb 14 106

While Wellford’s Ford was heavily used by both Federals and Confederates during the war, during the winter encampment the main use of this pontoon bridge was to connect Upton’s brigade with the rest of the Sixth Corps.  Although I’ve not a source to state so, this pontoon bridge may have been a temporary arrangement while a more permanent trestle bridge was constructed for that purpose – which may be that pictured here:

However, we know the pontoon bridge was still in place on May 1, 1864, as the Army of the Potomac prepared to break winter quarters.  In fact, orders came down on May 1 to remove the bridge:

Headquarters Sixth Corps,
May 1, 1864.
Major Beers,
Comdg. Battalion Fiftieth New York Vol. Engineers :

Major: The general commanding the corps directs that you move your camp at an early hour to-morrow morning to this side of the river, and that as soon as the brigade of Colonel Upton has crossed, you cause the pontoon bridge to be taken up.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Chas. A. Whittier,
Major and Acting Assistant Adjutant-General.

Like that?  “Cause the pontoon bridge to be taken up.”  As if by finger snap, the bridge places itself onto wagons for transport!

Me being somewhat strict with the timelines and letter of the reports, I find some questions about exactly when the pontoon bridge was taken up.  Lieutenant-Colonel Ira Spaulding, commander of the 50th New York Engineers, stated Beers packed up the bridge on May 2.  Specifically,

On the 2d of May Major Beers took up his bridge at Welford’s Ford [sic], on the Hazel River, except one boat left in the river for a ferry, and went into camp on the south side of the river.

And for what it is worth, some of Beers pontoons went back into the water at Culeper Ford (a.k.a. Culpeper Mine Ford) on the Rapidan on May 4.

On the other hand, Beers’ action was tied, by order, to the movement of Upton’s brigade.  Not to say Upton’s men used the pontoon bridge, as they probably would have used the trestle bridge.  Rather to say Beers was not to “cause the pontoon bridge to be taken up,” until after Upton crossed.  And in his report, Upton states:

The brigade broke camp near the Hazel River at 4 a.m. May 4, 1864, crossing the Rapidan at Germanna Ford, and camped on the plank road 2 miles beyond.

So, either Beers pulled up the bridge on May 2 before Upton moved, giving him time to move to Culpeper Ford; or Beers pulled the bridge out in the early morning of May 4, then rushed through the entire Army of the Potomac to put a bridge over the Rapidan.

Now having established a few “operational” points about this bridge and its connection to events happening 150 years ago, let me go back to the photographs.  There are at least four photographs of this bridge site.  Allow me to introduce them in a sequence for alignment.  First is this one, taken from the south bank of the river, looked over the ford crossing and bridge:

The second, also from the south bank, shot over the dam at the ford towards the bridge:

The third, used as the lead above, looked over from the north bank at the mill complex at the ford, and included ruins of the canal locks:

And the fourth, from downstream with a view of the bridge, dam, and a rider on his horse in the river shallows.

There are several structures and natural features in these photos to use triangulating the points the camera was situated.  Of course, there’s the pontoon bridge itself.  There is a separate boat tied off to the north bank; the mill structures; the dam; and a very distinct tree with broken limb just to the side of the bridge abutments.

I consulted William E. Trout’s Rappahannock River Atlas in regard to the mill, canal, and dam structures.  Adding to that mix the pontoon bridge and other visual references, I came up with this sketch of the site to depict the camera angles:

WellfordFordPhotos

The four yellow octagons indicate my estimate of the camera locations, numbered with respect to the sequence provided above.  I could spend another thousand words going over the fine details in these photos.  Furthermore, I wonder if we might even pick out distinct marks on the pontoons that might appear in other photographs at other locations in the Overland Campaign.  But for today, let me simply conclude with some photos taken at the site, earlier this winter.

The river was “up” at the time of our visit.  But this view looks across the ford site, roughly were the dam ran across the river:

Brandy Station 23 Feb 14 048

This view approximates the wartime photo number two, mentioned above:

IMG_2166

And this is a view of Wellford’s Ford Road, up which many Federal and Confederates traveled during the war:

Brandy Station 23 Feb 14 057

That leads up to another site where yet another very famous photograph was taken in Culpeper County:

But let’s save that for another day, shall we?

Wellford’s Ford is in pristine condition today, and on private property.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part I, Serial 67, pages 306 and 665; Part II, Serial 68, page 322;  Other sources consulted include The Rapahannock Scenic River Atlas, prepared for the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society by W.E. Trout, III, and of course my friend Clark “Bud” Hall, who provided input and served as guide to the site.)

Marching Through Loudoun: June 20, 1863

At 4 a.m. on this day (June 20) in 1863, General Henry Slocum forwarded a report to the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. The content in the message was, for the most part, just a repeat of the previous day’s correspondence – need a bridge at Edwards Ferry, redoubts cover that crossing point, and the execution. But the filed copy, which was later transcribed into the Official Records, included the annotation “Received, War Department, 8 a.m.” Normally, this might not seem significant. However, as mentioned yesterday, message traffic from Leesburg relayed to Poolesville. From there the message went by telegraph to the centralized telegraph station in the War Department Building in Washington. From there the message was relayed again by telegraph to Army headquarters at Fairfax Courthouse. Not only did these transfers take time, it also meant in some cases authorities in Washington had access to information before Major-General Joseph Hooker received it.

On the evening of June 19, a heavy thunderstorm rolled through. By some accounts rains continued off and on until the 21st. In Loudoun Valley, the cavalry forces rested and regrouped following a hard day’s fighting. Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton reported the presence of Confederate infantry, but determined those were up to support his opposite number, Major-General J.E.B. Stuart. Pleasonton added, “I have been attacking Stuart to make him keep his people together, so that they cannot scout and find out anything about our forces…Lee is playing his old game of covering the gaps and moving his forces up the Shenandoah Valley.” A bit of advice often given in regards to scouting operations – if you cannot find the enemy, at least make sure the enemy does not find you – might apply here for Pleasonton. (And might we ask if information denied Stuart, and thus General Robert E. Lee, played into decisions on the Confederate side.)

Late in the afternoon, Hooker sent orders to Pleasonton authorizing the cavalry to press the Confederate cavalry on the 21st. Hooker also directed two brigades from the Fifth Corps, at Aldie, to support the cavalry. “The commanding general is very anxious that you should ascertain, at the earliest possible moment, where the main body of the enemy’s infantry are to be found at the present time, especially A.P. Hill’s corps.” Thus set in motion events leading to the fourth major cavalry battle of the campaign.

In other cavalry operations, Major-General Daniel Butterfield, Chief of Staff, called for another set of patrols by Major-General Julius Stahel’s cavalry. “…a force of cavalry, to go, via Manassas, Bristoe, Catlett’s, and Dumfries, returning by Wolf Run Shoals; another, via Brentsville, Howison’s Ford, and Greenwood, returning by Wolf Run Shoals. Five hundred men in all will answer the purpose…” Again, these troopers were not, at that time, part of the Army of the Potomac. And of course those places were well outside my “study area” of Loudoun. But those troopers soon would be part of the Army and be marching through Loudoun. Furthermore, the Army leaned on Stahel at this time due to an overall shortage of cavalry for the required missions. Pleasonton’s divisions had to concentrate for what amounted to a covering force battle in Loudoun Valley. That left Stahel as the only force for scouting in other directions.

In addition to Stahel, other troops from the Washington Defenses – Major-General Samuel Heintzelman’s command – operated across the Army of the Potomac’s sector. I’ll refer to those as part of the Twenty-second Corps on the map and depict them in green.

June20Positions

In Centreville was a 7,262 man division under Brigadier-General John Abercrombie. Many of those troops were counting the last days of their enlistments. But two of these brigades, along with two artillery batteries, would join the Army of the Potomac within days (including a fresh brigade of Vermonters, posted at the time in vicinity of Wolf Run Shoals). Another division, consisting of the Pennsylvania Reserves under Brigadier-General Samuel Crawford, posted brigades at Upton’s Hill, Fairfax Station, and Vienna. My pal Ron Baumgarten has covered their garrison life in detail over a series of posts recently. The Reserves would also soon join the Army of the Potomac. One other force of note was a brigade of 2,000 infantry posted at Poolesville, Maryland.

June 20th saw limited movement among the infantry corps of the Army. Brigadier-General Albion Howe’s division of the Sixth Corps marched to Bristoe Station (again, off my map above) to guard the left flank. Second Corps continued its march to Thoroughfare Gap, with one division left back at Gainesville.

What I consider the most significant activity of the 20th came at 5:20 p.m. Butterfield sent orders to Captain Charlest Turnbull:

Lay one bridge at Edwards Ferry. Upon receipt of this, communicate to General Slocum, at Leesburg, your orders. Having laid one bridge, send boats and force enough for bridging Goose Creek, near Leesburg and Alexandria pike, say 75 feet wide.

However, Turnbull had a problem. He arrived at Edwards Ferry with 1,200 feet of bridging and 60 pontoon boats. He estimated the river at 1,400 feet wide, and it was rising due to the rains.

Earlier in the day Major Ira Spaulding related to Brigadier-General Henry Benham that the detachment at Edwards Ferry needed more bridging. At around 9 a.m. he requested “fifteen boats, completely furnished; also about 50 extra chesses, and some extra lashings in coils, uncut.” Spaulding then started for Washington, presumably to sort out equipment and forward what was needed. Anticipating that equipment would arrive by morning, Turnbull affirmed to Butterfield, “Will go ahead and do the best I can.”

At the close of June 20, the Army of the Potomac had firmly established the Bull Run-Catoctin line with the Second Corps at Thoroughfare Gap; Fifth Corps at Aldie; and Twelfth Corps at Leesburg. Three more infantry corps were just a short march away in reserve. And the cavalry corps was looking for Lee’s main body … in the wrong place, but at least they were looking. But the engineers were about to put in place a resource which, once the Confederate main body was found, allow the Army of the Potomac to pivot again in pursuit.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, pages 223-29.)