The Folwell letters, June 25, 1863, morning entry: “We are to lay the other Bridge here….”

Captain William Folwell provided two entries for June 25, 1863.  The first was early in the morning, and apparently written as an addition to the June 24th letter:

June 25th, 7 A.M.  Lt. [John] Davidson brought this letter back to me, having met his Co. on the way up.  We are to lay the other Bridge here and not at Monocacy.  The reserve artillery crossed here last night, and the 11th Corps is coming now.  All bound for Harper’s Ferry, they say.  Must get breakfast now and then to work.  We expect mail today.

Brief, but alluding to a couple of points in the larger story of the crossing at Edwards Ferry.  And June 25th was a busy day at Edwards Ferry, to say the least.

Let us focus on what occurred between midnight and 7 a.m. on that day:

  • Sometime after midnight:  Major-General Oliver O. Howard, then at the Virginia side of Edwards Ferry, receives orders to cross the Eleventh Corps the following morning.
  • 3:45 a.m.:  Eleventh Corps breaks camp.
  • 5 a.m.:  Major E. O. Beers, 15th New York Engineers, arrives at the Maryland side of Edwards Ferry with equipment to lay a second bridge at that point.  But the engineers are still unsure as to where the bridge is needed (upstream or downstream of existing bridge?).
  • Between 6 and 7 a.m.: Orders issued to most of the Army of the Potomac to move towards Edwards Ferry for crossing.  This included the Artillery reserve which was at that time near Fairfax Court House.

And… not until 10 a.m. did a response come down from Army Headquarters providing clarity to the question about bridge placement.

I think, given what we know of the “big picture,” 7 a.m. was an important point on the time line.  Troops were beginning to move towards Edwards Ferry… lots of troops.  A second bridge was about to go in the water.  And all sorts of things would be in motion from that point.  But at 7 a.m., things were paused… perhaps stalled… as all these components were breaking the resting inertia.  Those orders trickling out of headquarters were the force to break that inertia, setting things in motion.

One unit that was already in motion which I did not mention above was Major-General Julius Stahel’s cavalry division (not officially at that time, but soon to become the 3rd Division, Cavalry Corps).  Stahel’s command returned from their picket lines on June 24 (generally on the Bull Run Mountains, for brevity here).  The division was immediately ordered to cross the Potomac and march for Harpers Ferry and support the garrison there.  Their assigned line of march was across Young’s Island Ford.  But this is where the time line for them gets muddled.  Likely, Stahel’s troopers did not reach the ford until the morning of June 25. At which time, they found the ford impassible for the entire column.  At most, some of the troopers crossed.  But the wagons along with the 9th Michigan Battery, which was assigned to the division, had to cross elsewhere.  From dispatches on June 25 and subsequent days, it is clear Stahel’s baggage train didn’t cross with the command (and added to the traffic problems at Edwards Ferry… and to the logistic problems in Maryland).   The only real accounting of their crossing comes from Major-General Hooker, indicating “General Stahel crossed the river this morning near Edwards Ferry….”  Of course Young’s Island Ford was plenty near Edwards Ferry, so this is not a precise description.

I bring up Stahel’s cavalry here in an attempt to reconcile a discrepancy between Folwell and the dispatches in the Official Records.  Small discrepancies in a short passage, but some that need be addressed.  We have Folwell’s mention of the Reserve Artillery.  There is a mountain of evidence indicating the Reserve Artillery did not arrive at Edwards Ferry until the evening of June 25.  The artillery crossed the following day, following the Fifth Corps.

So what was the artillery Folwell mentioned?   It is unlikely any of the reserve batteries were detached at that time, as we have no record of such.  More likely is that Folwell, having enjoyed a good night’s rest, was simply passing along what came to him in conversation… in other words – rumors.  Something with horse teams and wheels crossed that night, but it wasn’t the Reserve Artillery.  I would hold out the possibility that some other artillery crossed early in the morning of June 25. The most likely candidate would be the 9th Michigan Battery, assigned to Stahel.  And such would confirm my long standing assumption that a substantial element of Stahel’s command actually crossed at Edwards Ferry that morning.  But, if I had to bet on this, my money would be on Folwell repeating rumors.

The most important part of this passage, however, is mention of the bridge to be laid.  Folwell, writing at 7 a.m., knew a bridge was to be laid.  But neither him or any other engineer at Edwards Ferry, at that time, knew where the commander wanted that bridge to be laid.  And bridges, once laid, are difficult to move.  Sort of a “you only get one shot to get it right” situation, with the entire Army of the Potomac due to arrive on the Virginia side looking for a dry crossing to Maryland.  More work for Folwell and the rest of the engineers on June 25.  And he would relate that in his second installment for the day, which we will look at next.

(Citations from William Watts Folwell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 417-8 (pages 423-4 of scanned copy))

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The Folwell letters, June 24, 1863: Waiting on orders and hoping for mail

If pressed to put a label on June 24, 1863, from the perspective of the Army of the Potomac, I’d have to say “hesitations.”  Such would allude the posture at army headquarters as Major-General Joseph Hooker deliberated about how to apply his force to a ever changing situation.  A cloud lay over his situational awareness.

I detailed the situation, and lack of appreciation thereof, back in the sesquicentennial.  Tactically the most important movement of the day was the Eleventh Corps marching to Edwards Ferry.  However, the Engineers suffered as headquarters issued orders, only to countermand and issue new orders later in the day.   Here’s the summary of the brigade’s dispositions at the start of the day, from that sesqui post:

[Brigadier-General Henry Benham] … 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.

So in the morning the intent was to have a bridge near the Mouth of the Monocacy to complement the one at Edwards Ferry.  The bridge at Edwards Ferry was already heavily used, with supply trains going across to Virginia (so much that replacement parts were requested).  So it would reason a second bridge might be needed as supply needs increased.  Indeed, sage wisdom from many grey-haired logisticians says an army in the field should have a minimum of two supply lines.

But before we label this planned bridge at the Monocacy as “supply line #2”, consider the proposed location.  Such would be on Loudoun County’s “Lost Corner” where the Potomac bends out at an exposed angle.  The Virginia side of the crossing was exposed to attack from the west, over Catoctin Ridge.  Furthermore, the location is but 5-6 miles downstream from Point of Rocks, where Confederates had just raided.  So, my conjecture is that if a bridge was needed for a second supply line, then it would have been downstream of Edwards Ferry (say… Young’s Island or the Seneca Creek area… either of which brings up other “what if?” inquiries).   And thus the proposed Monocacy Bridge was instead intended for troop movements.

All this said, and speculated, the bridge at the Monocacy was not to be.  By the end of the day, the engineers then at the Monocacy and those transiting to that position were instead ordered to concentrate at Edwards Ferry.  I think (again, my speculation) that reports from Major-General Henry Slocum, then in Leesburg, about Confederate movements about Snicker’s Gap caused Hooker to reconsider the bridge.

In the middle of all this changing situation sat Captain William Folwell and Company I, 50th New York Engineers, minding their bridge at Edwards Ferry.  And Folwell’s entry for the day was short… perhaps better said… abrupt:

Edwards Ferry, June 24th, ’63.

Lt. [John] Davidson of Co. H. came up yesterday in charge of animals and returns today.  Strange enough Chaplain did not send our mail.  However, we have so far opportunity to send off the letters we write.  Yesterday afternoon, we moved camp across the canal on to a fine place of sloping ground. My tent stands on a spot from which there is one of the most charming prospects imaginable. The winding of the river, the wooded shores backed by green fields of grain and grass, the bridges and the people on them altogether form a very beautiful scene. I presume I shall have to leave it soon, for we have a telegram announcing that another company is on the way with 1000 ft. of Bridge, which is to be laid at Monocacy.  Probably Co. I will be ordered to assist.  It is a little hard on us who are here that they will not think enough of us at Washington to send us our mail while they are living in high style.  Some of the officers having sent for their wives.  Yes, we are to move up to Monocacy tonight.  I hope Co. A. Capt. [George W.] Ford will arrive with the boats, 1400 ft. of Bridge material will be sent.  Here’s Davidson.  Off –

On a personal side, what stands out is this discussion of the mail.  The Chaplain mentioned would be Edward C. Pritchett, who served the regiment through most of the war.  And shame on those “rear area” officers who were “living in high style” back in Washington!

We also see the bridge at Monocacy as an anticipated task.  We sense the “coiling of the spring” as Folwell prepared to support that endeavor.  I don’t quite know what to presume from the cut off at the end of this entry.  I’ve presented it here precisely as it appears in the type-written transcription.  Is that to say “we are off!” Or is that the first word of a new sentence cut off?

The next entry picks up on June 25th at 7 A.M.  A day and time which we know, from the historical record, was perhaps the most difficult of the campaign for the engineers.  We’ll pick up Folwell’s account there.

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 417 (pages 423 of scanned copy))