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….

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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.

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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.)