The Folwell letters, June 26, 1863, afternoon entry: “It is an old story to see the Army cross”

Looking at the pace, progress of the crossings at Edwards Ferry, the flow of troops on June 25, 1863 was not sufficient given the critical operational situation.  The three corps which crossed that day – the Eleventh, First, and Third, in that order generally – did so with delayed progress.  Not only delays as the engineers placed a second bridge, but the units making the crossing brought their own delays… not the least of which were the additional horses brought by the Eleventh Corps.   And we see the rains, which were recorded by Captain William Folwell’s letter of the day, which caused the Third Corps much misery as the crossing and march into Maryland continued into the early morning hours.

By contrast, June 26 was a flood of men and equipment.  Although on paper, again only three corps crossed – the Twelfth, Fifth, and Second, in that order.  Add to that movement the Artillery Reserve, Army Headquarters element, and the majority of six corps worth of wagon trains.  The march must have seemed endless to any eyewitness.  And Folwell was just such an eyewitness.  Just after noon on June 26, he resumed writing a letter home, this being a post-script to a letter written the previous evening:

P.S.  June 26th, 1863, 1 P.M.

The letter I wrote last evening must lie over till tomorrow as we can only send and receive a mail on alternate days.  We get our mail at present by the little steamer packet which runs on the canal from Georgetown to this place.  To-day we have a fine misty rain, falling steadily, which keeps all of us not on duty under cover.  I have written you a short letter and would have done you a long one if the Major ([E.O.] Beers) and some of the other officers had not come in and spent a large part of the forenoon with me.  The 12th Corps had crossed this morning and the troops of another, (I think the 2nd) have just appeared on the opposite hills.  Gen. Hooker and staff came over just before noon and followed the advance of the Army.  We have yet no information as to the destination of the forces.  Gen. Hooker seemed anxious to have the wagon trains hurried up and commended on of our officers (Capt. [Martin] Van Brocklin) whom he saw moving them on. I have not been out of camp to-day.  It is an old story to see the Army cross, for me.  Bain [Lieutenant Mahlon Bainbridge Folwell] is well and full of business as both adjutant and Quartermaster of detachment.  I hope his troubles are over.  We shall know soon, for Hdqrs. left Washington yesterday and will probably reach here to-morrow.

Though just a brief addendum to the letter, there are many observations which match well into the narrative of the crossing.  The time line given by Folwell is consistent with that of the official reports. The mention of a misty rain is duly noted.  Furthermore, Hooker’s concern, clearly recorded here by Folwell, about the wagons and further delays, should receive a highlight.

On a lower level, we get a small glimpse into engineer operations during a crossing.  There is much “just wait, watch, and stand ready” for them during such a crossing.  As Folwell said, “an old story” by this point in the war.  It is significant that Beers spent time at Folwell’s tent during the morning.  I’ve always felt, based on comments by other officers, Beers was the type of leader to be at the most critical point.  And Folwell’s place, on the Maryland side of the crossing, would be that critical point –  should repairs be needed, another bridge be required, or yet another set of orders come down.

We often associate the C&O Canal with mule-drawn boats.  But steam-powered boats were operated, as the C&O Canal Association reminds us.


Poor Mahalon, though.  His “troubles” were that of additional duties.  Presumably, those would be over when the main body of the 50th New York Engineers moved up from Washington.  A small, personal aspect of the crossing which would probably have escaped record, had we not consulted Folwell’s letters.  Later in the evening, Folwell would start a fresh new letter, offering more observations on a most active day at Edwards Ferry.

(Citations from William Watts Folwell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 420-21 (pages 426-7 of scanned copy))


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:


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.)