The Folwell letters, June 25, 1863, evening entry: “I wish you were here to see the Army cross. It forms a splendid spectacle.”

In the last entry of Captain William Folwell’s letters that I transcribed was an entry from the morning of June 25, 1863.  As we well know, that date held significance at Edwards Ferry, being the first day of the Army of the Potomac’s crossing.  A third of the army marched over the bridges laid by Folwell and his fellow engineers, with the stream of men continuing into the night and early morning hours.

The first, brief, entry from Folwell on that day alluded to the Eleventh Corps moving up to the bridge and, erroneously in my opinion, the crossing of some reserve artillery.  But that entry was cut short.  Folwell had work to do.  And he provided some details of that work in an evening letter:

June 25th, 1863, 6 P.M.

Edwards Ferry, Md.

You must excuse the appearance of this, as of most of my letters.  There is a fine misty rain falling, and the air is so damp as to thoroughly moisten my paper.  I have my desk again and my tent.  This morning, Major [E.O.] Beers arrived from Washington, having Co. H and 72 Pontoon Boats and the necessary appendages.  About 10 A.M. he ordered me to take my Co. and Co. H. and take ½ of the material and begin laying a Bridge from the Va. shore.  Cos. F and C began from the Md. shore.  At three P.M., we had a fine bridge over the Potomac, just below Goose Creek….

Circling back here for context.  On June 24, the engineers were ordered to place a second bridge at Edwards Ferry.  But, not knowing exactly where that was needed, the officers in charge of the site sent requests for clarification to Army Headquarters.  Receiving no instructions, Beers decided to place the bridge downstream of the mouth of Goose Creek, meaning it was downstream of the first bridge so as to not interfere with ongoing operations.  Captain Charles Turnbull made a report of this at 11 a.m. that morning.  If Folwell’s time is accurate, Beers probably started necessary actions to build the second bridge an hour earlier.

Folwell’s command (Companies H and I, of note) worked from the Virginia shore, somewhere near where I took this photo:

Edwards Ferry 016

You see the boat ramp on the Maryland side to the left of frame.  Just to the right of frame is the river lock, which Folwell and others used to aid movement of the pontoons.  This “spit” of ground into the river is a typical feature you’ll find downstream from a confluence, formed as the currents form eddies as they join.  While we cannot say that spit was there in 1863, such a formation would be the natural location for the landing of a pontoon bridge.

Beers reported the bridge complete and in use by 2:30 P.M. that day.  But I would give Folwell the grace of a half hour. The bridge might have been in use, but many small chores remained for the engineers to “tie down”… literally and figuratively.

Continuing this entry, Folwell recorded the order of march:

As I wrote you this morning, the 11th Corps crossed to this side.  The 1st (Reynolds) followed.  The 3rd (Sickles) was ready to use our new Bridge.  The 2nd, 6th, and 12th are still in Va., but will probably follow the rest of the Army.  The Corps which have crossed have taken the roads up the River.  I wonder that the Army did not attempt to cross above the Monocacy.  It is possible the Rebs. hold that region.  However, we can get to Harper’s Ferry very near as soon from this point and if Hooker wishes to occupy Frederick, this is the better and safer route, and I wish you were here to see the Army cross.  It forms a splendid spectacle….

And this, we find, is very accurate in regard to the crossing order.  His speculation about crossing at Monocacy feeds into one of my ongoing lanes about the choice of crossing sites.  But, having discussed that already, at least in part, let us move forward.

What do engineers do when a bridge is in use?

When the Bridge is down, we have only to take our ease until the Army is over, and then comes our work.  Capt. [Myron A.] Mandeville, a QM of Brigade, 1st Corps, has just called on me.  He used to keep Franklin House in Geneva and was familiarly known by the habitues as “Mandy.”  What our next move will be, I can’t even guess at.  Hooker’s Army may be beaten and driven in to Washington, or may be victorious and follow Lee to Richmond.  Let us hope and pray for victory.  Jim, who comes today, announces supper. Well we had supper, Boston crackers and tea, butter and some stewed prunes.  We had a late dinner and did not care for more.  Mr. [Lieutenant Daniel M] Hulse has command of the guard on the bridge tonight.  It is raining hard and he will have a hard time of it.

With the time to spare, we find Folwell’s closing thoughts of the day were towards a future outside the army.  And, recall, he was a college teacher by trade:

Just a week tonight since we came up here. My paper is fairly wet, however this is the last sheet.  I rec’d a fine, long, glossipy letter from A.S.W. this morning, full of college news.  He says Havanna Coll has rec’d a very large endowment and thinks it likely that there will be my best stepping-stone.  I am very thankful that I am independent just now of all colleges and seminaries.  It is true distasteful as it may be to you that I do not have my old relish for books and book knowledge.  I will only use a book and get some information for present use. The Peoples Coll. endowed largely, under Dr. Brown, will be a great institution, and be largely useful.  It will not be distinctively religious, although not by any means irreligious.  The time has passed when any merely religious college can be great and –  Monks and priests do not now hold the keys to knowledge.  Indeed, they possess a very small share of really useful information beyond their professional lore.  Colleges must educate for the bar and the farm, for the shop and the field, and must leave to the theological schools the training of the clergy.  We must have the fossils ousted at Geneva before that college can flourish.  There are only two, three with Mr. — fit to teach young men.  All the rest are doing harm; they are making one-sided men.  I think I would not take a place under Jackson, and beside Metcalf, Towler and Bates.  Spite of many faults, while the War goes on as now, we have only to wait and hope.  Just now, I had rather go to Venice than anywhere else, if I could be sure your health would not suffer.  They write me from home that Father has been delayed in getting workmen to repair the house.  I hope they can ask you to come at a time convenient for you.  If not, you will appreciate the reason.

There is much here that I am ill-equipped to provide context, particularly the names of fellow instructors.  The reference to Havanna College may be a school in the Cincinnati area.  Of course, Folwell taught there briefly after the war before moving to the University of Minnesota.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this passage is the insight into Folwell’s approach to the profession.

But, as my focus is on the military operations at the crossing, I circle back to that opening line in the passage – “Just a week tonight since we came up here.”  Folwell and his fellow engineers had left Washington, D.C., using the C&O Canal, on June 17.  They spent most of the time between that transit and June 25 simply waiting on orders.  Such is the nature of an army on campaign.  And I ask, why is it we only focus on the battles?

(Citations from William Watts Folwell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 418-20 (pages 424-6 of scanned copy))