The Folwell letters, June 18, 1863: “We live an Iliad every month….”

When we left Captain William Folwell, he had settled down for a night’s sleep, on the night of June 17, 1863, laying across bridging equipment on a raft heading up the C&O Canal, proceeding to Nolan’s Ferry.  That was an earned, uninterrupted sleep after a hard day of work.  Now we pick up on the morning of June 18:

When I fairly awoke, I stripped and jumped into the canal, and enjoyed a delightful swim.  During a short halt, we made to feed the animals, I had the men cut a quantity of boughs and stick them about the sides of the boats.  They furnish us a delightful shade.

I am half siting, half laying on my blankets, under the boughs dressed in the most free and easy stile. I wear simply my hat, shirt and trousers, boots and stockings, under clothing, – coat and vest are all piled at the end of my bed.  Now and then, I hand my legs over the side of the boat and let my feet drag in the water.  I intend jumping over-board soon and taking another swim. All aboard.  Level here – and away we go.

Folwell and his men seemed to enjoy the trip up the C&O Canal.  Other than their charges (equipment and animals), their duty was simply that of riding the rafts.  They could move no faster than the animals towing their equipment.  So nothing to do but sit and wait.  Such contrast to a report filed by Brigadier-General Henry Benham on the same day.  Benham painted the picture of an Engineer Brigade hard pressed.  He described the movement of Major Ira Spaulding’s detachment, of which Folwell’s command was a part, as delayed and somewhat frantic due to the need to cross-load equipment from steamers to the canal.  Benham cited a lack of manpower in Alexandria to recover and refit equipment recently used at Aquia Creek.

But all that mess was downstream from Folwell.  His ride up was as peaceful as one might have in a theater of war.  Folwell took the time to give us a description of his surroundings and the soldiers’ activities:

It is worth a while to make this voyage here for the scenery.  The canal (Chesapeake & Ohio) follows the Potomac river bank all the way. The banks are steep and thickly wooded.  The bed of the river is rocky and tortuous, and along the edge of the water grown many willows. Talk of going up the Nile.  That voyage could not be more interesting than this.  We have no naked Arabs and Fellahs, but we have half-naked Yankee soldiers who can make vastly more fun.  What fun to see them diving off the raft, and tumbling along in the water.  If they fall behind swimming, they only have to get on to the tow-path and run up and jump in ahead of us.  Yesterday, when several of them were merry, they sang Methodist hymns with great energy and not in bad taste.  [Artificer] Allen Taylor pushed [Sergeant] Tommy Owens overboard. I have given Tommy leave to dunk Mr. Taylor the first good chance he has.  On the other boats is a group playing Muggins very industriously.  Corporal [Charles] Bodle is mixing a lemonade.  [Sargent Levi] McGill has just finished a cup of bread and milk, and has promised to buy a canteen full for me at the first opportunity. This with some bread will make my dinner.

I like this passage for several reasons.  Foremost, this reminds me of those days when I “soldiered” when we were, like Folwell’s command, in transit with nothing to do but wait for journey’s end.  And during those intervals, you see the personalities come forward.  Folwell mentions these men, all enlisted, in a familiar tone.  This is not the “fatherly” tone one might see from a commander.  Rather one who wishes he too could partake of such play, condoning it as a break in the military discipline, but recognizing he, as the captain, cannot pass over that line.  We will read more on this later in the letter.

And this all stands in sharp contrast to Benham’s report… not to mention the infantry on those hot, dusty marches into Loudoun County!

Folwell seemed to enjoy this way of “going to war.”  But he stopped to add context:

Do you wonder how I can rattle on at this rate, as if I were on a pleasure excursion, and the salvation of the country did not depend on our having a Bridge down at Nolan’s Ferry by dark of to-day.  What do I know?  I have seen and read one or two newspapers this week, but with so much on my mind I could not fairly make out their contents. I think I understand that the Rebels are advancing up the valley, and that their Cavalry is threatening Pa. and that Hooker’s Army, having broken “camp near Falmouth,” has fallen back to cover Washington and possibly to follow Lee into Maryland.  I am inclined to think that Hooker’s Army or some portion of it will use this Bridge, which I understand is to be laid at Nolan’s Ferry near the mouth of the Monocacy.  What a trepidation must the Dutchmen of Penna. be in, and I dare say the people of this “Southern Hier” begin “to tremble in their shoes”. On some accounts, I am not sorry for this demoralization of the Rebels.  Our Copperheads used to see what kind of a war they are waging.  We have had no mail since last Saturday, and it will be some day before one can reach us.

Folwell seemed to grasp the general situation of June 1863, perhaps better than some of the generals did at the time.  I think it significant, though don’t know what to make of such, the reference to “Hooker’s Army” instead of “our Army” or other phrase.  Not to mention the remark about the Copperheads.

 

Bringing us back to the canal, Folwell recounted:

One of the mules has just been kicking, and has broken his harness.  While we lie still, a dozen men slide out of their clothing, and plunge into the water.

And that lead Folwell to channel classic figures of old:

One would think some of the fellows to have been sons of Neptune and Amphitrite, and to have been reared in the rocky mountains of the Hereids and Oceanidae.  Oenid. Bah for classics.  We live an Iliad every month, and the wanderings of Ulysses are of no account in comparison with the devious marches of the Engineer Brigade.  The charms of the Siren fade beside the blandishments of Georgetown apple and cider women.  Scylla and Charybdis present no great difficulties than the narrow lock gates of the Chesapeake & Ohio canal.  The rocks of Ithaca and the sands of Pylus all find counterparts in the bed of the Potomac. We have met no Polyphemus yet.  It is curious to see a snake swim.  There’s one and a dozen men a swimming.  What do they care.

And from there, Folwell began to think to a future beyond the war.

This is a suitable dolce for niente. I wish I had the Lotus Eaters here to read, for I can’t recall a line of it now.  I know how we can have fun if we have leisure.  Take our Yacht from Venice to Montreal and thence to Lake Champlain, and down the Hudson to N.Y.  Up the Passaic and then through the canal in to the Delaware river, down that and across in to the Susquehanna and so on, as we like. All the way around to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi, and through the Illinois canal into Lake Michigan and so home.  Was sagst du? Another lock.  The sun gets around and I shall have to move to keep in the shade.  I think I must swim. There.  I feel as cool and moist as a cucumber pickle just from the cellar.

These luxuries you women know nothing of.  Possibly, I ought not to mention except under the disguise of six syllabled words.  Here are some beautiful bits of scenery around the bend in the river. I can not tell you how the luxuriance of the trees and grass delights me.  The other day, I told Col. [William H.] Pettes that in case my brother couldn’t be mustered in and should be discharged that I should offer my resignation.  “No use, sir.  I shouldn’t let you go,” he said, and I suppose it would be impossible for me to get out of service now.  The more I think about Venice, Ohio, the more I am persuaded that I should like to go there, if I were sure you would enjoy health there.

And here we see a personal reflection, which I think relates to the familiar tone used about the men in the earlier passage:

When I come from the War, I shall be a very different man from the one you first knew.  I am forgetting and losing my taste for poetry and literature, and find myself less susceptible of fun and frolic.  Sterner and busier. The habit of command, forming now, will probably remain during my life, and I fear I am becoming captious and impatient of control.  You will have to tame and soften and civilize me when I get back home….

I hate to read into things, but considering this passage with the earlier one strikes a cord with me.

Ah, it gets hot.  I think I will put up a piece of tent to make shade.  With a little help from [Private Ira] Decker, I have a shelter under which a breeze sucks through deliciously.  We have just lengthened out the tow line to relieve the team, and to keep the head of the raft from inclining toward the tow path.  It will be night when we reach our destination.  I fear in that event we shall have to work all night.  Well, that will be nothing new.  I am getting too lazy to write and I think you are probably glad of it.  Nicht wahr? Whew!  how hot the sun is the moment the wind dies away.  I must get in the canal again.  here goes.

Perhaps we can forgive the engineers for “recreating” on the canal, because we know they would put in some very long hours doing difficult work in the days that followed.

1 P.M. Been dozing.  Allen Taylor being still drunk, discharged his gun without leave, and I have put him in arrest.  What a fool the man is.  Besides, he might shoot some one of us.

Records show that Artificer Allen Taylor was demoted to private on July 11, 1863.  I will have to research more to determine if the incident of June 18 was the cause of Taylor’s demotion.

Corporal McGill does not get back with the milk for dinner.  I grow hungry.  It is advisable to eat lightly on marches, when it is impossible to take meals statedly. Wonder where the boy is they have sent us from home.  I presume we shall get it at length. Shall I get in the canal again.  It’s “awful hot.” No, the sun will scorch my back.  I will wait till later in the day.  Here’s McGill come back with empty canteens.  So, no dinner.  Never mind, try again.  He brings news told him by the Capt. of the tug we just met.  That some Rebs. crossed at Point of Rocks last night and burned the town. It is not known whether they returned to Va. or have gone over to Md.  We may have a fight before night.  I suppose I ought to put my boots on and be ready to fall my men in.  I hope, however, the Rebs.will not molest us.  The “joys of battle” are very fine in the story-books.  The poets rejoice in them, but soldiers are not eager for the fray as said poets feign.

The Confederate raid alluded to here was on the night of June 17, and conducted by Lieutenant-Colonel Elijah V. White against the stations at Catoctin and Point of Rocks.

Starting the next passage, Folwell mentioned an eight mile stretch between locks.  I will venture a guess this was either just below Edwards Ferry’s lock, or just above. The time was late in the afternoon.

Here’s a long level – 8 miles, they say.  The sun is under a cloud.  There’s a breeze. I am cool and comfortable.  What a delicious little nap I have had.

8 P.M. Another nap and another swim.  The mules stopped for a drink.  It was hot, oh, beastly hot.  I slid in the water. The men followed my example and 20 of us were paddling around the raft.  Here are some magnificent elms on the heel-path.  Oh. how cool I am under my tent, barefooted.  Quite a different individual from him of the “tea-pot photograph.” This life will make a barbarian of me.  Any man is a barbarian away from home and the Church.  There’s a shower in the clouds.  It thunders in the distance. As the showers usually follow the water-courses, I think it best to provide against this by rolling up my blankets and dressing myself. I will fold these sheets which I have written over and enclose them.  I hope they will amuse you a little.  I have whiled away several hours of what otherwise would have been a tedious day.  The rain is coming.

And with that, Folwell closed his letter and thus the narrative for the day.  I’ve let this post run on longer than normal, as the letter offers an insightful view of “soldiering” from the perspective of a company commander.  And… a wandering mind!

The next installment will pick up with Folwell and command at the Mouth of the Monocacy, amid a heavy rain.

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 406-11 (pages 412-17 of scanned copy).)

 

Trip Report: Maryland Heights re-visit… and some perspective

Because of our close proximity to the Potomac River, Harpers Ferry is a frequent weekend day-trip destination for us.  On Saturday, the aide-de-camp and I drove over with the objective of “climbing as far as we can” up Maryland Heights (with the promise of an ice cream if we attained the summit).   I’ve not hiked the trail up Maryland Heights in several years.  The trail was one of my first “features” here on the blog.  I sort of cringe looking back at those early posts, well before I sorted out how best to compose a blog post.

The hike is not an easy one.  The Park Service website rates it “Difficult (steep and rocky in places), 4.5 or 6.5 miles round trip, 3 to 4 hours.”  But the view from the top and chance to examine fortifications makes that effort worthwhile.  The trip up on Saturday gave me a chance to see what changes were made by the park over the last few years.  I noticed this most around the Six-Gun Battery just below the top of the mountain.  In 2007 the magazine location was cluttered by deadfall:

Maryland Heights 22 Sept 211

As was the line of the works:

Maryland Heights 22 Sept 213

On Saturday, we noticed the site was much improved by clearing, making the magazine and line of works easy to make out… and thus making the magazine that much more impressive to the visitor:

Maryland Heights 412

Same for the interior line of works:

Maryland Heights 413

From the exterior, the visitor can better make out the ditch:

Maryland Heights 416

I don’t recall if this walkway over the works was in place back in 2007, but the one there on Saturday looked relatively new (using fiberboard):

Maryland Heights 418

Certainly makes access to the works easier… and ensures the works will still be around for some years to come.

Most who hike up the mountain spend the most of their time at the overlook of Harpers Ferry, on the south end of Maryland Heights, for good reason.  But don’t forget, particularly if you are into the Civil War history of the heights, the overlooks on the east side of the mountain.  Particularly looking down the Potomac:

Maryland Heights 426

This overlook is near the 100-pdr Battery location.   Do you recognize any features?

If not, let me mention some.  First off, to the immediate center-right is the north end of Short Hill Mountain, known as Buzzard Rock.  South Mountain’s southern terminus is out of view due to the trees.  Snaking through the center of view is the Potomac.  Notice the bridge at Brunswick (wartime Berlin), Maryland, where the Army of the Potomac twice put up pontoon bridges.  Beyond in the distance are the Catoctin Ridge and Sugarloaf Mountain.   Just under Sugarloaf Mountain is a saddle in Catoctin Ridge (Maryland section) where a Federal signal station operated at times during the war.  Here’s an annotated version of the photo above:

MarylandHeightsViewAnnotated

This view-shed is historic.  Across this “air” traveled some of the important messages from multiple Civil War campaigns. To demonstrate that, let us go to the maps.  First a map from 1861 showing the location of Federal signal stations:

MH_SLM_SigNet1861

I placed a red box on the left to show the location of a Federal signal station on Maryland Heights.  Follow the line to the right and you see Sugarloaf Mountain on the map.  Although telegraph lines followed the railroad down the Potomac to Harpers Ferry, that was sometimes problematic and vulnerable to Confederate interdiction.   So the wig-wag stations offered a reliable alternative.

This link was maintained through much of the war.  Thinking of the Antietam Campaign, when the station at Sugerloaf Mountain was captured by Confederates, they also severed the “air line” we see in the photo, which is depicted on the map by the red line.

Moving to the summer of 1863, and using the signal maps of the Gettysburg Campaign, we see the same “red line” augmented by several “spurs” from Sugarloaf Mountain:

MH_SLM_SigNet1863

Once again, the “air line” between Maryland Heights and Sugarloaf Mountain was critical.  Reports of Confederate movements into Maryland and Pennsylvania came to Major-General Joseph Hooker by way of Maryland Heights… and had to pass through Sugarloaf Mountain and thence to Washington (telegraph) before getting to Hooker.  Furthermore, Sugarloaf provided the “air line” to communicate to locations such as Leesburg or Poolesville.  So we have to ask, where was the best location for Hooker to command the army at … say… June 25, 1863?

The blue lines and boxes are stations related to the return from Gettysburg.  The signal stations provided coverage at the Berlin crossing site.  Point of Rocks, or Trammelstown depending on which report you read, was a secondary station used earlier in June, but took added importance coordinating the flow of supplies in July 1863.

All of these “air lines” depend upon the view-shed from Maryland Heights.  At critical phases of the Civil War, vital information “few” across that line of sight to leaders beyond.  Those leaders made key decisions, then communicated the details back across that “air.”  We can find reports and orders now consolidated in print within the Official Records which “flew” across the view in the photo above.

Consider this a vital dimension to add to your next battlefield visit. Imagine, if you will, those red lines through the sky.  How did the communications flow, from headquarters to the troops?  And where was that?

Such also adds a new dimension to our preservation discussions.  Do you see why preservationists should be sensitive to encroachments into the view-sheds?