The Folwell letters, June 21, 1863: “…we had a fine bridge 1340 ft. long.”

Last week, we left Captain William W. Folwell at Edwards Ferry with night approaching on June 20, 1863.  That date and place are important to the discussion of the Gettysburg Campaign.  The first bridge over the Potomac at that point would later provide the path for the Army of the Potomac to move north.  Not to play this up too much (well… it is my shtick), as without doubt the army would have found someplace to cross the river eventually.  But as the events did play out, Edwards Ferry is where the army crossed.  As such, to understand the “downstream” events, we have to understand the particulars upstream.  In other words, if you want to start talking July 1, 1863 then let’s roll back to understand how the armies got there in the first place.

And with respect to what happened ten days later, June 21 was important for at least two events – The battle of Upperville and the laying of the first bridge at Edwards Ferry.  The former changed the way Federal leaders perceived the developing situation.  The latter, originally suggested by Major-General Henry Slocum for logistic reasons, would take on greater importance just days later when Federal leaders decided to act upon those changes to the situation (as they perceived it…).

Looking at all this at the lower, detailed level, we find Folwell on the Maryland side of Edwards Ferry and about to be involved with the second of those important events:

Edwards Ferry, Md., June 21st, 1863.

Friday night, as I have already written you, we, the Regulars and our three Cos., C, F and I [50th New York Engineers], came here from Monocacy.  Yesterday, we lay here all day idle.  In the afternoon, it rained and I put up some shelter tents and went to sleep under them….

As things are apt to play out, men involved with great events tend to be surrounded by a lot of mundane, ordinary “living my life” events.  Such as a soldier trying to keep dry.  But in the next sentence, the bridge building started:

At dark, the order came to build the bridge.  We backed our rafts into the river and poled them to place.  The Regulars began from the Md. shore.  Capt. [Charles] Turnbull decided it was too dark to attempt building from both shores at once, and therefore, ordered our Cos. to lay down on the raft and rest till day-light. I lay down with my men wrapped in a blanket and slept so soundly that had I not found my blanket soaking wet this morning, I should not have known that it had rained.

I hate to chop this up with annotations, but this is somewhat important in the bridging story.  We have here a first hand account indicating the use of the river lock at Edwards Ferry:

Edwards Ferry 26 Apr 044

This river lock was built with the intention of moving boats from the Goose Creek Canal (on the Virginia side) over to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.  Just days before, when Folwell and others were contemplating a bridge at Nolan’s Ferry, the engineers had to work out arrangements for moving boats and equipment over the canal berm into the river.  The river lock made such unnecessary at Edwards Ferry.   So the boats, as packed and formed into rafts at Georgetown, could be taken out to the river without leaving the water.

But after the equipment was on the river, the engineers opted to wait until daylight.  Was that an unnecessary delay?  Well, on that evening the moon was in waxing phase. Illumination that night was 17%.  The moon sat just after 10 P.M.  In short, Turnbull’s decision was probably wise, provided one wished to have an orderly bridge that connected in the middle!

So after one more night of rest, in the rain mind you, Folwell and company had work to do on June 21:

At daylight, we carried our material to the Va. shore, threw out our pickets, and began work; by seven o’clock we had exhausted our material, and lacked two boats to complete the bridge.  The regulars furnished them, and very soon after we had a fine bridge 1340 ft. long.  They replaced the boats with trestle.  Since finishing our work, I have breakfasted, washed, rested, and would now dine if I had anything to eat.  Strange enough, it is really Sunday here.

At 11:45 that morning, Turnbull reported, “The bridge has been finished two hours, and reported to General Slocum. Bridge 1,340 feet long.”  While matching Folwell’s description as to the length, perhaps Turnbull didn’t consider the bridge complete until the last boats and trestle was in place, thus accounting for the time between 7 and 9:45 that morning.  This is the only mention I know of a trestle section on the first bridge.  The application is logical in this case, covering a section where boats were in short supply.

With work completed, Folwell and company tended to their personal needs:

The little store by the lock is shut and the inhabitants do not sell provisions.  We made no provision for it yesterday.  Bain [Lieutenant Mahlon Bainbridge Folwell] and Dan [Lieutenant Daniel M Hulsehave] gone out to a house to get dinner, but I do not think it proper for me to leave Camp.  I am getting hungry and hope they will bring me back something to eat.  There is a great battle going on today off in the direction of Aldes and Linker Gap.  The Rebs. are probably trying to force the passage of those gaps.  We ought to prevent them, and I think a skillful General would do it.  I have but small hopes of Joe. Hooker, He lacks ability and locks courage, – nerve.  4 P.M. finally, William got me some dinner.  Ham broiled, potatoes, coffee, Hoe cake, hot.

So, let us just say Folwell was no fan of Joe Hooker.  And of course he was hearing the fighting in Loudoun Valley near Upperville.  I suspect he was referring to Ashby’s and Snicker’s Gaps.  Or Aldie and Snicker’s Gap.  At any rate, I would not ask Folwell for directions around Loudoun County.

I had not finished them when Lieut. [James L.] Robbins [Company A] arrived with the advance of another fleet of pontoons, 16 in number, and on my invitation proceeded to discus the residuun. The careless fellow bro’t no mail, no Jim Scott, no baggage, no tents.  Well, he couldn’t help it, he had to hurry away at a moment’s notice.  The Regiment is encamped on the old ground at Camp Lesly [Leslie].  This Sunday afternoon is very beautiful and all is quiet, but the thunder of the battle which is still raging, at times furiously.  Just now there is a lull.  Robbins brought five days rations for our men. We had just drawn five days yesterday.  At Washington they do not seem to know anything of our whereabouts and destination. They think us at Monocacy.  We were there two days ago.  I am writing very stupidly.  I have been without sleep so many nights, and on the move so may days, that I don’t know whether I am dad or alive.

This last section alludes to confusion within the Engineer Brigade. And that confusion was much due to confusion at Army headquarters.  But at least Folwell’s men had plenty of rations!

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 413-5 (pages 419-21 of scanned copy); OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, page 246.)

 

The Folwell letters, June 20, 1863: “We make the river 1475 feet wide”

On June 19, 1863, Captain William W. Folwell and Company I, 50th New York Engineers were among a detachment of engineer troops at the Mouth of the Monocacy.  Their original orders had them moving to Nolan’s Ferry with the intention of placing a bridge over the Potomac at that point.  They had even conducted a leaders’ reconnaissance of the site to determine the best way of handling equipment out of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal to the river.

But, we know, from the distance of 150 plus years, the Army of the Potomac wasted a lot of paper and telegraph transmissions changing and countermanding orders. The situation was in flux.  And as such, a soldier – particularly an engineer with the task of laying a bridge – went through the cycle of hurry up; wait; start; stop; repeat.  That, more so than pitched battles, was the experience of the soldier.

The next entry in Folwell’s diary/letters is actually transcribed (in the typewritten version on line) as June 26.  I believe that in error, with the correct date being June 20.  But thought I would mention that here in case my assertion is incorrect.  Regardless, we find Folwell at our favorite spot – Edwards Ferry:

Saturday, June [20], 1863.

Here we are at Edwards Ferry, 12 miles below Monocacy where we lay all day yesterday.  It was just dark when the order came for us to get down to this place.  No sooner had we started than the rain began pouring in torrents and continued for some hours.  About midnight it ceased.  We were going all night.  Fortunately, there are only three or four locks on the way, which allowed our men to get some rest.  Towards morning, I spread my blankets and lay down for a nap and took a very good one.

We still wait orders. Majors [Ira] Spaulding and [Wesley] Brainerd go to Washington this A.M. This leaves [Captain Michael H.] McGrath in command.  This grinds me, for I laid Pontoon Bridges before ever McGrath tho’t of getting in to the Regt. I have told the Major what I think, and hope that an arrangement will be made by which I can be relieved. We make the river 1475 feet wide, i.e., 75 bays of Bridge required, 74 boats.  We have only 64 along. The Major is writing a dispatch to Gen. Benham stating the case. What a change of base since last Saturday night when we took up the Bridge over the Rappahannock.  Of the situation, I know nothing.  Have heard no news in several days.  I am getting on better than you would think without my baggage and [my] chest.  It may be days before I see them.  My horse is safe; that is one comfort.

There’s a lot to consider in just two short paragraphs.  Let’s break this down in sequence.

Why were the engineers ordered to Edwards Ferry?  Or more accurately what drove that change?  Well, we can go back to correspondence between Army of the Potomac Chief of Staff Major-General Daniel Butterfield and Twelfth Corps commander Major-General Henry Slocum. That corps arrived in Leesburg on June 18, becoming the anchor for the army’s right flank as it pivoted to face west.  On the 19th, Butterfield pressed Slocum for, among other things, an assessment of Potomac crossing points.

Late in the evening, Butterfield asked, “What advantages are to be gained by putting a bridge at Edwards Ferry? Are there any reasons why we cannot cross at Noland’s and Hauling Fords?” To which Slocum replied, as if to deflect the subject:

I think the bridge should be built at Edwards Ferry to supply us. I have not force enough to keep the route to Vienna, or to hold many fords on the river in the country filled with guerrillas. Edwards Ferry is most accessible, and is covered by a strong redoubt on this side. Our supplies should be sent from Georgetown, by canal, to Edwards Ferry.

The dialog is important to the storyline.  Not only does this answer the why and what, but gives a glimpse into the situation as understood by the participants at the command level.  As I’ve tread over the commander’s intent at this stage of the campaign in earlier posts, let us focus for now on the intent for the bridges.  Up until at least midnight on the 19th, Butterfield (and by extension Major-General Joseph Hooker in command of the army) was focused on a bridge to move troops.  But Slocum wanted a bridge to shorten, protect his supply line.  Slocum’s reasoning won out by dawn of June 20.  And that, I would submit, tells us a bit about what Hooker had decided was the main course of action he should pursue at that point in time.  In other words – on June 20, the intent was to stay in front of Washington and anticipate battle in Loudoun.  Of course, that would change in a few days.

Moving beyond commander’s intent, we see again the heavens opened and the rain came down in buckets.  I contend that when the Army of the Potomac marched, the weather was always either too hot, or too wet, or a lot of both.  In this particular case, the rains would also have the effect of swelling the Potomac which the engineers would shortly need to bridge.

And to that point, the estimate was 1475 feet, with the particular equipment needed detailed by Folwell.  So let’s back up to June 16 and a report from Brigadier-General G. K. Warren.  While listing the various potential crossing points of the Potomac, assessed for ease of access, capacity, and river width, Warren wrote:

Conrad’s Ferry, near Leesburg, is a good place for a pontoon bridge, requiring 600 feet.  Above Edwards Ferry we can make a pontoon bridge, requiring about 700 feet.  There is here at least an outlet lock from the canal into the river; also a bridge over the canal.

Conrad’s Ferry is today’s White’s Ferry, and crosses upstream of Harrison’s Island and Balls Bluff. And readers should be familiar with Edwards Ferry’s location in relation to Leesburg.  If not, here’s the map again:

PotomacCrossings1A

But 600 and 700 feet, respectively?  No.  Not even in the middle of a hot, dry summer (which 1863 was not).  Today, the river at Conrad’s/White’s Ferry is 975 feet wide, based on my field notes.  Standing upstream from Goose Creek, the width at Edwards Ferry is 1,260 feet… again today, 150 plus years after the war.  Clearly Warren did not visit these sites in person… or if he did, his manner of estimating distance was faulty.  And this error by Warren would cost the engineers, and by extension the Army of the Potomac, valuable hours.  (Warren, I would offer, was much better at calling for reinforcements to beleaguered sectors of the battlefield than making proper engineering assessments… after all, what does a Chief Engineer get paid for?)

Let us give some allowances here for the river being up due to the rains that Folwell mentioned.  But more importantly, Folwell and team had to add some length to the bridging as they accounted for abutments and other needs – raw crossing distance vs. actual feet of bridging needed.  Still, Warren’s assessment was horribly wrong.  The impact?  The engineers at Edwards Ferry did not have sufficient equipment to do their job.  This became a problem for Spaulding, Brainerd, and… at the top of this all… Benham.

So the estimates were wrong.  Just order up some more pontoons, right?  Well in the first place, Benham was busy refitting, repairing pontoons which had just been used opposite Fredericksburg and at other points in the march north. Furthermore, we have to consider those pontoons as a strategic resource, to be husbanded by Hooker and even further up by Halleck and Lincoln in Washington.

Thus we see a curious exchange of messages between the engineers and headquarters. At 5:20 p.m. Butterfield ordered the engineers to lay a bridge at Edwards Ferry, along with a bridge over Goose Creek.  Responding at 7:20, Captain Charles Turnbull indicated he didn’t have enough pontoons, but would start the work anticipating more equipment from Washington.  But at 9:20, Butterfield inquired about the river widths at other points, adding, “If 1,400 feet, general [Hooker] does not want bridge laid at Edwards Ferry.”

My take on all this – Hooker had a card to play with these pontoons.  He was informed by his top engineer that 1400 feet would give him TWO crossing points.  But when it came time to play the card, he is informed the pontoons would not cover even ONE crossing point!  Granted, the army could get more pontoons.  But that translated into a little “rob Peter to pay Paul” when Hooker’s staff started projecting towards future operations.  Hooker would “pay” for that bridge, but it strained resource more than anticipated.

All of which impacted Folwell’s work.   In addition to the bridging, we see he was concerned about command arrangements.  I don’t have much on McGrath.  He mustered as a first lieutenant in Company F in July 1862.  Then was advanced to captain in October of  the same year (though his rank was only advanced on December 26, 1862, back-dated to October).  He replaced Spaulding in command of Company F.  So there would be some natural inclination from Spaulding toward his former command, perhaps.  But date of rank was more likely the justification. Folwell’s data of rank, to captain, was December 11, 1862.  In the military, with respect to command assignments, date of rank carries more weight than experience.

However, I find much of Folwell’s concern a minor issue, no matter how much it did “grind” him.  The man in charge of the bridging was Turnbull.  He “commanded” the engineers at Edwards Ferry on the evening of June 20.  And it was Turnbull who would give instructions to Folwell.  So as the afternoon turned to dusk and then to night, Folwell’s orders involved placing a bridge at Edwards Ferry.  That’s where we will turn next in this series.

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 412-13 (pages 418-9 of scanned copy); OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, pages 149, 208-9, and 229.)

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….

34797r

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.

william_watts_folwell

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.)

Henry Benham, pontoons, and a lot of photos: What the engineers did over the winter

On January 25, 1864, Brigadier-General Henry W. Benham, commanding the Engineer Brigade of the Army of the Potomac, completed a lengthy report for Brigadier-General Joseph G. Totten, the Chief Engineer of the US Army.  The report touched upon several subjects, but largely concentrated on improvements to bridging techniques then in use. This was not a new round of correspondence.  Benham wrote a similarly lengthy and detailed letter to Totten in November 1863, discussing changes in the drill for pontoon bridging.

The reports, including enclosures from subordinate officers, include over fifteen pages total in the printed OR.  Far too much for a single blog post.  So I might examine in fine detail at another date.  Feel free to browse the November 1863 letter or the January 1864 report if I don’t get to that examination in short order.  I suspect a detailed examination would elicit a long sigh at the discussion anchor bolts, abutment sills, and claw-balks.  So let me focus on something less “engineer-y” and perhaps a bit into the historiography side of things.  At the end of his November letter, Benham mentioned some photographs sent along with the correspondence:

I have the pleasure of inclosing you, for the further explanation of the method of laying these bridges, some photographic views taken during the progress of construction.

No. 1 shows the pontoons ready with the material, and the boat squads ready for the construction (at foot of East Fifteenth street).

No. 2 shows the progress of construction of the raft after four to five minutes’ labor.

No. 3 shows the progress of the bridge raft after six to seven minutes’ labor.

No. 4 shows the bridge completed, with the bridge squads formed ready to march off. Parts of a trestle and canvas pontoon bridge across a cove along the shore are in view here.

No. 5 shows, from a nearer point of view, the pontoon bridge ready for service.

No. 6 gives the view down the Eastern Branch with pontoon bridge to beyond Navy-Yard Bridge, and oarsmen having oars raised ready to move the bridge for dismantling. Parts of pontoon balk-head used for laying the bridge raft are shown in foreground as it was placed to save the men from the water, though rather delaying than expediting the work. (emphasis added)

Believing that they would also be interesting at the Department, I have also added two other photographic views.

No. 7, showing the old or generally practiced method of laying bridges by successive pontoons.

No. 8, a view of the pontoon bridges laid by the engineer brigade under my command on the morning of April 29, 1863, at Franklin’s Crossing, 2½ miles below Fredericksburg. This shows in the distance the ruins of the villa of Mansfield, the site of General Bayard’s death.

Photo “No. 8” referenced by Benham may be one of those examined by John Hennessy and Eric Mink in 2011.   Of the others described (or is it “captioned”) by Benham, I’ve found no direct matches.  However this photo from the Library of Congress collection is a close match to “No. 6”:

This shows two pontoon bridges across the Anacostia River, looking from the Navy Yard.  Lots of neat stuff to discuss in this photo.  But for today, let’s just consider this as establishing Benham’s practice of using photographs to support his suggestion (and I bet Benham would have loved PowerPoint!).

That in mind, consider a section from the January 25, 1864 report:

The modification I propose (of which I inclose sketch) in the French pontoon is to take off 3 feet in length from the bow and 2 feet from the stern, while the “floor” remains of the same length, the ends to the depth of one plank downward to be of a thick plank or timber, with a shield or bunter which should slope about 3 inches outward.

Benham went on to say this modification would prevent some of the damage to the pontoons while on the march and make handling much easier.  Here’s the line drawing included with the report:

Benham_Mod_Pontoon

Fairly typical comparison diagram, using dotted lines to demonstrate the differences between the original and proposed modification.  Probably sufficient to demonstrate the particulars for an engineer of Totten’s experience.  But what do they say – “A picture is worth a thousand words”?  How about this picture, might it offer a thousand words comparing two types of pontoons?

Notice the difference between these two pontoons, particularly at the bow end.  While not precisely matching the dashed lines in Benham’s drawing, the pontoon on the right is close to his proposed modification.  Was this a photograph taken for the benefit of Benhan to demonstrate his suggested changes?

Working against my suggestion, the Library of Congress record for this photo does not provide a location.  The original caption on the back of the stero-view card does not mention any special nature of the two boats:

This view shows two of the boats (of which the army bridge is made) on wheels ready for the march.  Each pontoon wagon is drawn by six mules.  These pontoons were always getting stuck in the mud, and the soldiers, struggling along under their own burdens, were obliged to haul on the drag ropes, and raise the blockade.  Probably no soldier will see this view without being reminded of the time when he helped to pull these pontoons out of the mud, and comforted himself by searing at the mules.

Doesn’t sound as if this photograph captured a comparison of two type of pontoons. Maybe the studio felt the public would not appreciate the comparison, and thus offered a “pedestrian” caption.

However there are several other views of pontoons dated to the winter of 1864, taken at the Engineer Brigade camp at Rappahannock Station.  And some seem ready made for a comparison of the two types.  This photo carries the Library of Congress caption “Pontoon wagon and boat, 50th New York Engineers, Rappahannock (i.e. Brandy) Station, Va., March, (i.e. Feb.) 1864.”:

So the right time and place.  And this appears to be a standard “French Pontoon.”

Compare to this photo, also citing the 50th New York Engineer camp at Rappahannock Station in March 1864:

If not an exact match for Benham’s drawing, it does look like the pontoon on the right side of the photo above.  And another photo must have captured the same (or similar) boat from the front:

With more of these in the background… see them?

There’s even a photograph of a wagon without the pontoon:

And let’s not forget the canvas pontoon:

That photo, in particular, just stands out as if tailor made for illustrating some manual.  The men are in the background, not the foreground.  The subject here is the equipment, not the personnel.  These pontoon photos are like some “walk around” we would use today to demonstrate the particulars of a piece of equipment.

Maybe the photographer was just hanging out with the engineers taking in shots of the equipment.  But this is not some point-and-shoot camera we are talking about.   These were expensive (relatively speaking) glass plate photos.  So why waste a plate on some static equipment displays?  On the other hand, perhaps these and similar photos taken at the 50th New York Engineer camp were intended to help Benham illustrate his reports.

Something I’ve learned over the years – when studying Civil War photographs, it is just as important to know the “why” story as the “what” of the subject.

150 year ago: Bridges over the Rappahannock

I’m often inclined to put emphasis on the activities of the supporting arms in campaigns such as Chancellorsville. Not that I want to reach past the activities of the combat arms (particularly the artillery!). But the activities of signalers, engineers, and quartermasters are some of the “parts,” and in many cases valuable parts, that add up to that sum total of effort.

Henry W. Benham

 

I’ve mentioned – just mentioned a part of – the signal troops in the Chancellorsville campaign. Another branch that played a critical and often overlooked role were the engineers. Specifically those involved with bridging operations to support the advance over the Rappahannock… and then the retreat back. The official reports from Brigadier-General Henry W. Benham, commanding the Engineer Brigade, provide a table detailing bridging operations during the campaign. Here’s a reproduction of that table:

 

CvilleCpgBridges

 

Benham listed fifteen bridge operations. One of these, number nine, did not have a bridge laid but rather noted the movement of bridging equipment to Bank’s Ford. The Engineer Brigade used nine bridges, relaying five of them twice, for a total of fourteen bridge placements. And fourteen bridges pulled up when the army no longer needed them. All within the span of nine days. These bridges spanned the Rappahannock at points over thirty (river) miles apart.

 

Completion times – which I think were “weighted” to the short side – are not excessive. Benham’s table indicates most of the Fredericksburg bridges required less than an hour and a half from start to finish. That is, of course, not to say the time from initial movement to finish. Or for that matter does not address the “ordered” time for completion. Regardless, the times reported for some of these operations, such as 45 minutes at Kelly’s Ford or 1 ½ hours at United States Ford, speak to the efficiency of the engineer bridging troops.

 

 

Several of the bridging operations were conducted under Confederate guns. At Fredericksburg the engineers didn’t face as stiff resistance as the previous December, but were certainly not unopposed. Bank’s Ford crossing also saw Confederate resistance. In all the Engineer brigade casualties were one killed and three wounded. (I’d rather suffer the sore back of an engineer over the lot of some infantryman at Chancellorsville. How about you?)

In his reports, Benham relates problems, lots of problems. What part of those problems came from the friction within the army, and what part came from Benham’s flask, is hard to decide. But each of these bridges had great operational importance. Even being late and delayed, the bridges in place at Fredericksburg caused the Confederates pause. And those placed at United States Ford were “golden” when the Army of the Potomac retreated.

Looking at the number of bridges built, the times in which those were completed, the units involved, and some of the responsible officers, I cannot help but consider what those same men, officers, and equipments would be doing a little short of two months later on the Potomac.

 

(Benham’s report and the table are in OR, Series I, Volume 25, Part I, Serial 39, pages 204-216.)

 

150 Years Ago: Pontoon bridges over the Potomac

Strategic mobility.  That’s what the pontoon bridges provided the Army of the Potomac.  I’ve written at length about the bridges used in June 1863 at Edwards Ferry.   But that is getting ahead a year in sesquicentennial coverage.

The important pontoon bridges in the last week of October 1862 were over the Potomac at Berlin, Maryland and Harpers Ferry, Virginia (it was still Virginia then).   A series of photos of bridges at Berlin (now days it is Brunswick) capture what those bridges looked like.  Most captions provided for these photos indicate they were taken by Alexander Gardner in October-November 1862.  However, I’ve seen a few places where these are cited as part of the July 1863 crossing at the same place in the aftermath of Gettysburg.  I’m apt to accept the former date.

I find this photo remarkable for many reasons.  There’s a lot of “action” implied here, particularly with the wagon train in the foreground.  Look closely at that.

There are three means of transportation in evidence here – wagon, train, and canal.  See the box cars?  Means the B&O was already repaired from any damage done in September.  The “iron horse” brought supplies to the Army of the Potomac. Those railroad tracks, or at least the modern version of them, are still at Brunswick today.

Look closely to the upper left corner… or here’s a better view.

Appears the wagons are being loaded directly from the box cars.

And looking up to the houses behind that, just before the destroyed bridge’s piers, sites Lock 30 on the C&O.

The near side pontoon bridge abutments are obscured by the bank of the canal towpath.

There was a significant slope down from the towpath to the river.  And file this away as we discuss below – the landing for the bridge to the right has a tree next to the river bank and some sort of lift next to it.  There’s a lot of brush between the two bridges.  There’s also another tree on the land-side of the canal, roughly the same height as the other tree.

Looking across the river, there is one of those “ghost” blurs often seen on glass plate, time exposure negatives.

That must be a wagon train finishing its crossing.

Notice the detail on the landing of the far side.  The pontoon bridges reach Virginia on a spit of land sticking out from the shore.

And look to the left of that at the houses on the distant bank.

Follow the bridge piers across.  The last one, actually on the Virginia shore, appears to have walls on the superstructure.  There are two, maybe three, structures where the old bridge ran through.  I can feel the warmth of the fireplace in that house in the lower center, even through 150 years.

An Edwin Forbes drawing depicting the scene on October 27, 1862, looks at first glance to be a pencil version of the Gardner photo.

But, Forbes shows only one pontoon bridge in place.  So, does this validate the time of Gardner’s photo or not?

There there are more photos of Berlin’s pontoon bridges, or I should say bridge, to consider.  One copy at the Library of Congress collection is from a book of illustrations.  The photo was taken looking from Virginia back to Maryland.  While crisp, I’m not fond of that view, as it does not show the working details I love to pick up.  Instead I like this one from nearly the same angle:

This is the messy “business” side that I like to examine.  Movement going on to the left.  Good close up of the pontoon bridge landing.  Likely someone will chime in to say the mounted guy on the right is one of Gardner’s assistants.   The only down side is the resolution is not sufficient to allow picking off details on the far shore.   But this is the “spit” of land seen in the first photo above.  But again, just one pontoon bridge.

And another view from the Virginia shore:

Remember the houses referenced above?  Those structures match right up to the outer wings.  No comfy fire going in the house though.  And there’s the bridge pier with “walls” right at the end of the old bridge abutment.  But again, just one pontoon bridge.  Let’s look closer.

Follow up from the two individuals standing at the old bridge abutment/pier.  Look to the Maryland shore.  There is a tall tree on the river side of the towpath, with brush between there and the single pontoon bridge.  Where the second bridge should be, there are a couple of box shaped items laying on the bank.

Those boxes also appear in the other “Virginia side” photograph, just to the right of the guard on the bridge.

In profile, there are the two trees, one by the river and the other a bit further back.

My explanation?  According to McClellan’s report of operations, a pontoon bridge went across at Berlin on October 25.  The Ninth Corps crossed on October 26 and 27, which is what Forbes depicted.  So perhaps Gardner took one series of photos around that time but from the Virginia shore.  Later, after the engineers placed a second bridge, he went back to the Maryland side and took another photo.  If so, the “Virginia side” photos mentioned above may capture the engineers laying out equipment for that second pontoon bridge.

Looking at the site today, the river shoreline has shifted.  The “spit” of land is gone.  But it is not hard to pinpoint where Gardner put his camera.  Or where Forbes sat to make his sketch. And knowing those locations, we could say with some accuracy the location of those pontoon bridges…. Bridges that transported the Army of the Potomac from one great battle to the next.