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:


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.)


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:


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:


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:


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?

150 Years ago: Right out my front door!

Well, 150 years ago today (September 4, 1862), a good portion of the Army of Northern Virginia marched into Leesburg just a couple blocks away from my front porch. There were no trees or houses in the way back then, so I could have watched the procession (although I my front porch was not around back then either). Generals Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, and Stuart were among the ranking officers arriving in town. But Lee was not on Traveler. No he’d suffered from a fall. With both wrists bandaged, he was riding in an ambulance.

Only couple days before, on September 2, Colonel Thomas Munford’s 2nd Virginia Cavalry mauled the Loudoun Rangers and Cole’s Maryland Cavalry in the battle of Mile Hill just north of town.

Mile Hill Markers
Mile Hill and Markers Today

The Confederates were in full possession of Leesburg for the first time since the the spring.

On September 4, the Army of Northern Virginia camped around Leesburg and setup hospitals in town. Jackson’s wing camped north of town. And Jackson himself conducted a survey of the Potomac River crossing points in the area. A rather obscure ford, later named after one of his cavalry men, Elijah V. White, received a lot of attention.

White’s Ford Approaches – Virginia Side

Normally, I’d say those events – a cavalry fight, the arrival of an army, or the scouting of the crossing point – would be the highlighted sesquicentennial event for this post. But, no… I’ve saved the best for last.

On September 5, Lee summoned his key subordinates and staff to his headquarters at Harrison Hall. There, the generals worked out the plan to take the war north of the Potomac. In that meeting, the leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia transitioned from the successful Northern Virginia Campaign into the Maryland Campaign. One campaign ended and another began 150 years ago tomorrow.

Leesburg 008
Harrison Hall – Glenfiddich House

If you are around Leesburg tomorrow evening, and you want a chance to “touch” history, stop by the old Courthouse. The Loudoun Sesquicentennial Committee is hosting tours of the Glenfiddich House, which was Harrison Hall at the time of the war. I have the great honor of being the guide assigned to orient visitors to THE ROOM where the meeting took place.

After the tours, historian Tom Clemens speaks about the origins for Lee’s plans for the Maryland Campaign. More details are posted on the Loudoun Civil War Roundtable site and the Loudoun Sesquicentennial website. Hope to see you there!