The Folwell letters, June 28, 1863: “I thought the Rear Guard would never get over.”

Over the course of three days, June 25-27, 1863, the Army of the Potomac crossed at Edwards Ferry into Maryland.  These troops would move up the roads through Maryland and within a few days be engaged at Gettysburg, some say to decide the course of the war.  But all of that was in the future on the morning of June 28.  No one in the army knew were the marching would lead.  Not the least of which was the army’s new commander, Major-General George G. Meade.

While his army’s commander was busy taking the reins of command, Captain William Folwell remained with his charge at Edwards Ferry, having witnessed the historic crossing of the Potomac.  We have no entry for June 27 and can only assume Folwell was kept too busy for writing.  But he did have observations worth recording for a letter the next morning:

June 28th, 1863, 9 A.M.,

Edwards Ferry, Md.

Lieut. [Thomas R.] Lounsbury came into my tent during my absence night before last, and wrote his name as you see near the left upper corner of this page.  A short time after, he found me.  I walked over the Bridge to his camp with him, and he, getting leave, returned with me and got supper and slept in my tent.  During the night, his Corps, the (2nd) crossed and in the morning we took the horses and rode on to overtake his Regt. We found it bivouaced a mile away.  I had the pleasure of meeting Col. [Eliakim] Sherrill, Capts. [Benjamin F.] Lee and [Winfield] Scott, and other gentlemen.  The Regt. moved and I bade him Good Bye, but the troops moved only a short distance and Tom came down to dinner.  He looks well and says the life agrees with him.  Col. Sherrill spoke highly of him and said he intended to promote him as soon as possible.  His Capt. (Scott) is, was, a Baptist preacher, a good fellow, but not much of an officer….

Somewhat prosaic, I’d offer.  The sort of encounters that must have happened frequently during the war.  With pre-war acquaintance, Lounsbury, Folwell meets with other officers from the 126th New York Infantry.  Significant enough that Folwell recorded names.  Of the four officers mentioned, within a year one was dead and two others badly wounded.  Sherrill, having assumed command of the brigade on the field at Gettysburg on July 2, was mortally wounded while leading the defense of Ziegler’s Grove on the next day.  Lee was also wounded on July 3, and discharged the following April.  Scott was wounded so grievously on May 8, 1864 at Spotsylvania to be discharged later in that fall.


Lounsbury would serve out the war, never getting the suggested promotion, with the 126th.  After the war, he went on to teach English and literature at Yale with an admirable record. Lounsbury and Folwell maintained a relationship after the war, as evidenced in the former’s papers at Yale.  How many Folwells and Lounsburys were there in the Civil War?  And how did their experiences factor into their careers?

But that was years into the future… for the moment there on the banks of the Potomac, Folwell’s next immediate task would involve dismantling the bridges which had facilitated the movement:

At noon, we received orders to prepare for dismantling the Bridge.  Accordingly, all hands went to work at cleaning ground for loading room and preparing roads to get the wagons down.  At little past four P.M. the last Regt. of the 6th Corps (Sedgwick) having filed over on to the Bridge, we began taking up the lower Bridge.  I had charge of dismantling with Cos. H and I,  Cos. F and C loaded the material on the wagons. (By the way, the Brigade is encamped at Poolesville). We were ordered to load 52 pontoons on wagons, together with the necessary appendages.  This was done by 9 P.M. The Regulars, meantime, broke the Goose Creek Bridge and the Upper Bridge into rafts, and our men went to work navigating them in to the Canal through the “left lock”. At 20 minutes to 1 A.M., we had leave to go to Camp.  We were out at 5 o’clock this morning, and have completed our work.  The loaded train has gone to Hdqrs. and the balance of the stuff is made into rafts and in the canal….

I find some important validations in this passage, confirming some assumptions made about the sequence of events.  First, one of the bridges was removed in the afternoon of June 27, with the passage of the Sixth Corps.  Second, the engineers used the river lock, on the Maryland side, to facilitate the movement of the bridging equipment downstream to Washington. Lastly, the majority of the dismantling operations were completed just after midnight.

And that point is important to place in context.  At the very time Folwell and his men were going to bed, downstream from them Major-General J.E.B. Stuart was attempting a crossing at Rowser’s Ford.  If there had been sufficient illumination for the engineers to work the complicated tasks with their bridging equipment, then we must also know there was ample illumination for Stuart’s men to conduct a reconnaissance of Rowser’s Ford, just nine miles away.  Nor did Folwell complain about rains slowing the task.  Point being, Stuart’s crossing was not as “dark and gloomy” as sometimes portrayed.

One other point to make here in regard to Stuart’s movement.  Folwell does not mention any disruptions in traffic or movements due to Confederate activity downstream.  Neither the pontoon rafts sent to Washington; nor the engineers marching through Maryland; nor the supplies being moved about appear to have crossed paths with Stuart.  The Confederate cavalry moved through like a fast summer thunderstorm.

That next morning (June 28) found Folwell waiting for orders…

We are now awaiting orders.  Two of the four Cos. here are to march to H.Q. and join the Regt., and the other two go to Washington with the rafts, whence they report to Frederick as soon as possible.  The designation of the companies has not yet been made.  I don’t care which Cos. go to Washington.  I should like to go to the city myself, but the trouble I would have to keep my men sober and in order would make me content to stay away….

Interesting, and perfectly understandable, sentiment from a company commander.

This gave Folwell time to consider what he’d witnessed the previous day:

All is very quiet on the other side.  No Rebs. in sight.  Our men are bringing over a few stragglers in the life boat.  We alone remain here covered by a couple of batteries above us on the hill. The Q.M.s and Commissaries having loaded their stuff on to Barges, have started down the Canal.  It is again quiet as before the crossing. The number of our Cavalry has astonished me.  I thought the Rear Guard would never get over.  The string of wagons was endless almost.  Gen. [John] Sedgwick stood at the head of the lower Bridge and urged on the teams nearly all afternoon.  He wore a loose sack coat without straps and a horrid bad slouch hat.  One would have thought him a very officious wagonmaster….

Sedgwick a wagonmaster?  Calls to mind a scene from the move “Patton.”

But few contrabands followed the Army.  This morning, our men bro’t over one man, three women and several bushels of babies and children. I asked if he had his *free papers.”  Oh, pretty neah, Sah, he replied, and his eyes shown like a pair of big peeled onions….

I have found only a handful of first hand references to contrabands during the move through Loudoun.  There are, to be sure, accounts.  But those are less in number than I would expect.  My suspicion is that most of the slaves who could flee had already left the previous year.  Furthermore, there was an established freedmens population in Loudoun at the time.  But Folwell’s mention here, along with a few others, confirms there were contrabands following in the army’s wake that summer.

 I do not hear about the books yet, and must write Geo. about them.  I presume they are still safe in some Express storehouse.  Our box from home hangs fire somewhere between there and Washington.  The scenery along the upper Potomac is hardly surpassed in any country. The view of the river, shore and hill-side from my tent door would make a lovely picture.  Well, I wonder the orders did not come.  We are all ready to march and would rather be off to save marching at night. If we are not to go, I should be at work on my pay rolls for May and June.

Ah, the paperwork ware continued, even as the army marched off to battle.

(Citations from William Watts Folwell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 421-23 (pages 427-9 of scanned copy))


Missed assignment at Rowser’s Ford

For this post, let me pitch a curve ball – let it hang out there over the plate – and see if anyone crushes it.  I’ll say this is but an interpretation that I ask you to roll around a bit to see how it fits.

If you’ve studied Major-General J.E.B. Stuart’s ride to Gettysburg, you are familiar with the story.  Colonel Charles R. Lowell, commanding a battalion of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, was supposed to be guarding Rowser’s Ford on the night of June 26-7, 1863.  But a set of contradictory orders from Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, and Major-General Samuel P. Heintzelman, commanding the Washington Defenses (22nd Corps if you wish).  This missed assignment can be traced through a series of events to a proximate cause… well perhaps.  So let me walk this one backwards to demonstrate.

First, the area of operations we are discussing – the western side of Montgomery County, Maryland:


This is a snip from Martenet and Bond’s map of Montgomery County, Maryland and more a political map than topographical (which is always my preference).  But it will do.  The map is oriented about 45° off to the right, with true north pointing roughly to the upper left corner.  You see Poolesville in the middle with Edwards Ferry below;  Rowsers Ford on the right and the Mouth of the Monocacy on the left.

Charles Russell Lowell

As mentioned an earlier post, on June 25, Lowell received orders to cover the Potomac crossings, from the Mouth of the Monocacy to Great Falls.  His command based out of Poolesville.  Let me offer Lowell’s own words, from a letter to his future wife Josephine Shaw* written on July 1, 1863, the command confusion that occurred over those days in late June:

On Friday night [June 26] at half past ten, I got orders to report next day to General Slocum.  As I had to get in my patrols from a space of over thirty miles and had besides to reduce the baggage of the Regiment from eight wagons to two, I didn’t start til 8:30 the next morning, made a comfortable march of twenty-five miles, reported as ordered, and went quietly into bivouac for the night, as I supposed. But at 11 came two dispatches from General Heintzelman, one ordering me to remain at Poolesville, or to return if I had left, the other notifying me that General Halleck sent the same order.  I was considerably disturbed, and telegraphed at once to General Hooker and to General Heintzelman and notified General Slocum.  In the morning, 4 o’clock, I got order from General Hooker to report to General French, and from French to report immediately; also orders from Heintzelman to take no orders that did not come through his, Heintzelman’s, Headquarters.  This was embarrassing, but I decided with much reluctance to obey Heintzelman….  So I moved down the Potomac about fifty-seven miles, and, when I reached the mouth of the Monocacy, met some of my wagons with the news that the rebels in strong force had crossed the Potomac at the very ford I was especially to watch….

So this explains why no Federal pickets covered Rowser’s Ford on the night of June 27-28, leaving an open door into Maryland for Stuart.

But why was Lowell’s cavalry there in the first place?  Days before they were covering the southern approaches to Alexandria (which, had they not moved, might have put them in contact with Stuart on June 26-7).  But a shifting of cavalry detachments in Maryland left an opening that Lowell’s command had to fill.   Lowell’s orders placed him in the operational sector controlled by Hooker, replacing a unit from Hooker’s Cavalry Corps.  Over the previous week, Hooker had issued orders to other formations out of the Washington Defenses, particularly Major-General Julius Stahel’s division, without input from Heintzelman.  So you might say Hooker had reason to assume Lowell was his to order about.

What was the unit shifted out of Maryland?  A detachment of cavalry from the Reserve Brigade, Cavalry Corps, under Captain Samuel McKee had patrolled the area around the Mouth of the Monocacy from mid-June until June 23.  At 11:35 p.m. on the evening of the 23rd, McKee received orders to “Report with your command to General Pleasonton at Aldie tomorrow.  Cross at Chick’s Ford, if practicable.”

McKee’s men had to cross into Virginia and then of course cross back again in a few days.  Why was McKee ordered to move?  Well, on June 22, Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton, in a report to Hooker’s headquarters, suggested the move:

If it is deemed necessary that a force from this corps should remain on the Upper Potomac, I would request permission to relieve Captain McKee by a regularly organized force, but would respectfully suggest that some of the cavalry which is in Washington may be put upon that duty.

Why did Pleasonton want McKee back?  Explaining his status after the fighting in Loudoun Valley, Pleasonton wrote, in the same report:

As an example of the reduction in numbers, I would state that, when the Reserve Brigade, consisting of the First, Second, Fifth, and Sixth U.S. and Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, went into action on the 21st instant, it only numbered 825 men, the remainder of the men of this brigade being either dismounted or at the mouth of the Monocacy with Captain McKee, who has or should have 1,100 men. Under these circumstances, I have the honor to request that Captain McKee’s command and all other effective men of this command may be ordered to join me at once, and that prompt measures may be taken to supply the number of horses that I need.

Most of the Reserve Brigade’s casualties came near the close of the fighting at Upperville.  The brigade made an ill-fated charge on Vineyard Hill and suffered heavily for it.

If Pleasonton had not sent the Reserve Brigade into a difficult charge at Upperville, he wouldn’t have needed McKee at Aldie.  Lowell would have remained in Virginia and might have encountered Stuart in Fairfax County instead of missing him in Montgomery County.  And maybe someone would have been covering Rowser’s Ford on June 27-28. Or maybe not.  Regardless, the reason Lowell was in Maryland to begin with was due to something that happened days earlier in Loudoun Valley.  At a minimum, this demonstrates that operational moves don’t happen in a vacuum.

* Josephine Shaw was the sister of Robert Gould Shaw. This of course explains Lowell’s interest in events at Darien, subject of another post I’m working up.

(Citations from Life and Letters of Charles Russell Lowell: Captain Sixth United States Cavalry, Colonel Second Massachusetts Cavalry, Brigadier-general United States Volunteers, by Edward Waldo Emerson, pages 268-9;  and OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, pages 258-9 and 273.)

Marching Through Loudoun: June 27, 1863

In contrast to previous days, June 27th was a relatively orderly crossing at Edwards Ferry. While serious command issues rose and came to a sharp conclusion, the troops kept crossing the river. At least through the morning, Major-General Winfield S. Hancock remained in the Edwards Ferry vicinity, tracking movements.

First in the line of march on this morning 150 years ago was Brigadier-General Crawford’s Pennsylvania Reserves. He reported the command was on the bridges by 9:25 a.m. “I will join General Meade to-night. Sedgwick left Dranesville this morning. Road is encumbered by trains of Third Corps.”

Around the same time, Brigadier-General John Buford’s division crossed at Edwards Ferry, NOT the Mouth of the Monocacy as ordered the previous day. Here is one of those gaps of information that I’d love to resolve. Were the previous day’s orders countermanded? Apparently so, as Assistant Adjutant-General A.J. Alexander reported Buford’s movement. But I’d love to see the full conversation and what prompted the change.

Around mid-day, Hancock reported on the progress as he returned from Edwards Ferry:

General Sedgwick and part of his command have arrived and the trains are rapidly crossing. The supply train of the Fifth Corps and General Crawford’s trains are in advance. General Crawford’s troops have crossed. The artillery are well out on the road I came.

Around 1 p.m., headquarters inquired, via telegram, as to the state of the crossing. The response came at 8:35 that evening, from Brigadier-General Henry Benham, who at last had moved up from Washington:

I have been here awaiting the passage and taking up of the bridges since 11 a.m. During this time the cavalry supply train and about two-thirds of the Sixth Corps have crossed on lower bridge. Vermont Brigade and Wright’s division are now to cross on upper bridge. The First Division of cavalry have passed, and there is now passing the First Brigade of General Gregg’s division. It is now almost entirely across. I understood that this cavalry division was to be the last to cross.

So as the sunlight faded on June 27th, the last parts of the Army of the Potomac had left Virginia. Brigadier-General David M. Gregg brought the rear guard across, and the Army of the Potomac left Loudoun County. The only action left, with respect to activity in Loudoun, was to pull up the bridges.


(UPDATE: Minor change to the map today.  Gregg’s cavalry division “took over the picket line” from Buford’s on June 26.  I interpret that to mean Gregg stayed in the vicinity of Aldie until the morning of June 27.  Gregg arrived in Leesburg around 1 p.m. that day.)

In his report, Benham added his concerns about pulling up the bridges in a timely manner. No doubt that sat well among the headquarters staff with whom he’d argued with over the last several days. Benham had a “land pontoon” train, with under 1,000 feet of bridging, ready to move from Poolesville. He planned to move remainder of bridging, that pulled out at Edwards Ferry, back to Washington by way of the C&O Canal. Some components of the bridges were out of the water by midnight (taking advantage of 83% moon illumination that particular night). But most of the work would wait for the following morning. Somewhat anti-climatic, but the great crossing was over.

One other Loudoun County crossing occurred, starting that evening and completing in the early hours of June 28. Major-General J.E.B. Stuart with three brigades of cavalry reappeared earlier on June 27 after taking a wide route around the marching Federal infantry. The Confederate troopers fought a brief engagement at Fairfax Courthouse. After a rest, the column moved to Dranesville where they found Sixth Corps campfires still warm and captured a few stragglers. But Stuart had orders to join with Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell somewhere in Pennsylvania. To get there, he needed a safe crossing of the Potomac. And good fortune smiled on Stuart that evening. Rowser’s Ford, which depending on where you stand is on the extreme eastern tip of Loudoun County, was free of Federal pickets, according to a civilian who met Brigadier-General Wade Hampton. Although the river was higher than usual from the rains.

Hampton’s brigade crossed early in the night, but reported to me that it would be utterly impossible to cross artillery at that ford…. A ford lower down was examined, and found quite as impracticable from quicksand, rocks, and rugged banks. I, however, determined not to give it up without a trial, and before 12 o’clock that night, in spite of the difficulties, to all appearances insuperable, indomitable energy and resolute determination triumphed; every piece was brought safely over, and the entire command in bivouac on Maryland soil.

In all actuality, the crossing likely continued well into the early morning. But Stuart was across the Potomac, although a little late.

While Stuart crossed, on the other side of Maryland, Major-General George Meade received word he was the next commander of the Army of the Potomac. Exit Major-General Joseph Hooker.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part II, Serial 44, page 693; Part III, Serial 45, pages 353 and 354.)