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.)


Thirty-eight bridges, aggregate length 6,458 feet: The 50th NY Engineers on the Overland Campaign

Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant’s concept for the Overland Campaign depended upon out-maneuvering the Army of Northern Virginia.  The problem facing the Army of the Potomac in that regard was the same which confronted Federal forces in 1861 … and 1862… and 1863… a lot of rivers to cross.  One can drag a finger across the map to indicate a line of advance simple enough. But when the troops start marching that line out, they come to an abrupt halt at the first good sized watercourse.  If maneuver is the game, then a commander must have a few bridges in his back pocket.

In the spring of 1864, Major-General George G. Meade had more than a few bridges in his back pocket.  Those bridges were the charge of Lieutenant-Colonel Ira Spaulding and his men of the 50th New York Engineers.  For the campaign, Spaulding organized the regiment into four battalions, all built around sets of bridges:

  • First Battalion – Major Wesley Brainerd, with Companies B, F, and G, had one fourteen boat French pontoon bridge.  First Battalion also supported the Second Corps.
  • Second Battalion – Major Edmund O. Beers, with Companies E, H, and L, had one thirteen boat French pontoon bridge (part of which you are familiar with).  This battalion supported Sixth Corps.
  • Third Battalion – Captain James H. McDonald (and later Major George W. Ford), with Companies D, K, and M, had a thirteen boat French pontoon bridge.  Third Battalion supported Fifth Corps.
  • Reserve Battalion – Under Spaulding’s direct command with Companies C and I.  This battalion had two pontoon trains with twelve canvas boats each.  Captains William Folwell and Martin Van Brocklin commanded one of these apiece. The reserve also had two wing trestles.

In addition to he bridges, each of the three numbered battalions carried the entrenching tools for their supported corps.

From the very start of the campaign, the army used these bridges.  In fact, before leaving Culpeper, the engineers put in a span over the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford in order to facilitate the start of the march south.  As the campaign progressed, the engineers bridged the Rappahannock, Rapidan, Po, and North Anna.

A good photographic study of the crossing of that latter river at Jericho Mills exists in the Library of Congress collection:

Notice those are the canvas boats of the Reserve Battalion.

On May 27, the 50th Engineers began spanning another river, a bit closer to Richmond and perhaps familiar to the veterans – the Pamunkey.  And the crossing there was a “contested” crossing:

May 27, the Reserve Battalion, with two canvas pontoon trains, accompanying General Sheridan’s command, reached the Pamunkey at Hanovertown about daylight. Captain Van Brocklin having the advance put a couple of boats together about a mile from the river, carried them to the river on the men’s shoulders, and sent over dismounted cavalry in these boats to drive away the enemy’s pickets. This was done after a slight skirmish, and Captain Van Brocklin immediately commenced constructing his bridge, completing it in about one hour, assisted by Captain Folwell and a portion of his company; length of bridge, 180 feet. General Torbert’s division of cavalry immediately commenced crossing on this bridge.

That’s how you cross a river under fire and force a bridgehead!  Later that day, a second canvas bridge went over Pamunkey just above the first.

With the cavalry across, the engineers needed to increase the number of crossing points to move the infantry over.  But the problem at that time was most of the wood pontoon bridges were just leaving the water on the North Anna that morning.  Getting those bridges down to the Pamunkey would at best be just in time to be too late.  So Spaulding’s engineers made do with what they had, using part of the other canvas bridges:

May 28, Captain Folwell reached Mrs. Nelson’s crossing at 6 a.m., and at 7. a.m. had a canvas bridge completed across the Pamunkey at this point of 146 feet in length. Owing to the scarcity of material this bridge was built in long spans of 21 feet, the balks alternating on the gunwales, and over this seemingly frail bridge passed without accident two divisions of the Sixth Corps with their artillery.

First Battalion arrived that morning and proceeded to Nelson’s Crossing to lay the first of the wooden bridges over the river at that point.  Second battalion arrived in the afternoon and Beers directed work laying another bridge.  Before the day was done, the engineers added another wooden pontoon bridge at the Hanovertown crossing.  And in addition they placed a canvas bridge over Mattapony Creek, for a total of five placed on May 28.

Grant, Meade, and the Army of the Potomac had “bounced” the Pamunkey.  More fighting lay ahead, and more rivers to cross.  In his report covering the spring campaign, Spaulding included a table listing all the bridges built north of the James River:


Thirty-eight bridges to a total length of 6,458 feet.  And that is not counting the most important bridge of the campaign – 2,200 feet across the James. Summarizing the performance, Spaulding wrote:

…I believe the pontoon trains have been promptly on time when ordered, the bridges rapidly and skillfully built, and all other engineering operations of this command faithfully performed. Whatever credit may be awarded for this is mainly due to the energy and skill of the officers in immediate charge of the several works and to the zealous and faithful co-operation of the men under their command.

Those bridges allowed the army to reach places like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Totopotomy, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and eventually Richmond and Appomattox. Though they might not have charged any works, the men of the 50th New York Engineers were every part of that victory.

(Citations from the first half of Spaulding’s report on the Overland Campaign, OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part I, Serial 67, pages 304-316.)