The Folwell letters, June 29, 1863: “Co. I is rear guard of the grand army”

On June 28, 1863, Captain William W. Folwell lamented on the wait for the rear guard to cross the bridges at Edwards Ferry, as his command prepared to remove those pontoons.  June 29th found his company BEING the rear guard of the Army of the Potomac.  This was a two letter day for Folwell.  The first was posted in the morning:

Buckeys Town, Md.,

June 29th, 1863, 8 A.M.

Here I am.  Co. I is rear guard of the grand army.  We got to camp at 3 A.M. Got 3 hours good sleep and a good breakfast.  We march to Union Town.  We are well.

Just a short note. But some details that allow us to validate the movements of the engineers.  Aside from the pontoons sent back down the C&O Canal, the remainder of the detachment (parts of the Regulars and the 50th New York Engineers) was sent on a march toward Frederick, Maryland.  The march, which must have begun around mid-day on the 28th, took the detachment of engineers past Poolesville, over the Monocacy, and up to Buckeystown.

And this was the trail end of the Army of the Potomac.

Later in the day, Folwell had time to write another letter home:

Camp Engineer Brigade,

Frederick, Md.,

June 29th 1863.

I wrote you a hasty note in pencil this morning, which I mailed at Buckeystown, while marching hither.  Two miles this side of that place, we came up on the 5th Corps, which followed our trains.  I was then relieved of my duties as Provost Marshall.  I had some very active duty hurrying up some 11th Corps stragglers.  One fellow I had to handle roughly, and finally set two men with fixed bayonets to drive him on.  I was very glad to be relieved. Communication is cut off between us and Washington, the R.R. having been damaged at Mt. Airey Station some miles below here.  I presume, therefore, that said note will be slow in reaching you, as also this is likely to be.  Still, I wish to do all I can to keep you advised of my whereabouts and welfare.  We halted here at noon today, and pitched camp.  In the morning at two o’clock, we march, probably towards [Middleburg], the present H.Q. of the A.P. The news is scarce and uncertain.  Gen. Hooker is relieved and Gen. Meade is in his shoes.  It is said that both Reynolds and Sedgwick declined the appointment.  Co. I is rear guard again tomorrow, and no knapsacks will be carried.  Good Night.

Interesting, if the identification is correct, that Eleventh Corps soldiers would still be straggling on June 29.  That corps had crossed Edwards Ferry first, back on June 25.  There is, of course, a world of possibilities… to include mistaken identification.

I do find interesting that Folwell mentions a break in communications, but no problem with supply or delayed movements.  As I mentioned in the previous installment, Stuart’s cavalry moved through as a fast summer thunderstorm – there and gone.  Of course, Folwell was not getting all the news and knew nothing of the wagon train captured outside of Rockville the previous day.

At the end of the march, the engineers closed on Fifth Corps.  And the anticipated march for the following day was towards the Pipe Creek line. However, while the news of Meade’s assumption of command was correct, the rumors as to alternate commanders was not.

At this stage of the campaign, we leave the operations of the Potomac Crossing and the campaign transitions into the movements that would take the army to Gettysburg.  Folwell’s Company I was not to be in that fight.  Rather, they were placed back with their pontoons.  While not specific to my “lane” on Edwards Ferry, I’ll continue to post Folwell’s letters, so we may hear all of the engineer’s story.

(Citations from William Watts Folwell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 423-24 (pages 429-30 of scanned copy))

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.

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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))

The Folwell letters, June 26, 1863, afternoon entry: “It is an old story to see the Army cross”

Looking at the pace, progress of the crossings at Edwards Ferry, the flow of troops on June 25, 1863 was not sufficient given the critical operational situation.  The three corps which crossed that day – the Eleventh, First, and Third, in that order generally – did so with delayed progress.  Not only delays as the engineers placed a second bridge, but the units making the crossing brought their own delays… not the least of which were the additional horses brought by the Eleventh Corps.   And we see the rains, which were recorded by Captain William Folwell’s letter of the day, which caused the Third Corps much misery as the crossing and march into Maryland continued into the early morning hours.

By contrast, June 26 was a flood of men and equipment.  Although on paper, again only three corps crossed – the Twelfth, Fifth, and Second, in that order.  Add to that movement the Artillery Reserve, Army Headquarters element, and the majority of six corps worth of wagon trains.  The march must have seemed endless to any eyewitness.  And Folwell was just such an eyewitness.  Just after noon on June 26, he resumed writing a letter home, this being a post-script to a letter written the previous evening:

P.S.  June 26th, 1863, 1 P.M.

The letter I wrote last evening must lie over till tomorrow as we can only send and receive a mail on alternate days.  We get our mail at present by the little steamer packet which runs on the canal from Georgetown to this place.  To-day we have a fine misty rain, falling steadily, which keeps all of us not on duty under cover.  I have written you a short letter and would have done you a long one if the Major ([E.O.] Beers) and some of the other officers had not come in and spent a large part of the forenoon with me.  The 12th Corps had crossed this morning and the troops of another, (I think the 2nd) have just appeared on the opposite hills.  Gen. Hooker and staff came over just before noon and followed the advance of the Army.  We have yet no information as to the destination of the forces.  Gen. Hooker seemed anxious to have the wagon trains hurried up and commended on of our officers (Capt. [Martin] Van Brocklin) whom he saw moving them on. I have not been out of camp to-day.  It is an old story to see the Army cross, for me.  Bain [Lieutenant Mahlon Bainbridge Folwell] is well and full of business as both adjutant and Quartermaster of detachment.  I hope his troubles are over.  We shall know soon, for Hdqrs. left Washington yesterday and will probably reach here to-morrow.

Though just a brief addendum to the letter, there are many observations which match well into the narrative of the crossing.  The time line given by Folwell is consistent with that of the official reports. The mention of a misty rain is duly noted.  Furthermore, Hooker’s concern, clearly recorded here by Folwell, about the wagons and further delays, should receive a highlight.

On a lower level, we get a small glimpse into engineer operations during a crossing.  There is much “just wait, watch, and stand ready” for them during such a crossing.  As Folwell said, “an old story” by this point in the war.  It is significant that Beers spent time at Folwell’s tent during the morning.  I’ve always felt, based on comments by other officers, Beers was the type of leader to be at the most critical point.  And Folwell’s place, on the Maryland side of the crossing, would be that critical point –  should repairs be needed, another bridge be required, or yet another set of orders come down.

We often associate the C&O Canal with mule-drawn boats.  But steam-powered boats were operated, as the C&O Canal Association reminds us.

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Poor Mahalon, though.  His “troubles” were that of additional duties.  Presumably, those would be over when the main body of the 50th New York Engineers moved up from Washington.  A small, personal aspect of the crossing which would probably have escaped record, had we not consulted Folwell’s letters.  Later in the evening, Folwell would start a fresh new letter, offering more observations on a most active day at Edwards Ferry.

(Citations from William Watts Folwell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 420-21 (pages 426-7 of scanned copy))