No. 15. Report of Lieutenant Colonel Ira Spaulding, Fiftieth New York Engineers.1
HDQRS. DETACH. 50TH NEW YORK VOL. ENGINEERS,
Near Petersburg, Va., August 30, 1864.
The march across the Chickahominy and the James River, and the operations in front of Petersburg up to the assault on the enemy’s position July 30, 1864.
June 12, camped near Cold Harbor. Major Brainerd moved with two companies of his battalion to repair the roads and bridges in the direction
*For portion of report (here omitted) see Vol. XXXVI, Part I, p.303.
+For portion of report (here omitted) covering operations from May 4 to June 12, 1864, see Vol. XXXVI, Part I, p.304.
of Bottom’s Bridge, preparatory to the movement of the Second Corps. He arrived near Bottom’s Bridge at 11 p.m., having put the road and bridges on the route in good order, and there awaited the arrival of the corps. Major Beers marched with Company L to join his train near Parsley’s Mill, then in charge of Captain Palmer, leaving Company E (Captain Hine) in charge of the corps intrenching tools to march with the Sixth Corps. Major Beers joined me at Tunstall’s Station in the afternoon with two companies and his bridge train, where I had also a part of the reserve battalion, with one-third each of canvas trains Nos.4 and 5, commenced by First Lieutenant M. B. Folwell. During the night these troops and trains marched to Emmaus Church. Major Ford, being at Fifth Corps headquarters, near Baltimore Cross-Roads, sent Captains McDonald and Van Brocklin and Lieutenant Van Rensselaer to examine the roads and approaches to the Long Bridge crossing of the Chickahominy. At 4 p.m. he started with his trains; moved about four miles, and halted within half a mile of the river, having been joined on the way by the above-named officers. Reported as to the nature of the crossing were conflicting, and the enemy’s sharpshooters being in possession of the south bank, it was difficult to ascertain the facts. Members of General Warren’s staff assured Major Ford that there was but one stream of about 100 feet in width, while the officers sent by Major Ford were confident that there were two streams, with an island between. The latter opinion proved to be correct. The nature of the crossing was such that Major Ford deemed it inexpedient to use the canvas bridge, and he therefore directed Captain McDonald to move his company and wooden train to the river about dark, taking also Company D (Captain Pettes) as a guard. Arriving at the river Major Ford immediately put one of his boats in the water, and crossed the river, taking over at the same time a squad of Colonel Chapman’s dismounted cavalry. He found the stream proper about 100 feet wide, an island of about 250 feet, and a branch of the river on the south side of the island of about 60 feet in width. While crossing the second boat-load of cavalry the enemy’s pickets opened a brisk fire upon the troops and pontoniers. Captain McDonald at once put his boats in the water and commenced his bridge. The cavalry succeeded in crossing the south branch on some fallen trees, and after a contest of about twenty minutes the enemy were driven off. One man of Captain McDonald’s company (K) was wounded while at work on the bridge, and has since died. Captain Van Brocklin, having volunteered his services, crossed the river, and, assisted by Captain Pettes with a portion of his company (D), dragged three pontoons across the island and built the bridge across the south branch and the approaches. Major Ford reports that extensive swamps bordered the approaches, the river was filled with sunken piles and timber, the available passage was very narrow, the debris of the old bridge had to be cleared away, and the abutments cut down. Such was the nature of these obstacles that it required two and a-half hours’ hard work to complete the bridges. The remaining cavalry of Colonel Chapman’s command crossed at once, followed by the Fifth and Second Corps. On the morning of this day Captain Personius was at Tunstall’s Station with his company (G) and the pontoon train of the First Battalion, and Captain Middleton at White House with his company (M) and the extra pontoon train of twenty boats. I directed Captain Personius to proceed to Saint Peter’s Church, near New Kent Court-House, with his train, and Captain Middleton to report to Captain Personius at the same place with his train. From this point both these trains, under command of Captain Personius, were to accompany the supply trains of the army, and bridge the
Chickahominy at such point as might be designated for the crossing of the supply trains. The point then contemplated for this crossing was Windsor Shades. Subsequent examination by myself proved that a crossing at this point was not practicable in the face of an enemy, and exceedingly difficult if unopposed. The ground upon the northeast bank was favorable, but the deep marshes and swamps on the southwest side of the river were extensive, and could only be crossed by crib bridges and corduroy roads, requiring a vast amount of labor.
June 13, Major Brainerd marched with his command at 1 a.m. in rear of the artillery of the Second Corps. About noon he advanced to the front of the column to repair the roads, crossed the Chickahominy at Long Bridge, and, accompanying the Second Corps, arrived at Wilcox’s Landing, on the James River, at 8.30 p.m. Major Beers, with his command and trains, remained at Emmaus Church until noon awaiting the arrival of the Sixth Corps. The head of the column having then arrived within supporting distance, the trains were moved to Jones’ Bridge, on the Chickahominy. Here it was found that there were also two branches of the stream to be bridged, the island being about 800 feet wide. Lieutenant Folwell immediately built a canvas pontoon bridge over each branch of the river, and Captain Palmer also bridged both branches with wooden pontoons. The bridges over the north branch were each sixty feet in length, and those over the south branch forty feet in length each. Considerable difficulty was encountered here in removing flood wood and timber of the old permanent bridge, but the four bridges were completed in about one hour and a quarter, and the Sixth Corps commenced crossing. Major Ford’s bridges were detained in the water at Long Bridge crossing until 5.30 p.m. for the rear guard of cavalry to cross, when they were dismantled and loaded in forty-five minutes. He then marched with his command and trains with General Cutler’s division, of the Fifth Corps, arriving at Charles City Court-House soon after midnight. Captain Personius moved his command and trains to Diascond bridge and proceeded in person to examine the Chickahominy at Cole’s Ferry, the point finally selected for the crossing of the supply trains. He found the river at that point much wider than it had been supposed to be, and reported to Captain Peirce, assistant chief quartermaster, Army of the Potomac, in charge of the trains, that he had not sufficient pontoon material to bridge the river. During the afternoon his company (G) built two permanent bridges over the Diascond Creek at points where they had been destroyed.
June 14, Major Brainerd moved his command at 9 a.m. to Second Corps headquarters, and soon after was ordered to the James River, where the two companies were employed all day in repairing the wharves for the use of the Second Corps, then crossing in transports. At 11 p.m. Major Brainerd was ordered across the river to construct an additional wharf for the use of the corps, and a detail of 800 men was furnished by General Birney, but the timely arrival of six pontoon boats and bridge material from General Behman’s command, with a detachment of the Fifteenth New York Volunteer Engineers, rendered the services of the infantry unnecessary. Major Beers built a permanent bridge over each branch of the Chickahominy at Jones’, near his pontoon bridges. About 10 a.m. the troops of the Sixth Corps and Ninth Corps had crossed the river, and I had just given the orders to dismantle the bridges and proceed to Charles City Court-House, when I received your note inclosing Captain Personius’s letter to Captain Peirce, directing me to proceed on the north side of the river to Cole’s
Ferry with the pontoon trains and collect sufficient material to bridge the river. I immediately sent orders for all the pontoon trains to concentrate at Cole’s Ferry, and proceeded at once to the latter place in person. There I found that Captain Personius had arrived about 8 a.m. with his pontoon train, and had built a wharf of boats on each side of the river and a large pontoon raft, on which he was passing bearers of dispatches, small squads of cavalry, and occasionally wagons. I found also that the width of the river was such that with all our pontoon material we could not span the river without extensive timber and corduroy approaches. Captain Peirce was then making preparations to build this timber approach of about 250 feet in length on the north shore with the aid of several hundred colored troops. Major Beers arrived with his bridge material. In the mean time, and while waiting the completion of the timber approach, Captain Personius was engaged with his men in making up rafts of four boats each, with material on each for making the connection. Major Ford started from Charles City Court-House about noon, having been detained about an hour after he received the order to proceed to the Chickahominy for the purpose of repairing a couple of boats damaged at the last bridge. He had then about twelve miles to march, and reported to me at the south bank of the river at 5 p.m. This brought all the land pontoons of the army to this point, except the train of eight canvas boats, which Captain Folwell had with General Sheridan. While Captain McDonald was preparing the south abutment and building his portion of bridge by successive pontoons, Major Ford, with Company D (Captain Pettes) and a detail of 300 colored troops, laid the approach across the marsh, a heavy piece of raised corduroy about 200 feet in length. After Captain McDonald had built in all his wooden pontoons, Captain Van Brocklin followed with his eight canvas boats. About dark Captain Personius commenced putting in the bridge the rafts made from the trains on the north shore. After these had been all built in, Lieutenant Folwell followed with his train of eight canvas boats. When all the boats had been built in from each shore the bridge did not meet in the center by about thirty feet. The bridge was then detached from the north shore, connected in the center, and the approach on the north shore extended by the construction of additional cribs and corduroy. This caused considerable delay in the completion of the bridge, but it was finally ready for use about three hours after midnight. On account of the scarcity of material for the width of the river, the canvas portion of the bridge was built in long spans with a few additional balks, and though a bridge built in this way is apparently very frail, all the supply trains of the army, 2,800 head of cattle, and a division of troops crossed this bridge without delay and without accident to the bridge. The total length of the bridge was 1,240 feet, and of the timber and corduroy approaches about 450.
June 15, leaving Major Beers in command at Cole’s Ferry, I proceeded to headquarters of the army at Charles City Court-House, and thence accompanied headquarters to Fort Powhatan on the James River. Thence I sent directions to Major Beers to send all the wagons and transportation by land to the south side of the James River at Fort Powhatan in charge of Captain Dexter, with Company L and part of I as a guard, make preparations to arrange his bridge in rafts as soon as the rear guard in charge of the supply trains should have crossed the river, and bring all his bridge material around by water in tow of a steamer that would be ordered to report to him. At daylight on the
morning of this day Major Brainerd had his wharf completed on the south side of the James River at Wilcox’s Landing and transports commenced landing troops, ambulances, &c., of the Second Corps. During the day Major Brainerd was occupied in getting the wagons of his battalion across the river and at night bivouacked on the south side of the James.
June 16, Major Brainerd marched his command toward Petersburg. At 1 p.m. he received orders to join Second Corps headquarters as soon as possible. At 5 p.m., after a forced march, he reported to General Hancock while the assault was in progress on the enemy’s works in front of Petersburg. That night he bivouacked with his command near the Dunn house. Captain Dexter started from Cole’s Ferry at 3 a.m. with all the land transportation, arrived at the James River about noon, and at 5 p.m. all the wagons had crossed the river and were parked along the south bank below General Benham’s pontoon bridge, ready for loading as soon as the rafts should arrive. After the rear guard, with the supply trains, had crossed the river at Cole’s Ferry, Major Beers had the bridge dismantled, made up into rafts, and at 6.30 p.m. started down the Chickahominy in tow of the James A. Stevens. After running down about three miles the captain of the steamer deemed it unsafe to run farther during the night, not having a pilot accountant with the river, and therefore anchored for the night.
June 17, at 6.30 a.m., the fog having cleared away, the pontoon rafts in charge of Major Beers were towed down the Chickahominy and up the James to Fort Powhatan, arriving at the latter place at 4 p.m. The troops were immediately disembarked, the rafts dismantled, boats and materials loaded on the wagons parked on the top of the hill, and about 9 p.m., all the material having been loaded, the troops and trains were moved about four miles toward City Point and bivouacked for the night. Major Ford had for some weeks been to ill to walk or sit on his horse and had received a leave of absence for twenty days, when at Long Bridge, on the Chickahominy, but he did not feel disposed to leave his command until it arrived at the James River, when he turned over the command of his battalion to Captain McDonald and left for the North.
June 18, I divided the extra train of twenty boats among the First, Second, and Third Battalions, making the whole number of boats in each as follows: First battalion, fifteen boats; second battalion, fifteen boats; third battalion, fourteen boats. During the day the troops and trains moved to a point near Old Church, about two miles from City Point, where all the trains were parked and a camp established.
From the 19th of June until the 29th of July most of the pontoon trains were in camp near City Point, and all the available officers and men of this command not required for repairing and guarding the trains were occupied in front of Petersburg, making gabions and fascines, working upon forts, covered ways, roads, and bridges, about 1,200 fascines and 10,000 gabions have during that time been made by the men of this command.
On the 22nd of June Major Brainerd moved his battalion into the rifle-pits in front of the Jones house and continued with his command to act as infantry with the Second Corps until the 30th of June.
About the 10th of July I sent Captain Folwell, with his company and a canvas train of eighteen boats, to report to General Sheridan, near Light-House Point, and additional boats were ordered down from Washington to replace those sent to the Cavalry Corps. Captain Folwell
On the 10th of July all the battalions of this regiment then in the field were consolidated under my command as one detachment for engineering operations in front of Petersburg.
The new canvas trains sent from Washington have been fitted up in accordance to plans heretofore adopted for field trains and all the trains thoroughly repaired and refitted. This has involved a very large amount of labor, but the trains were never in better order for active service.
The following tabular statement shows the number and size of the pontoon trains now in my charge:
The above trains are completely furnished with tool-wagons, forgoes, supply wagons, and transportation.
On the morning of the 30th of July, at 4 a.m., my camp equipage was packed, the men under arms, and the pontoon trains all parked near general headquarters. The assault on the enemy’s works having failed, the pontoon trains were returned to their old camp near City Point, and the men went into camp.
For convenience of reference and to show the length of bridges required at the several points in any future military operation, I have prepared the following tabular statement of all the pontoon bridges built by this command during the present campaign up to July 30, 1864.*
Major J. C. DUANE,
Chief Engineer, Army of the Potomac.
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XL, Part 1 (Serial Number 80), pages 295-300 ↩