July 4th Destruction of Lee’s Pontoon Bridge

by Dan O'Connell on July 4, 2012 · 8 comments

As the battered Army of Northern Virginia made its way from Gettysburg another bit of intelligence fell into the hands of someone determined to act on it. Colonel Andrew McReynolds, commanding the cavalry brigade of MG French’s corps at Frederick, Maryland reported on the 3rd that he had;

“information, which I deem reliable, that the rebel force in the vicinity of Williamsport is very small; that a force of cavalry about one hundred and fifty strong, could, in my opinion, successfully approach to that point, and by a prompt movement, at break of day tomorrow destroy the pontoon bridge at that place, which is the only reliance of the rebels for a retreat for their infantry, artillery, and wagons in that direction.”

General French endorsed the recommendation on the afternoon of the 3rd and McReynolds put the affair under the command of Major Shadrack Foley, of the 14th Pennsylvania cavalry. Foley assembled twice the requested strength for a move that night. Departing Frederick with a mixed command of 300 troopers from the 13th and 14th Pennsylvania, 1st New York, and 6th Michigan moved quickly through the night to Falling Waters. McReynolds’ intelligence proved spot on. Foley’s column found the bridge, lightly guarded, exactly where it had reported to be. The problem was that it had been disconnected from the Maryland side and the river posed a serious obstacle to their success. The solution to their troubles came from an unexpected source. Bugler John Hetz, of the 6th Michigan, volunteered to swim the river and release the bridge so that the current would sweep it into position for the raiders to use. Taking advantage of a lack of vigilance on the part of the guards Hetz accomplished the feat. The span swung into position and the Maryland side made fast. Foley led his men across and routed the Confederate guards, capturing seventeen. The Union troopers then crossed back to the Maryland side and sent a detail “supplied with straw and turpentine set fire to it” and cut it loose to float down stream.
Lee’s bridge was gone and his army was trapped against the rising waters of the upper Potomac. The Army of Northern Virginia was saved by an incredible bit of field engineering and a sluggish pursuit by Meade’s main body forces. The extra time allowed Lee’s men to strip local buildings for lumber and fashion an expedient crossing. Foley’s raid was nonetheless a well executed use of intelligence that should have spelled the end of Lee’s forces. In an interesting sidelight another bridge destruction mission by Union cavalry reduced the opportunity to cut off Lee’s retreat. The bridges at Harper’s Ferry were destroyed by Cole’s Maryland cavalry trapping the only available Federal forces on the wrong side of the river.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Colleen Kirby April 20, 2016 at 3:18 pm

I have a picture of Major Shadrack Foley painted in the field during the Civil War. Thanks for the story. I am a descendent of his brother.

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Bev June 8, 2017 at 8:04 pm

Hi Colleen I am also a descendent. I believe his brother was also my great great grandfather also. I would love to see the picture of Shadrack. My grandfather was Charles Foley.. My name is Bev Foley Chick.

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Bev June 10, 2017 at 9:47 pm

Thanks for the story. Hope to read much more about him. I am also a descendent..

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Harry Alexander February 22, 2018 at 11:21 am

I have two, maybe 3 GG Grandfathers that were in the 14th Cav, and Lt. Col Blakely was probably a GG Uncle.

Major Foley is buried in South Side Cemetery, Pittsburgh PA, very near where I grew up.

There is a site called findagrave.com that has the Major’s grave documented. MEMORIAL ID 13281978

A copy of the picture you mention would be great and very appropriate.

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Vernon Loyer May 11, 2018 at 9:25 am

Hi Colleen. Shadrack Foley was my great great grandfather, and I have read a great deal about him and the 14th pa cavalry during the war. I would love to have a copy of this picture. Would that be possible?

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Denny McClellan January 10, 2020 at 3:34 pm

Hello Colleen,
I too am a descendant of his brother. Messick is my great great grandfather. My grandmother Jane (Foley) Garvin was Mabel Foley’s sister. I would really love Shadrack’s
picture for my Ancestry tree.

Best Regards,
Dennis McClellan

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Vernon Loyer May 14, 2018 at 6:21 pm

Hi Colleen. Shadrack was my great great grandfather. I am thrilled to see your entry. Is there any way I could get a copy of the picture you mentioned?

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Terry Pierce August 11, 2020 at 5:36 pm

Dan O’Connell: Great Blog on Major Foley and Bugler John Hetz (or Hertz). I’m interested in learning more about the destruction of Lee’s pontoon bridge on 4 July. Can you provide me any other details and/or source documents? I’m especially intereted in Bugler Hetz and his background. Are there pictures of him? Thank you, sir. Sincerely, Terry C. Pierce

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