Engineers Lead the Way
On arrival at the river the engineers found themselves alone. A glance across the Rappahannock revealed “a small fort” that was “strongly garrisoned by the Rebels.” Seeing just a small opposing force the Confederate pickets made sport of calling the over to invite the engineers to come over to enjoy the shade of some trees. The taunting stopped at 1600 when the Second division of VI Corps complete with four batteries of artillery marched over the ridge to support the bridging effort. The march must have been a leisurely one. Col. Lewis Grant, commanding second brigade of the division, stated in his report that the column left camp at shortly after noon and traveled just five miles. Nevertheless, the appearance of the Union combat troops caused the Confederates (believed to be the 48th Mississippi and 2nd Florida) to strengthen their picket line. The Federal batteries were unhitched and deployed. The serious work of crossing the river was set to begin. The lesson learned at Fredericksburg about building bridges under fire was not forgotten. The first order of business was to suppress the enemy picket line. This task was assigned to the federal guns. The artillery “poured forth their rounds of shell to keep the rebels down.” Despite the barrage the Confederate pickets managed a destructive fire into the area. The pontoon wagons were brought up to the crest of a small hill overlooking the river. There the teams were unhitched and the wagons pulled by hand to the bank. The effort was made without cover and the engineers suffered badly in these initial stages. Men began to drop almost immediately. Some of the wounded and those that remained unhurt started to look for cover in the only available location; a small depression partially filled with water. The officers had their hands full keeping the men at their task. The flat of the sword was used liberally on those deemed to be shirkers. At the Engineer Brigade site Captain Wesley Brainerd took it upon himself to clear the men from the scant cover. As he approached the depression the first person to jump up was LTC Pettes, regimental commander, who made a great show of cleaning the remaining able bodied men from the hole much to the amusement of Captain Brainerd. At the Engineer Battalion site the matter took on a deadlier air. Captain Charles E. Cross, in the midst of forcing three of his regulars back to work, was instantly killed by a bullet to the head. Despite the hearty resistance the engineers continued at their task. Eventually enough boats (10) were put into the water to begin crossing the assault force that was charged with clearing the far shore. Clearing the Bridgehead Once the boats were ready at the river the selected regiments, the 5th Vermont and 26th New Jersey, “rushed gallantly down the bank” and “with the assistance of the engineers and under a galling fire” shoved off for the far shore. Several of the boats had been repeatedly holed by the incoming rifle fire and leaked badly. Those not involved with rowing were put to work bailing with anything they could find to avoid sinking. Colonel Grant also decried the effectiveness of the covering artillery fire stating “it had but little effect.” The initial companies landed on the south bank took the initiative despite their small numbers. As the boats returned for more troops the first men ashore assaulted the rifle pits. On June 8th COL Grant sent a second dispatch revising his description of the “exciting and brilliant affair.”
“The two companies first in the works were the Rutland Company, Fifth (VT), Capt. B. R. Jennie, and the Swanton Company, Capt. Friend H. Barney, Fifth (VT). The first man in the rifle pits was Private Henry Moren, Company G. After clearing the rifle pits and sending the prisoners down the bank these two companies advanced as skirmishers and drove those who sought safety in flight across the plain into the woods. Other companies and regiments hurried over with all possible dispatch, but there were not boats enough to take them over as fast as desired.”
Additional units from the Vermont Brigade (2nd, 3rd, and 4th) were ferried across and the Confederate defenders pushed back to their main line. Confederate losses in the attack were not recorded and the number of prisoners unclear.* Estimates ranged from 80 to 280 were captured. The most concise of these reported 6 officers and 84 enlisted taken in the initial assault. The successful clearance of the rifle pits pushed the enemy away from the selected bridge location and allowed the engineers to get to work constructing the span. The 5th Vermont suffered 7 wounded for their exploit. The effort to move them across the river had cost the engineers 4 killed and 20 wounded (2 mortally). BG Henry Benham, commander of the Engineer Brigade, had dictated construction of the bridge by “rafts”, instead of the usual successive pontoons. Under this guidance the Regular Engineers constructed the rafts, comprised of three or four boats connected together at a secondary location. These were then floated into position and joined to the previous rafts by the men of the 50th/15th until they reached the other side. The uncommon practice did little to slow the construction and the bridge was quickly completed. The final regiment of the Vermont Brigade (6th) was the first to cross. Despite the success there was no effort to expand the bridgehead. Picks, spades and axes replaced firearms as a semi-circular entrenched line was formed around the bridgehead.Franklin's Crossing (Campaign Series)
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