With McClellan’s grand campaign design complete it was time to move up the Virginia peninsula from Fort Monroe towards the Confederate capital of Richmond. After a climactic battle there the rebellion would be crushed. The introduction of a large Army and the logistical means required to support it from the water required careful planning. The newly reinforced engineer branch would play an important part in the effort.
On 18 March, 1862 the Engineer Brigade received orders to report to Major-General Irvin McDowell near Manassas. They happily marched out of Washington, leaving behind Company H still at work in the shops, and arrived at camp by 1400. The site selected for their camp did not impress the officers or men. It was “covered with stumps and burnt timbers and rather marshy at that.” 1 To make matters worse the wagons had not come up yet and the men were forced to make the best of it out in the open. The men were drilled incessantly for the next six days including inspections by McDowell and McClellan. On the 24th McDowell started his command south with the engineers trailing. After passing some distance past they were ordered to countermarch so that they could join McClellan’s forces heading for the Virginia peninsula.
A train of box and flat cars was sent to Bristoe Station to move the brigade to Alexandria were the water transportation awaited. The 15th arriving at the station first opted for the shelter of the box cars and the bulk of the 50th huddled on the open platforms as it started to snow. The train departed at 8 p.m. but the 26 mile trip lasted until 7 a.m. the next morning. For Captain Brainerd and the men caught in the storm “the sufferings of that night were not surpassed by anything in the whole course of my military experience.”2 On their arrival the men settled into the buildings around the depot and warmed themselves as best they could. Shortly after midnight of the 26th the men boarded the steamer Louisiana for the trip down the river to Cheesman’s Landing.
For the men of Co. H of the 50th New York, who remained at Alexandria, construction duty of a greater military significance was the task. In an April 4th letter home Captain Beers described their efforts;
“I have been loading 4 barges with wagons for a bridge train and then I built a raft out of two canal boats by laying timbers 411 ft. long, 5 x 12 across and bolting them down and then covering with 3” plank. The raft is 411’ x 65’ and will be used for a sort of a wharf or dock.” 3
On April 9th a miniature convoy of four steamers with Beers men aboard and the raft in tow departed Alexandria in a snow squall. The convoy steamed not for Fort Monroe but to Wind Creek where they disembarked and set up camp. The mobile wharf was established at Ship Point and used to download troops and material. As the other troops moved off the engineers assumed duties as camp guards and begin construction of a 20 x 50 log storehouse intended for use by the Engineer Brigade. While the campaign ultimately failed the initial entry of the forces was successfully completed with the aid of Beer’s mobile wharf. Eighty-two years later the same technique was used to support the invasion of Normandy by Allied troops.
1. Bridge Building in Wartime – Colonel Wesley Brainerd’s Memoir of the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers, Edited by Ed Malles
3. Beers to Williams; April 4, 1862, Chemung County Historical Society
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