Robert E. Lee’s skillful use of Virginia’s rivers made the Chancellorsville Campaign heavily dependent on the Union engineers. Any actions Hooker planned against The Army of Northern Virginia had to be proceeded by the crossing of the Rappahannock River. Because of their prominent role the engineers, like at Fredericksburg, drew the first criticism.
No sooner had the first bridge been laid down than BG Benham, commander of the Engineer Brigade, received this terse message from Hooker’s Headquarters.
“…desires to know why these orders were not complied with and these bridges laid at the hour specified.”
Benham’s lengthy reply underlines the growing pains of an army that was learning combined arms operations on the fly. His written order gave him authority to lay four bridges “under the supervision of Gen Benham, who is charged with the responsibility thereof.” In his way of thinking this order gave him overall command at the bridge sites. However when his men and equipment arrived, on time, at the appointed places he found that all of the agreements made with the leaders to be supported were much easier to make than they were to implement. Under the plan, as he believed it to be understood by everyone involved, Sedgwick’s command was to supply hauling details and a landing party for the construction of the bridges. The boats had been moved by teams to a camouflaged position near the launch site and were to be hauled to the river manually, to avoid detection by Sedgwick’s men. While everything went smoothly to this point the security force that was to be ferried across the river by engineers in the first boats was nowhere to be found. The lessons learned at Fredericksburg had not been forgotten and Benham would not begin until the far bank was secure. When he confronted Gen Russell with his authority to command the stubborn general twice refused to cede his authority and refused to obey Benham. Benham placed Russell under arrest and went off in search of an officers that would direct the landing parties into the boats. It took until daybreak before the bridgehead was finally established and the bridges laid. Benham reported the two bridges here as complete at “7:15 o’clock” a full three hours and forty-five minutes later than the 0330 time ordered by Hooker. A third bridge, using the pontoons that served as ferry boats for the crossing parties, was begun and completed three hours later.
Benham then went to the lower crossing site and found the situation there, equally, if not more, confused. Rebel fire had “prevented the troops from entering the boats to cross, and, of course, the bridges could not be laid as projected.” Scanning the Confederate position with an eyeglass Benham concluded “I doubt if there are 50 men there…” turning to General Reynolds he pointed out that “You have 15,000.” His pride properly spanked, Reynolds ordered the men forward and the crossing was made. The bridges were started shortly thereafter and both completed by noon. The chance of crossing under the cover of darkness had been given away.
The men that actually did the construction of the bridges had undergone their share of tribulations as well. The approaches to Bank’s Ford had to be cleared by cutting stumps out with hand saws to keep from alerting Confederate pickets. Before they could lay the bridge they were ordered to move to US Ford. The seven mile trip proved most difficult. Sears describes it this way in his wonderful account of the battle:
“The road was little more than a track through the woods, narrow and twisting, and pioneers had to clear trees so the cumbersome pontoon wagons could negotiate the sharpest turns.”
To compound the difficulty of the move it began to rain. Teams had to be doubled to pull the heavy wagons through the mud. One particularly bad spot actually had to be bridged so the train could pass. It took 15 hours of back breaking labor just to get the train to its new launch site. The weary engineers found that the approaches still had to be cleared before they could begin to lay their bridges. It was not until early afternoon that they could begin launching their boats. The first bridge was complete in two hours. The second bridge created a new set of problems to overcome. The 50th had been issued the new Waterman style bridge equipment and were not fully trained in its use. The inventor of the system was on hand to supply technical advice but the work was slow.
According to Sears:
“Each of the Waterman pontoons had to be assembled out of forty pieces, and then linked together with long iron rods. Finally balks, or stringers, and the planking had to be bolted down.”
When complete the bridge proved too short and the remainder had to be fabricated from parts and pieces left over from the construction of the first bridge. The second bridge did not open until after 8 p.m.
Some of the bridges were laid, taken up, transported, and then laid again. So intent on defending his men was Benham he included two detailed graphs showing the times and types of bridges laid and recovered during the campaign.
One thing that can be said about the actions of the 1700 engineers that accompanied Hooker on his scheme of maneuver. The action could not have started without them and without their handiwork the survivors of the campaign would not have been saved.
Second most important death at Chancellorsville
As darkness fell on the Confederate attack on the Federal XI Corps “Stonewall” Jackson decided to continue the assault. He wanted to exploit his success by finding a route to the Union rear to deny access to United States Ford. He ordered Major General A. P. Hill to cut them off from the river crossing by pressing forward the attack. Possession of the crossing would isolate the badly beaten enemy on the south side of the river.
Unfortunately, Hill had little personal knowledge of the terrain around the area of the proposed attack. Jackson alleviated the problem by assigning Captain James Boswell, his chief engineer officer, who was well acquainted with all the local roadways, to Hill. Hill along with members of his staff and Boswell, rode off to reconnoiter Union lines. An impatient Jackson, however, decided that a personal reconnaissance forward of the Confederate lines was also in order. Jackson wanted intelligence on the terrain and Union positions and felt only a personal reconnaissance would do.
The general and his staff got close enough to the Union lines to hear them using axes to fell trees for abatis and breastworks. Jackson was satisfied that the enemy was prepared to stay on the south side of the river and determined to proceed with the attack. As Jackson and entourage returned, Confederate infantrymen, mistaking them for Union troopers fired on them. In this most famous Civil War incident of fratricide, Jackson received serious wounds that would eventually kill him.
Hill and his reconnaissance was also in the same area as Jackson. The volley that struck down Jackson also hit Captain Boswell who died immediately with two rounds in his chest. In his coat pocket was his notebook containing sketches of key terrain made prior to the start of the campaign. Gone was not only the bloodstained notebook but his knowledge of the area. With Hill also wounded BG Robert Rodes took over command of the division while J.E.B. Stuart took over Corps command. With the chain of command broken through casualties, the loss of engineer Boswell was another serious misfortune. Boswell knew of Jackson’s plan, the terrain, and the intended routes.
With nothing to guide his actions J. E. B. Stuart decided to suspend the attack until the next morning partly because Boswell who was to have guided his movement was dead. Losing Boswell meant that no one at the front of the Second Corps or Hill’s division understood the true nature of Jackson’s intent or where it should be directed. The wait proved costly as the Union army made good its escape.