From the Engineer Depot – The James River Bridge debate

Bridging the James River was a monumental task and its successful completion led to much disagreement over who was responsible for it. Both the Regular Battalion and the volunteers sought to claim the bulk of the work. LTC Spaulding, reporting for the volunteers, claims that he arrived at 8:00 a.m. on June 14, 1864 to find Captain Personius there working on the wharves. After a personal reconnaissance he determined that even with all the available material “we could not span the river without extensive timber and corduroy approaches.” He immediately put Captain Pierce to work building the timber approach on the north shore with the assistance of several hundred colored troops. At 1:00p.m. Major Beers arrived and began unloading his bridge materials. At 5:00 p.m. Major Ford’s command arrived after a twelve mile march from the Chickahominy River where he was delayed while repairing damaged boats. On the south shore of the river Co. D with a fatigue detail of 300 men began “a heavy piece of raised corduroy” across 200 feet of marsh. Simultaneously Captain McDonald began construction of the south abutment. The engineers on either shore opted to place the boats in different ways. After completing the abutment McDonald began throwing his boats by successive pontoons (individually one after another). When he had used all the wooden boats Captain Van Brocklin added his eight canvas boats to the line. As darkness fell on the northern shore Captain Personius began placing his boats into the water by rafts (three or more boats joined together). When all his wooden boats were placed he also continued his line with eight canvas boats. When all the boats were used there was still a 30 foot gap to be closed. The northern section was detached from the shore and shifted to connect with the southern shore portion. The resulting distance at the northern end was made up by “construction of additional cribs and corduroy.”  This process caused “considerable delay” but after 18 hours of intense labor by 450 men a 2200 foot bridge gave Grant the access he wanted. The bridge was opened shortly after midnight. No mention of Regular Engineer involvement is made.

In the Regular engineer version Captain George Mendell reported that the construction of the James River Bridge began at 4:00 p.m. with two companies at each end (he does not specify whose companies). The story becomes even more tangled in the Engineer Battalion history. According to Gilbert Thompson’s version the regulars marched for the bridge site at 3:00 p.m. and arrived to find “nothing had been done” toward the construction of the bridge. As an added indictment to the volunteers the following was added to the June 14th entry;

“The flooring material looked as though it had been struck by a cyclone; the boats were scattered in confusion over the low, marshy ground along the shore, and the officer of the volunteers was unable to make his men go into the mud and slime and bring the boats ashore.”

Of course in this version the regulars immediately corrected the problems and in one hour had a trestle works of 200 feet reaching water deep enough to begin boat bridging.  They were then ferried across to the opposite shore (south) to begin work there. It was only then that the volunteers were given over responsibility for the placement of the boats as they were towed in by steamers.

The truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in the middle. The volunteers and regulars both played a part. No matter how or when the men and materials arrived on site all were necessary to complete the job. The 2200 foot span was a marvel of construction given the technology of the day. The tidal flow in the James required extra mooring in the form of anchored schooners both above and below the river. The bridge was attached to these anchors using sturdy hawsers to prevent excess movement. Additionally vessels could not be restricted from moving past the span to get upriver. To facilitate this traffic a 100 foot center section was made removable. The only trouble that was experienced was when an upstream boat slipped its mooring. The resulting collision caused a break in in the bridge but it was rapidly repaired and no significant delays were caused. The James River pontoon bridge was the longest ever built by U.S. Army engineers to that point and would remain so until World War II. The monumental work remained in place until 18 June when it was dismantled by the 15th New York Engineers. In its short life this bridge allowed the 9th Corps, a division of the 6th Corps, a 50 mile long train of artillery, ambulances, and supply wagons, as well as 3000 head of cattle to cross the river. It was a noteworthy accomplishment that reflects great credit on both organizations.


One response to “From the Engineer Depot – The James River Bridge debate”

  1. Gordon Rhea Avatar
    Gordon Rhea

    Dan, I think you have confused two different bridge building events. The first event, which Spaulding attended, was the construction of a pontoon bridge across the Chickahominy, at Coles Ferry. This was to prepare the crossing for the Army of the Potomac’s wagon train. The USCT troops who helped prepare the approaches on the northern shore were from Ferrero’s division of the 9th Corps. Your second version, by Mendell, involves the bridge over the James River from Weyanoke.

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