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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville

Case of the Missing Pontoons

Fourth in a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

‘Behind the Lines,’ by Donald C. Pfanz

AT FREDERICKSBURG, military success hinged on pontoons, those ungainly 5-foot-wide, 21-foot-long wooden boats used to construct temporary, floating bridges.

When Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside took command of the Union Army of the Potomac in November 1862, he determined to shift his massive, 115,000-man force from the vicinity of Warrenton to Fredericksburg. From there, he would advance toward Richmond, following the route of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad (the modern Amtrak line), using the railroad and nearby navigable rivers to supply his army.

There was just one drawback to the plan: the Rappahannock River. As Burnside moved east, the Rappahannock broadened from a shallow stream to an unfordable river. By the time it reached Fredericksburg, it was 400 feet wide and impassable to troops. That’s where the pontoons came in. If Burnside brought his own temporary bridges, he could cross the river quickly and seize Fredericksburg before Lee could march his army down from Culpeper to stop him.

Unfortunately, the pontoon boats and other bridging material (collectively known as the “pontoon train”) had been left back at Berlin, Md., near Harpers Ferry, when the Union army crossed the Potomac River a few weeks earlier. Burnside knew this and had made arrangements through his boss, Gen. in Chief Henry Halleck, to have the bridges sent from Berlin to Washington, and thence via Aquia Creek to Fredericksburg.

If all went according to schedule, the bridges would reach the Tidewater town at the same time as Burnside's army, enabling it to cross the river without delay.

But in life, things seldom go according to schedule. When the Army of the Potomac reached Fredericksburg on Nov. 17, 1862, the bridges were not there. In fact, as Burnside would soon learn, most of them were still back at Washington, more than 50 miles away. Until they arrived, his army could do nothing.

The delay was the result of bad communication, bad planning and bad weather. The engineers in charge of the pontoon train had to float dozens of heavy boats down the C&O Canal towpath 50 miles to Washington. Once there, they had to assemble transportation for the train, then take it overland another 50 miles to Fredericksburg. A second train would go by water. The engineers had less than one week from the time they received the order to complete the job. It would be a Herculean task under the best of circumstances.

Poor communication hindered the operation from the start. It was Halleck’s job to order the pontoon train to Fredericksburg. President Abraham Lincoln had brought the general to Washington in July 1862 to provide unified leadership to the army’s war effort. “Old Brains,” however, proved to be a greater liability than an asset.

Although a good organizer and military theorist, Halleck had no aptitude for command and shunned responsibility of any kind. McClellan characterized him as “the most hopelessly stupid of all men in high position,” while Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles confided to his diary that Halleck “originates nothing ... plans nothing, suggests nothing, is good for nothing.”

In the case of the pontoons, Halleck issued orders for the pontoons to be sent to Aquia Creek, but he failed to impress upon the engineer in charge of operation the importance of speed. Having given the order, he washed his hands of the operation.

After Halleck, primary responsibility for getting the pontoon bridges to Fredericksburg on time fell to Gen. Daniel Woodbury, commander of the army’s Engineer Brigade. Woodbury received Halleck’s orders to

send a pontoon train to Aquia Creek on Nov. 12. That same day, one of Woodbury's subordinates, Maj. Ira Spaulding of the 50th New York Engineers, received an order from the Army of the Potomac directing him to ship the pontoons and bridging to Washington. The order had been written a week earlier.

After consulting Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs, Woodbury decided to send one pontoon train by land and the other by water. The water-borne train, led by Maj. J. A. Magruder, left Washington at 5 p.m., Nov. 16. Magruder lashed 48 pontoon boats together into a “raft” and towed them down the Potomac River behind a steamboat. Just below the capital, the steamer ran aground on a sandbar. Even so, Magruder and his train reached Aquia Creek on Nov. 18, just one day after Burnside’s army.

Spaulding’s train did not do so well. Before he set out, he had to secure transportation for the train, including dozens of special wagons, 270 horses and harnesses and teamsters. It all took time-lots of time. To make matters worse, when the horses arrived, Spaulding discovered that they had never been broken. Precious hours were spent assembling the harness gear and getting the horses accustomed to wearing it.

It was Nov. 19 before the land train was ready to go. Crossing the Potomac River via Long Bridge, Spaulding’s pontoon train slowly wended its way south along the Telegraph Road amid a steady rain. Fifty miles away, on the Rappahannock River, the vanguard of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was marching into Fredericksburg.

For two days, Spaulding’s train struggled south on Telegraph Road amid unrelenting rains. The heavy boats and the muddy roads made progress tortuously slow. Three days out of Washington Spaulding reached the Occoquan River, which recent rains had flooded. The major ordered his troops to unload the heavy boats and construct a bridge across the swollen stream. Another day was lost.

Spaulding was in a stew. By now, he realized that he was behind schedule and that the army was waiting for him. Rather than continue across country at his snaillike pace, he instead lashed his 58 pontoon boats together into a large raft and had a ship from Washington pull it down the Potomac River to Aquia Creek, as Magruder had done several days before. The horses and wagons continued to Aquia Creek by land, but, because they were now divested of their load, they were able to move more quickly.

Spaulding’s flotilla reached the Fredericksburg area on Nov. 24; his horses and wagons arrived by land one day later. After two weeks of fighting treacherous sandbars, muddy roads, and swollen creeks, the engineers had finally delivered the bridges. Unfortunately, they had arrived too late to do much good. The Confederate army had reached Fredericksburg five days earlier and now stood ready to contest the crossing.

Burnside’s campaign had foundered in the Virginia mud.

NEXT: Lee rushes to defend Fredericksburg

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of “Abraham Lincoln at City Point” and “Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life.”