One of the key elements of the Union battle plan at Fredericksburg Virginia in late 1862 was the timely arrival of pontoon bridge building material that would enable Federal forces to cross the Rappahannock River before the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee could arrive and fortify the town and contest the crossings. But the pontoons arrived late and Lee was able to set up his defenses before the Union Army could cross the river.
Major General Ambrose Burnside, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, decided to launch an attack on Fredericksburg anyway. That meant the pontoon bridges had to be built and deployed despite enemy fire. That task would be done by the Volunteer Engineer Brigade and a battalion of Regular U.S. Army engineers.
The Volunteer Engineer Brigade consisted of the 15th and 50th New York Engineers. On December 11th, 1862, the 15th Engineers and the regular army engineers built two bridges about a mile south of town, and faced relatively light opposition. The 50th New York had the more difficult job of building three bridges in two locations at the more heavily defended town itself. The engineers were repeatedly under fire from General William Barksdale’s Confederate infantrymen. The riflemen would drive the New Yorkers off the bridges, Union artillery would shell the Confederate positions, the engineers would return to work only to be again driven back by musket fire. Finally, the Federals sent some infantry regiments across the river in boats to deal with Barksdale’s Rebels. The attack was successful and the Confederates withdrew back from the river, enabling the engineers to finish the bridge building.
Major Ira Spaulding was in command of the 50th New York Engineers, and filed this report on the construction of the pontoon bridges:
WHITE OAK CHURCH, VA.,
December 12, 1862.
GENERAL: I have the honor to report that, in compliance with your orders, I moved three pontoon bridge trains to the Rappahannock on the night of the 10th instant, and at about 3 o’clock on the morning of the 11th we commenced laying the three bridges at the points designated opposite Fredericksburg: one being located opposite the docks, near the lower end of the town, and two at the rope ferry, about opposite the center of the town. The lower bridge was under the immediate superintendence of Captain McDonald, and the two upper bridges under Captains Brainerd and Ford, respectively.
At about 6 a.m., when one of the upper bridges and the lower bridge were two-thirds completed, and the other about one-fourth built, the enemy opened a galling fire upon us at the upper bridges, from the houses near the shore and from behind walls and fences, killing 1 captain and 2 men, and wounding several others. One bridge had approached so near the south shore that the men at work upon it were within 80 yards of the enemy, who were under cover, while the infantry supporting us on the flanks were at long range, and could do little damage to the enemy. My men were working without arms; had no means of returning the enemy’s fire, and were driven from the work.
We made two more unsuccessful attempts to complete this bridge, and were each time driven back with considerable loss in killed and wounded. At the first attempt, Captain Brainerd was severely wounded and removed to the hospital. During one of the intermissions between these several attempts to complete the bridge, a detachment of 80 men, volunteers, as I understood, from infantry regiments, came down to assist us in completing the bridge, but upon their arrival near the shore they could not be induced to enter the boats or go out on the bridge.
At about 3 p.m., it having been determined to throw a force of infantry across the river, to dislodge the enemy, I detailed men to set them across the river in pontoon boats, and Lieutenant Robbins, of Company A, by your orders, took command of the first boat. As soon as a sufficient number of troops had landed on the opposite shore, they formed under cover of the bank, attacked the enemy, and, in a few minutes, drove them from their positions. When the attack commenced, we resumed the construction of the bridge, and, with the assistance of a detachment from the Fifteenth Regiment New York State Volunteer Engineers, in about forty minutes the bridge was completed to the opposite shore, and troops commenced crossing.
While all this was being done at the upper bridge, similar operations were going on at the lower. In the early part of the morning, I had divided my time between the upper and lower bridges; but, after the attack commenced at the upper crossing, I could not leave it, and Captain McDonald remained in command at the lower bridge, until he was wounded and conveyed to the hospital, when Lieutenant McGrath assumed command.
Soon after the enemy commenced the attack upon us at the upper crossing, they also opened fire upon our men at the lower bridge, with results similar to those at the upper bridge. Here we also lost heavily in killed and wounded.
After four unsuccessful attempts to complete this bridge, a detachment of the Fifteenth New York State Volunteer Engineers, and of a regiment of infantry, as I am informed, were sent across the river in pontoon boats, where they formed, drove the enemy from his position, and took quite a number of prisoners. A detachment from the Fifteenth New York State Volunteer Engineers also assisted Lieutenant McGrath to complete this bridge.
Our loss is as follows: Commissioned officers killed, 1; wounded, 2; total, 3. Non-commissioned officers and privates killed, 6; wounded, 27; total, 33. Total, killed and wounded, 36. Official report of the killed and wounded shall be forwarded as soon as received.
The bearing of all the officers whose conduct came under my notice, was deserving of commendation. To Captains Brainerd, Ford, and McDonald I am much indebted for the efficient manner in which they prepared their trains, conducted them to their positions, and performed their work; and also for their cool and resolute bearing under the fire of the enemy. I desire particularly to commend Lieutenant Robbins for his zeal and daring, for his coolness in conducting the first detachment of troops to the opposite shore, and for his judgment in carrying out your orders for posting them until they formed for the attack. My acting quartermaster, Lieutenant Falley, notwithstanding the fact that he is at present necessarily relieved from duty in his company, and notwithstanding the large amount of labor he is required to perform in his department, was most pressing in his request to be allowed to join his company for duty upon this occasion, to which I assented, and he rendered most excellent service. Lieutenant Palmer also was very cool and efficient in the discharge of his duties. Captain Perkins was a brave and an efficient officer, and the service suffers a great loss in his death.
Some of the non-commissioned officers and privates showed the effects which are usually produced upon unarmed men placed for the first time under a heavy fire, and without the means of repelling the attack. They were panic-stricken, and it was difficult to make them join in the repeated attempts to complete the bridges; the conduct and bearing of many of them, however, was deserving of especial praise. Some of the privates deserve to occupy the places now held by unworthy men as non-commissioned officers, and when I receive the official reports of commandants of companies, I shall be happy to bring the names of these men to your favorable notice. I am under many obligations to the officers and men of the Fifteenth Regiment New York State Volunteer Engineers, for the able and timely services rendered us in completing the bridges at both crossings.
I have not yet received Lieutenant McGrath’s official report of operations at the lower bridges. As soon as it is received I will forward it. He speaks in high terms of the conduct of Lieutenants Dexter and Van Rensselaer, and also of many of his men; others were panic-stricken, and by their conduct rendered themselves worse than useless. After the attack commenced at the upper crossing, all our efforts were directed toward the completion of the second bridge at this crossing. All of my spare pontoons then in the river had been left on the lower side of the bridge first built, and I therefore deemed it best to build the second bridge on the lower instead of the upper side, where it had been originally commenced. At 3 o’clock the next morning we commenced its construction, and at 6.30 o’clock it was ready for the passage of troops of either arm of the service. Many of the boats were so much damaged by the shot of the enemy that it was difficult to keep them afloat, but they have all been repaired or replaced, so that the bridges are now in good condition.
Major, Commanding Detachment.
General D. P. WOODBURY,
Commanding Engineer Brigade.
After the Army of the Potomac was defeated in the Battle of Fredericksburg, the engineers had to remove the pontoon bridges. In another report, Spaulding described how that was accomplished:
NEAR FREDERICKSBURG, VA.,
December 17, 1862.
GENERAL: In pursuance of orders received from you on the morning of the 16th instant, I detailed one company of my detachment, under command of Lieutenant Van Rensselaer, to proceed to the pontoon bridge below and near the railway crossing, for the purpose of removing the bridge when the troops had all crossed, and my instructions to Lieutenant Van Rensselaer were that he would receive his orders from you, and that he should do nothing toward dismantling the bridge until he should receive your orders to do so. Beyond this, I had nothing to do with dismantling the lower bridge. This company left camp, I think, about 4 o’clock in the morning. About the same time 1 left camp with the balance of my available force, and proceeded to the two upper pontoon bridges at the ferry, crossing opposite Fredericksburg, to carry out your instructions for dismantling those bridges. My instructions from you were, that after most of the army had crossed to this side, and when it was evident that the numbers still to cross could be sufficiently accommodated by one bridge, I was to dismantle the lower one of these two bridges, and take it down in rafts to the north shore behind the island, leaving the upper bridge until the rear guard had passed, then dismantle that, and take it to the same point, bringing the stragglers over in pontoon boats, and that I would receive no orders to dismantle these bridges, but must depend upon my own judgment. In compliance with these instructions, I waited until I ascertained from artillery officers that the last battery had crossed, and I was assured by them that there were but a few regiments of infantry on the other aide. As I had been informed by Captain Bowers that you would be at the Lacy house, and that I could communicate with you there, I sent Sergeant Pieltz to say to you that the artillery had all crossed to this side; that the numbers of infantry then crossing were very small, probably not more than 50 to 100 being on the bridges at one time, and not one-quarter as many as could be accommodated by one bridge; but that, as I still had no means of knowing how many troops were on the other side, I did not like to take the responsibility of taking up one of the bridges without orders, and asked for instructions.
Sergeant Pielty returned with the information that he could not find you at the Lacy house. I waited about half an hour longer, and I then sent Lieutenant Robbins to the Lacy house with a message similar to the one sent by Sergeant Pielty, and he returned with the same answer–that he could not find you. Finding the number of troops crossing still continued to be small, I then gave orders to dismantle the lower bridge. In a few minutes it was separated in five rafts, and four of them started down the river, the fifth raft being delayed by the boats near the north shore resting on the ground. About ten minutes after the rafts had started down the river, an aide of General Butterfield rode up, saying that General Hooker was very much dissatisfied with the removal of the bridge, and that he ordered it to be immediately replaced. I stated to him that I feared it would take an hour and a half or two hours to rebuild the bridge; but, as he said that General Hooker’s order was imperative, I gave the order for the return of the rafts and reconstruction of the bridge, sending, at the same time, a message to General Hooker, stating the length of time I thought it would require to rebuild the bridge. The rafts were brought back much sooner than I supposed they could be, and, placing an additional boat near the north shore, the operations were so much facilitated that in twenty five minutes from the time I received General Hooker’s order the bridge was again ready for use. Just as it was completed, Lieutenant Van Brocklin returned with a message from General Hooker, to the effect that, if it would take an hour and a half to restore the bridge, I need not go on with it. I sent him immediately back to General Hooker, to notify him that the bridge was already replaced, ready for use. During the time there was but one bridge for the passage of troops. There was, for about ten or fifteen minutes, some delay on the bridge, owing to the slowness of the men in marching up the bank; but at no time was the column on the other side any larger than one bridge could accommodate, if they had passed off at the north end as rapidly as they crossed the bridge.
At about 8.45 a.m. you gave the order to Captain Ford to turn the column across the upper bridge and dismantle the lower one, and in ten minutes the rafts were passing down the stream. About twenty minutes after this, I received from you the order to dismantle the upper bridge. This I did by detaching it from the south shore, and swinging the south end down stream, to avoid the rocks, then separating it in the center, and taking it down the river in two rafts and two single boats, dismantled on the north end, on account of their being aground. The rafts were taken to the north shore, near the old suspension bridge piers, dismantled, all the materials carried on shore, and the boats hauled out of the water. There the pontoons and other bridge materials were left, in accordance with your instructions, and, at 10 a.m., I sent my men to camp.
There are still left on the bank of the river, near the north approach of these bridges, two army wagons loaded with chests, one tool wagon, and a small quantity of bridge material on the ground.
The lower bridge, in charge of Lieutenant Van Rensselaer, was disconnected at the south end and swung around the north shore, but was not dismantled.
Major Fiftieth New York Engineers, Commanding Detachment.
General D. P. WOODBURY,
Commanding Engineer Brigade.
Spaulding and the 50th New York Engineers had served since the fall of 1861, and continued to support the Army of the Potomac in all its campaigns until the end of the war. During the nine month siege of Petersburg, the men of the 50th had some time to construct a pretty substantial camp with buildings of better quality than the average regiment had, including a church with an impressive steeple. They were, after all, engineers, and had a reputation to uphold.
Spaulding posed for this image outside this interesting building that served as his quarters at Petersburg. The outside is covered with pine boughs, and the engineers insignia, also made of pine boughs, can be seen above the doors.
Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick Dyer
The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock
by Francis Augustin O’Reilly
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XXI.