Gathering at the Potomac to Take Harpers Ferry

February 24, 1862 (Monday)

The work on General McClellan’s Peninsula plan was lagging, possibly lacking. He seemed more than content to wait indefinitely before even setting a date he would bring it to fruition. Fortunately for him, he could busy himself in other ways.

The Union line around Washington stretched south of the city, along the Potomac into western Maryland. Occupying the westernmost area were 18,000 troops under General Nathaniel Banks. It was this division that figured prominently into McClellan’s new sub-plan.

General Banks had been itching to get at Stonewall Jackson’s army in Winchester and had twice let Washington know that his division was “in condition for any service” and that the men “have a very sharp appetite for work.”1 Convinced that “the enemy was never in a feebler condition than at this time,” he had no doubt that he “could occupy Winchester and Leesburg by the 1st of March.”2

Though Banks was 18,000-strong, McClellan reinforced him with two additional brigades from General Sedgwick’s Division (formerly under Charles Stone). For the time being, thought McClellan, this operation was only to secure Harpers Ferry and the B&O Railroad line. The General-in-Chief wasn’t even sure that his army could cross the Potomac. The railroad bridge had been destroyed and he was hoping to lay a semi-permanent pontoon bridge across the water. The pontoon boats, specifically ordered by McClellan, were supposedly being shipped up the C&O Canal to arrive when Banks was ready to cross. McClellan also planned to micro-manage Banks’ crossing, set for February 26, himself.3

Before long, General Banks began gathering most of his division near Maryland Heights and Sandy Hook, opposite Harpers Ferry. The largest regiment in Banks’ Division was the 28th Pennsylvania – 1,500 troops under the command of Col. John W. Geary, a Mexican War veteran, first mayor of San Francisco, and former Territorial Governor of Kansas. Through the night until the morning of this date, Col. Geary and most of the 28th were aboard the train to Sandy Hook.4

In the short time he was there, he found time to write his wife, telling her of the previous day, when he attended the large military review in Frederick, Maryland, complete with brass bands and the reading of General George Washington’s “Farewell Address.” He sent along some money for her, closing with “Kisses for babies. Love to friends.”5

When Geary and the 28th arrived at Sandy Hook, they immediately got to work on fashioning a rope ferry to cross the Potomac. This took longer than it should have, and they lost six men attempting it. They appear to have gotten at least one man across the river, which was rising due to the “exceedingly violent” weather.

As the storm grew in intensity, Geary wisely decided that it was too “dangerous to attempt to throw troops across.” Though he could plainly see Rebel pickets posted in the hills around Bolivar, beyond the town, he would have to wait until morning to attempt another crossing. The storm raged all night.6


Union Troops Poised to take Nashville

Nashville had been given up by the Rebels without a fight. With Grant’s Army of the Tennessee just down the Cumberland River, and Buell’s Army of the Ohio moving in from Bowling Green, General Albert Sidney Johnston saw nothing else he could do but retire south to Murfreesboro.

He managed to keep the Union high command in the dark for several days, but by the previous evening, General Grant, now in Clarksville, knew the score. General Buell had dispatched the brigade of General William “Bull” Nelson to assist Grant, who quickly assimilated it into his own command, even through the protests of Nelson himself.

On the morning of this date, Grant ordered Nelson to steam up the river and take Nashville. Once established, he was to make contact with his former commander (though still technically his true commander), General Buell.7

While Nelson was cruising up the Cumberland, Buell was slowly creeping along the rails, south to the shore opposite Nashville. It was dark before he arrived, but he reported that Confederate cavalry, under Nathan Bedford Forrest, still roamed the streets of the city. Forrest, however, testified that he left Nashville the previous evening. Buell was unable to cross any of his 9,000 assembled troops because Forrest burned the railroad bridge spanning the river.8

As Buell’s men bedded down for the cold night, Nelson’s Brigade was nearing Nashville aboard river transports. Unsure whether the Rebels had truly abandoned the city, the vessels crept along through the high water, a gunboat in advance of the troop ships. By dawn, they would reach their destination.9

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p723. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 1, p530. []
  3. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p511. Geary’s Report. []
  5. Geary to his wife, February 24, 1862. Geary seems to have written this from Point of Rocks, Maryland, though he wasn’t there on this date. It could be that he was mistaken on either the date or the place. Or simply that he wrote it while en route to Sandy Hook. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p511. Geary’s Report. I also used Russel H. Beatie’s Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign for guidance, though Beatie writes that Geary’s adventure took place on the 25th. Geary himself, however, states it as the 24th, and it makes sense (due to the other dates in his report). []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p662-663. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p425 (Buell’s Report); 429 (Forrest’s Report). []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p659. Extracts from Col. J. Ammen’s Diary. []
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Gathering at the Potomac to Take Harpers Ferry by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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