Union Brigades Cross the Potomac into Harpers Ferry!

February 26, 1862 (Wednesday)

Union General George B. McClellan’s main plan, the one to steam the Army of the Potomac down the Chesapeake Bay to the Virginia Peninsula, was basically on hold while he fiddled with a sub-plan that he was trying to scale back.

The sub-plan, mostly invented by General Nathaniel Banks, was to move his division across the Potomac at Harpers Ferry and occupy Winchester, the base of operations for Stonewall Jackson. McClellan, more than happy to only take Harpers Ferry (and so control the B&O Railroad), met in the morning of this date with President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

During the chat, he told them of his plans to build a semi-permanent floating bridge constructed of canal barges. McClellan, however, wasn’t sure that it could be built. The Potomac had been flooding, its current deadly and swift. He also told them that if it truly couldn’t be built, he would oversee the rebuilding of the railroad bridge destroyed by the Rebels. This would, of course, take quite a bit of time, so it’s fair to assume that both Lincoln and Stanton were pulling for the floating bridge.1

To establish a bridgehead on the Virginia side of the river, General Banks was throwing across a makeshift pontoon bridge. The pontoons came quickly by rail, while the canal barges were being floated up the C&O Canal.

Constructing a pontoon bridge was no easy task. It was handled by some engineers and 100 men from the 3rd Wisconsin. First, they improvised an abutment on the Maryland shore, while another group rowed against the current to the other side of the Potomac to do the same. The pontoons were floated into place and planks laid over them. One after the other, this was done until it spanned the river. Due to the steady current, a rope was stretched from shore to shore, fifty feet above the bridge. A line was then run from the pontoons to the rope in order to provide greater stability.

As the bridge was finished, a short officer walked out upon it and congratulated the engineers on a job well done. This man was General McClellan, who had made the journey from Washington, arriving at one o’clock just in time to oversee the final work. While sturdy enough to carry troops, it was clear that it was temporary, as the racing Potomac bowed the bridge in nearly a semi-circle.2

McClellan was the first to cross the rickety thing. When he reached the Virginia shore, he immediately ordered two brigades to follow. As a brass band played, the General welcomed them to Harpers Ferry.3

Crossing such a pontoon bridge was only slightly less dangerous than undertaking its construction. Officers were not allowed to ride their horses, and the troops were ordered to march at the “route step” (meaning to casually walk). As a private in a Massachusetts regiment related, “the oscillation of the cadence step or trotting horse is dangerous to the stability of a bridge of any kind, much more so the seemingly frail structure of boats and timbers, put together with ropes, here described.”4

The troops were marched through the town, up into Bolivar Heights, where they made their camp. Being familiar with the ground, several companies of the 3rd Wisconsin were placed around the camp to act as pickets. Towards evening, the steel sky grew darker and dropped its cold dejections upon the Union soldiers. The rain also fell upon the Confederate scouts keeping a suspicious eye upon Banks and McClellan.5

Two additional brigades were also crossed, but even more troops, as many as 50,000, were heading towards this new Harpers Ferry crossing. Throughout the night, General McClellan stayed close to the telegraph office, wiring Washington for cavalry and to tell them the good news about the pontoon bridge.

“We will attempt the canal-boat bridge tomorrow,” wrote a triumphant McClellan. “The spirit of the troops is most excellent. They are in the mood to fight anything.”6


Rebels take Socorro, New Mexico

After a two day truce to bury the dead, Confederate General Henry Sibley and his officers were inspired by their victory over Col. Canby at Valverde, near Fort Craig, New Mexico, but were unsure what to do. Col. Canby’s force was still in Fort Craig. The Rebels had demanded the surrender of the fort and army, but Canby wisely declined. Some in the Confederate ranks wanted to storm the works, but more thoughtful mind prevailed.

They decided to move north, leaving the fort and the 3,500 Yankees inside it. Figuring out their plan, Canby sent scouts up the Rio Grande with orders for Union outposts to remove all supplies that might fall into the hands of the Rebels.

Forty miles above Fort Craig, Rebel cavalry captured the town of Socorro by lobbing a few rounds of artillery into it. The New Mexican militia, barely Unionists, quickly gave in and handed the Confederates quite a haul of provisions.

By the evening of this date, the main body of Sibley’s Confederate Army of New Mexico, 2,500-strong, marched into town. Taking over the village, the Confederate soldiers commandeered adobe houses. Their surgeons established hospitals and continued to treat the 150 wounded from the Battle of Valverde. The wounded included Capt. Willis Lang, who led the ill-fated charge of the Lancers. He would be buried in the village.7

Most of the Confederate troops figured that they would resupply and then go back to attack Fort Craig. This idea was probably bolstered by the fact that there was nothing for either the men or horses to eat. General Sibley had two choices. He could either do what his men (and probably Col. Canby) expected him to do and go back to attack the Union fort, or he could continue north. If he chose the latter, he could possibly find forage along the way, but would most definitely not run into any Union opposition.

The only formidable enemy base was Fort Union, about 200 miles away, on the other side of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, far past Albuquerque and Santa Fe, even north of Las Vegas. Fort Union only boasted several hundred Union volunteers. Their numbers, however, could be augmented.

Over the next several days, General Sibley would make up his mind.8

  1. McClellan’s Own Story by George B. McClellan. []
  2. Recollections of a Private by Warren Lee Goss, 1890. []
  3. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. []
  4. Recollections of a Private by Warren Lee Goss, 1890. []
  5. History of the Third Regiment of Wisconsin Veteran Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865 by Edwin Eustace Bryant, Higginson Book Co., 1891. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p727. []
  7. This is actually a very sad story, best told at the website FindaGrave.com. In short, according to the site: “He is buried in an unkept, derelict piece of land which was once a cemetery. It is now privately owned and visitors are not welcome. Shots have been fired. Graves have been abused and robbed.” New Mexico is apparently a very rough place. []
  8. Combined accounts from Blood & Treasure by Donald. S. Frazier and Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. []
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Union Brigades Cross the Potomac into Harpers Ferry! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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2 thoughts on “Union Brigades Cross the Potomac into Harpers Ferry!

  1. Great turn of phrase…”Towards evening, the steel sky grew darker and dropped its cold dejections upon the Union soldiers.”



    1. Living in Seattle, we have to think of many different ways to say “it’s cloudy and raining.” I’m just practicing. 🙂

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