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At Ease: Waiting for Pontoon Bridges


Pontoon Bridges

We've chatted about river fords in the past, and today we're highlighting accounts about those moveable bridges. The Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 was the first riverine crossing under fire in U.S. History and pontoon bridges are a big part of the story. You'll find some sources about pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg and a mention of the floating bridges at Po River during the battle near Spotsylvania. We hope you'll enjoy this extra history in your inbox!

 

Your Answers...

In response to the question "In your opinion, what was the best pontoon bridge crossing of the Civil War?" here are your answers! There's a tie for the crossing during the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Crossing of the James River toward the end of the Overland Campaign. Also mentions of the Confederates crossing of the Potomac after Gettysburg and the Union crossing at Germanna Ford on the Rapidan at the start of the Overland Campaign.


 

Fredericksburg: The Lower Crossing

While the Upper and Middle pontoon crossings during the Battle of Fredericksburg are probably the most famous since the Union troops had to fight their way across the river, it's definitely worth looking at what happened at the Lower Crossing. It's sometimes called Franklin's Crossing since General William Franklin's Left Grand Division (I and VI Corps) moved across the Rappahannock River at this point. Our newest video highlights excerpts about the pontoon bridge crossing from General Franklin's official report:


 

7th Michigan & The Upper Crossing

The following excerpts from Colonel Norman J. Hall's battle report in the official records detail the fight of the 7th Michigan across the river to help place the pontoon bridge at the upper crossing on December 11, 1862, at Fredericksburg: "The bridges were not being advanced on account of the deadly fire of the enemy's sharpshooters, posted behind buildings and in cellars and rifle-pits along the opposite bank. Two regiments were deployed (the Seventh Michigan and Nineteenth Massachusetts Volunteers) along the bank of the river to cover the bridge builders by their fire as skirmishers, but afterwards withdrew them, to enable the batteries to fire shell. After some hours of delay, Generals Hunt and Woodbury consulted with me upon the practicability of crossing troops in boats, and storming the strong points occupied by the enemy, so as to protect the heads of the pontoon bridges, of which but one had progressed to any extent. It was arranged that, under cover of a heavy artillery fire, the engineers should place boats at intervals along the bank, and provide men to row and steer them. Lieutenant-Colonel Baxter, commanding the Seventh Michigan Volunteers, was informed of the plan and his regiment volunteered to be crossed and storm the town as proposed.... The...regiment deployed, and took post along the bank... At a signal, the batteries opened their fire, and continued with great rapidity for over half an hour, the engineer troops failing to perform their part, running away from the boats at the first fire from the enemy and seeking shelter. No prospect appearing of better, I stated to Colonel Baxter that I saw no hopes of effecting the crossing, unless he could man the oars, place the boats, and push across unassisted. I confess I felt apprehensions of disaster in this attempt, as, without experience in the management of boats, the shore might not reached promptly, if at all, and the party lost. Colonel Baxter promptly accepted the new conditions, and proceeded immediately to arrange the boats, some of which had to be carried to the water... The boats pushed gallantly across under a sharp fire. While in the boats, 1 man was killed and Lieutenant-Colonel Baxter and several men were wounded. The party, which numbered from 60 to 70 men, formed under the bank and rush upon the first street, attacked the enemy, and, in the space of a few minutes, 31 prisoners were captured and a secure lodgment effected...."


This map shows the Upper, Middle, and Lower Crossings at Fredericksburg in December 1862.

 

Attack The Pontoons at Po River

On May 10, 1864, during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the Union II Corps placed pontoon bridges across the Po River, but when they purposely withdrew on the following day, the Confederates pressed attacks to the river and believed they had won a significant victory. "General Heth published a congratulatory order to his troops, indorsed by General Hill and General Lee, praising them for driving [the Union troops] from...intrenched lines." (Official Records) CVBT has preserved 40 acres along Po River! Learn more here: https://www.cvbt.org/po-river

Po River, CVBT.

 

Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.

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