Company A, U.S. Engineer Battalion, June 1864: “…one of the most brilliant scenes of the war.”
Written By: Donald McConnell & Gustav Person
In March 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had been promoted and brought east to command all the Union armies and, ultimately, to win the Civil War. His main opponents were General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. What became known as the Overland campaign began on 4 May when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River west of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Over the next forty-five days Union and Rebel forces marched and fought with little rest. Stalemated at almost every turn, Grant continually sidestepped around Lee’s right flank as the forces moved south until the two armies came to rest and dug in at Cold Harbor. Grant changed his strategy thereafter by marching across the Chickahominy River, crossing the James River unopposed, and attempting to seize the Confederate transportation and commercial hub at Petersburg on the Appomattox River by a coup de main. By seizing Petersburg, Grant attempted to cut off Lee’s supply lines into Richmond, forcing him to evacuate his defensive lines around that city. He could then defeat Lee on open ground of his own choosing.
This article is divided into two parts. The first part examines the operations of Company A, U.S. Engineer Battalion during the campaign, and especially its actions on 14 June 1864 when the Engineer Battalion and the Volunteer Engineer Brigade erected the ponton bridge (often called a pontoon bridge) across the James River, which still holds the world’s record for the longest temporary military bridge. The second part examines the demographics of this unit, based on an extensive study of the relevant regimental returns, muster rolls, and service and pension records of every officer and enlisted man assigned to the company on those hectic June days. It is a remarkable human interest story of an outstanding combat support unit in the fourth year of the Civil War.
Part I – The Overland Campaign
Company A was originally formed as the Company of Sappers and Miners at the beginning of the Mexican War by an Act of Congress on 16 May 1846. The company had an authorized strength of 150 engineers and was organized at West Point. Shortly after its organization, the Army was ordered to Mexico; it sailed from New York that September. The unit rendered distinguished service in the Mexican War, serving in Major General Winfield Scott’s campaign to capture Mexico City. It not only engaged in reconnoitering and the construction of fortifications and battery positions, but also served as infantry in storming parties that assaulted Mexican positions at Molina Del Rey and Chapultepec.
The Company of Sapper and Miners returned to West Point, by way of New Orleans in June 1848. It left West Point en route to Utah for the Mormon Expedition on 31 March 1858. The duties of the company involved cutting roads and building bridges. The unit then returned to West Point that October. Detachments were sent to the West Coast that year and again during the spring of 1861. The company traveled to Washington, DC, in January 1861 to guard the public buildings, stores, and arsenals during the secessionist crisis. It also formed part of the escort for President Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration. Thereafter, the company served at Fort Pickens, Florida, until October 1861, when it returned to West Point, and then again to Washington, DC.
By an Act of Congress passed 3 August 1861, the company was expanded into a battalion of four companies and the original unit was redesignated Company A. Although the official name adopted was the Battalion of Sappers, Miners and Pontoniers, it continued to be popularly known as the U.S. Engineer Battalion in most orders and correspondence. Battalion strength was authorized at 600 officers and men. Company B was recruited in Portland, Maine, and Company C in Boston. By 1 July 1862, however, the battalion only numbered 276 men on the rolls. That November, Company D, which was organized from drafts from the other three companies, joined the battalion, but all the companies remained short of men until the War Department authorized Regular Army units to recruit from volunteer regiments in October 1862.
In the autumn of 1861, the Engineer Battalion became the nucleus for the newly organized Volunteer Engineer Brigade of the Army of the Potomac. That past summer, the 15th and 50th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments had been raised in New York City and upstate New York, respectively. By October, both had been converted to engineers and added to the brigade at the behest of Major General George B. McClellan, commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, who had served as a young officer in the regular engineer company during the Mexican War.
The Engineer Brigade rendered distinguished service during the Peninsula campaign in the spring of 1862, building bridges and fortifications and cutting roads toward Richmond. At Fredericksburg that December, they erected ponton bridges under heavy fire that enabled the Army of the Potomac to cross the Rappahannock River. During the Chancellorsville campaign of April-May 1863, they constructed fifteen ponton bridges in nine days. After the Gettysburg campaign in July 1863 and Mine Run campaign in November-December of the same year, the U.S. Engineer Battalion settled into its winter camp at Brandy Station, Virginia.
In the closing stages of the Overland campaign, after several weeks of marching and fighting with little rest, the opposing armies were stalemated east of Richmond around Cold Harbor in early June 1864. With Grant’s plan to capture Petersburg in hand, the regular engineers, in full marching order, left their camp on 12 June, and crossed the Chickahominy River on a ponton bridge erected by the 50th New York Engineers at Jones Bridge. On the far side, the regular engineers awaited the passage of the VI Corps, and then marched to Charles City Court House, where they made camp and received replacement uniforms and rations.
Preceding the rest of the army, the regular engineers arrived at Weyanoke Point on the James River around 1400 on 14 June after an arduous march. The James was a navigable tidal river that rose and receded about four feet every day. The depth at midstream was about ninety feet (fifteen fathoms). Grant noted that the movement of the army from “…Cold Harbor to the James River has been made with great celerity, and so far without loss or accident.” Pending the arrival of extensive bridge-building materials towed upriver from Fortress Monroe, the regular engineers, led by their noncommissioned officers (NCOs), waded into the slimy, muddy water, which was almost up to the neck. In about an hour, the engineers succeeded in building an abutment of trestle work some 150 feet long through the soft marshes and reaching into the deep water. This was arguably the hardest part of the entire project. They then began assembling the pontoon bridge with two companies on each bank. Concurrently, the infantry of three army corps began ferrying across the river further upstream at Wilcox’s Landing. Construction of the bridge began around 1600 and took seven hours to complete. The bridge stretched 2,170 feet between both banks and incorporated 101 ponton boats. The engineers secured three schooners above and below the bridge to anchor it, and a draw of 100 feet was constructed in the center to be moved in and out with the current to allow passage of vessels up and downstream. The James River Squadron, under the command of Acting Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, guarded the river from Confederate gunboats reported upriver near Richmond.
The infantry of the Army of the Potomac, and the army’s trains that stretched for fifty miles, arrived in a bridgehead around the ferry and bridge sites after a hot, dusty march of twenty-five miles from Cold Harbor that began on the morning of 13 June. The troops were later impressed by the greenery on the banks of the James and their morale soared after two weeks in the fetid trenches around Cold Harbor. Lee had been completely fooled by Grant’s march, believing that the Union army still planned to assault Richmond on the north side of the James.
The bridge was in operation for forty-six hours until 17 June. All of the Army of the Potomac’s artillery, cavalry, and trains, plus a herd of 3,000 cattle, crossed without incident or loss of a single wagon or piece of artillery. It was, as the special correspondent of the New York Times reported, “…one of the most brilliant scenes of the war.” The V Corps chief of artillery, Colonel Charles Wainwright, was also impressed with the bridge, adding that it was “really a wonderful piece of pontooning [sic], equal I suspect to anything of the sort ever done before.” He found it to be “very steady in crossing, nor has there been the slightest trouble as far as I can learn.” Following its disassembly, the bridge components were towed upriver to the Union logistical installation at City Point.
Meanwhile, the assault on Petersburg in the early evening of 15 June was initially successful. The attack by Major William F. “Baldy Smith’s XVIII Corps cracked open a mile of the Confederate Dimmock Line defenses east of the city and captured eight battery positions. However, an untimely halt in the operation plus the arrival of a division from the Army of Northern Virginia, coupled with the approaching darkness, allowed the Confederates to seal the breach. Three days later, the Army of the Potomac settled down to a siege of Petersburg for the next nine months.
While the crossing proceeded, the Engineer Battalion moved out of the bridgehead on 16 June on an eighteen-mile march that took them closer to the new siege lines. In the following weeks, personnel engaged in reconnoitering and surveying the enemy lines, building gun batteries and fortifications, and engaging in other duties. Camps changed frequently as the battalion supported the army’s efforts to extend the siege lines to the west. Undoubtedly, the construction of the James River bridge had been the Engineer Battalion’s finest achievement, and 14 June was the unit’s best day in the war.
Part II – The Company
When Congress created the Engineer Battalion in August 1861, it failed to make provisions for a command and staff element. Consequently, command of the battalion usually fell to the senior officer; in June 1864 this was Captain George H. Mendell, who also commanded Company B. Mendell graduated in the United States Military Academy (USMA) class of 1852. He was later promoted to major on 15 August 1864. Mendell also received a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel on that date for distinguished service during the Overland campaign. He retired from the Army as a colonel in 1895. The regimental return for June 1864 listed Sergeant George Lovejoy from Company C as the acting battalion sergeant major. Throughout most of June 1864, only five officers were assigned to the battalion, and because these officers were often employed on detached engineer duties, the four companies were usually operationally commanded by NCOs.
During the campaign, First Lieutenant William H. H. Benyaurd, commander of Company A, also served as battalion adjutant. Benyaurd, a native of Pennsylvania, graduated from USMA in June 1863. He had commanded Company C before taking over Company A on 10 June 1864 from First Lieutenant Ranald S. Mackenzie; First Lieutenant George C. Gillespie then assumed command of Company C. Mackenzie, an 1862 graduate of USMA, left the battalion in July to assume the colonelcy of the 2d Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery. Mackenzie would serve with distinction throughout the war, receiving seven brevets for gallantry and meritorious service. Gillespie was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry at Bethesda Church near Cold Harbor on 31 May 1864. He subsequently served as Chief of Engineers at the turn of the twentieth century.
Benyaurd received a brevet promotion to captain on 1 August 1864 for meritorious service during the Overland campaign, but did not receive his substantive promotion to that rank until 1 May 1866. In 1897, Benyaurd was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry and meritorious service at the Battle of Five Forks, Virginia on 1 April 1865 at the beginning of the Appomattox campaign. After the war, he taught engineering at USMA for three years, and later performed river and harbor work until retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1890.
During the war, Company A experienced three significant changes in strength. In July 1862, the company lost twenty-two men on transfer to the other companies in the battalion. Then, in late October 1862, the company received a total of sixty-one soldiers from various state volunteer infantry regiments. Finally, in February 1864, at Brandy Station, thirty soldiers reenlisted en masse.
By the end of May 1864, as the armies approached Cold Harbor, unit returns indicated that Company A was effectively at half-strength. The aggregate strength was 106 enlisted men and one officer (Lieutenant Mackenzie), but only eighty-four were present for duty. Daily duty in the field and sick men being treated locally further cut the company available for duty strength to just seventy-eight.
A comparison of strength for Company A was as follows:
| Aggregate Strength
31 May 1864
| Available for Duty
31 May 1864
|10 Sergeants||7 Sergeants||4 Sergeants|
|10 Corporals||5 Corporals||3 Corporals|
|2 Musicians||2 Musicians||2 Musicians|
|64 Artificers||41 Artificers||34 Artificers|
|64 Privates||51 Privates||35 Privates (Second Class)|
|Total: 150 men||Total: 106 men||Total: 78 men|
A fifth sergeant, Peter Schlag, was present for duty, but was assigned as the Wagon Master for the battalion, and was not available for duty with the company. Schlag, a native of Germany, was on his second enlistment, and would reenlist in July 1864. Schlag stayed in the army until 1870. Thereafter, he lived in Flushing, New York, near the postwar Engineer School of Application at Willets Point until his death in 1905.
An Artificer is defined as an enlisted man in the army or navy with specialized technical skills. Artificers, also known as privates first class, were paid $4 more per month than ordinary privates second class.
Three soldiers joined the company from the recruit depot in late May 1864. One of them, Edwin F. Austin, a twenty-two-year-old clerk from New York City, was actually a veteran with prior combat service in Company A. Austin enlisted in November 1860 and had been shot through the right lung while crossing the Chickahominy River in June 1862 during the Peninsula campaign. He was discharged for disability that October, but by February 1864, he had recovered sufficiently to reenlist in his old unit. Private Austin would survive the war, eventually marrying and settling in Washington, DC, where he died on 21 February 1913.
By the end of June, the total aggregate strength was 107 soldiers and one officer (Lieutenant Benyaurd), but only seventy-eight listed as present for duty. Further subtractions would leave only fifty-six men actually available for duty in the field. The June total aggregate strength reflected a gain of one soldier, Private John O’Neil, who rejoined the company on 18 June after deserting in 1861. The detached service number from the aggregate totals included six men at the Engineer Depot at West Point, New York; one man at the Engineer Agency in New York City; and Artificer John A. Miller, on duty at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, Florida. The considerable drop in present for duty strength doubtless reflected hard service and turbulence on campaign.
All five sergeants and two of the three corporals with the company during most of the Overland campaign were regulars with prewar service in Company A. Soldiers, particularly NCOs with prewar service at West Point, probably benefitted from formal education in engineering and experience assisting cadets with engineering projects.
Although he was on detached duty at Portland, Maine, since 1863, Frederick Gerber, a German immigrant and Mexican War veteran, was carried on all the wartime muster rolls as the assigned company first sergeant. He had been dispatched to Portland on recruiting duty after suffering from “Chickahominy fever” and scurvy. After the Civil War, in November 1871, Gerber was awarded the Medal of Honor for thirty-two years of gallant and distinguished service. He was the first engineer soldier to be so honored.
Sergeant James L. Conklin had been the acting first sergeant since April 1863. A native of New York, Conklin was on his second enlistment of five years in 1864. He survived the war and was appointed to the rank of ordnance sergeant in 1868. He would serve honorably in that rank until his retirement in 1887. Sergeant Barnard Carney was born in Ireland, enlisted in 1859, and reenlisted in February 1864. Carney was appointed the acting battalion sergeant major in July 1864, replacing Sergeant George Lovejoy, and served in that capacity until he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 20th U.S. Infantry in 1867. Carney resigned his commission in 1869, and rejoined Company A as an enlisted man in 1870.
Sergeant Henry Arbogast was born in France and joined the Army in 1859. He was discharged for disability at the end of his second enlistment in 1867. Finally, Sergeant Joseph Miller from Germany also joined the company in 1859. Miller had been promoted to sergeant early in the war and would serve for over thirty years in the battalion until he retired at that rank in 1889.
Corporal Michael P. Goeldin was an unskilled laborer from Ireland when he enlisted in Company A in November 1860. Goldein survived the war. Corporal Patrick O’Neal, also from Ireland, first enlisted in 1854 and served with Company L, 3d U.S. Artillery, in Oregon. He returned to the East Coast and enlisted in the company in 1860. O’Neal served until 1874, when he was named superintendent of the National Cemetery at Willets Point, New York. Corporal Benjamin Browne was a shoemaker from Orange County, New York. In August 1862, he enlisted in the newly formed 124th New York Volunteers, and was one of sixty-one men who transferred into Company A that October. Browne reenlisted in the company in February 1864 while it was camped at Brandy Station. He returned to civilian life after completing his enlistment in 1867.
On 10 June, Artificer William Collins was promoted to corporal, probably to fill a combat leadership void for the crossing of the James River. Collins’s service record does not reflect the qualities he demonstrated to earn this promotion, but he had obviously overcome some serious problems. Born in Sacketts Harbor, New York, Collins enlisted in the company in December 1853 at the age of twenty-two, and reenlisted in December 1858. Just a month before the war began in April 1861, Collins went “over the hill” and was not caught until three years later. Returned to the company on 22 March 1864, he was tried by court-martial, sentenced to make good the time lost to desertion, and demoted to private. Clearly, Collins must have made a choice to live up to his responsibilities. He was promoted to artificer on 1 May and to corporal the next month. Collins would become a sergeant before leaving the Army in January 1865, although he does not appear to have served out all the time lost to desertion.
The engineers of Company A were battle-hardened veterans. Over sixty-percent had reenlisted at least once. That number included First Sergeant Frederick Gerber, who was on his sixth enlistment. Two others were on their third enlistment, and two were on their fourth. A total of sixty-two men were already serving their second enlistments. Those statistics reflect the cohesive nature of the unit. Other soldiers had experienced combat while serving in three-year volunteer regiments mustered during the early part of the war. Enticed by the federal government’s offer of a $100 bounty to transfer and serve out the remainder of their enlistments in the U.S. Engineers, sixty-one soldiers from ten different state regiments joined Company A in October 1862. The 8th Michigan Volunteers and 27th Indiana Volunteers provided the largest contingents. Pension records indicate that at least four men who transferred from the 8th Michigan had been wounded in action at the Battle of Secessionville, South Carolina, in June 1862. These sixty-one men were actually given credit for completing a full enlistment upon their transfer into the regular army, resulting in the higher number of men on their second and third enlistments.
At the beginning of the Civil War the Regular Army was largely filled with immigrants. The Irish, followed by the Germans, were the predominant immigrant groups. For example, Company C, 2d U.S. Infantry, had only thirteen native-born Americans out of seventy-eight men in June 1861. However, the pre-war engineer company had a much higher percentage of native-born soldiers than the combat arms units. By June 1864, the company contained seventy-two native-born Americans and thirty-four foreign-born men. The nativity of one soldier, Private Thomas Cussen remains unknown. This immigrant group included fifteen Irish and seven Germans. At least forty-five men were native New Yorkers. These numbers reflect the fact that Company A started the war on duty at West Point, close to the large population centers at New York City and the Hudson Valley; additionally, a large number of the 8th Michigan men were originally New Yorkers.
The pre-enlistment occupations for all these soldiers, as reflected on their enlistment applications, ran the gamut of most trades in the mid-nineteenth century. Farmers headed the list with thirty-two, followed by fourteen laborers. Some men held occupations more engineer-specific. Six were blacksmiths; four were boatmen (a skill desirable for engineers doing ponton boat work); eleven were carpenters; and four were masons/stone cutters. The three shoemakers and one tailor assisted in keeping the soldiers’ uniforms and leather equipment in serviceable condition.
The Company A muster rolls for the period 30 April to 30 June 1864, certified by Captain Mendell, noted that the discipline, instruction, military appearance, arms, accoutrements and equipment were all rated as “good.” At least four men of the original company group were commissioned during and after the war.
Desertion posed a constant problem for the Regular Army during the nineteenth century, and certainly the stresses of combat and the regulars’ iron discipline drove many men to leave the ranks. Company A, however, was notably cohesive. Despite the hardships of the Overland campaign, not a single soldier deserted in May or June of 1864.
Fortunately, Company A sustained no combat-related casualties during the Overland campaign. This fact should not detract from the sterling work and devotion to duty of this outstanding engineer unit. The soldiers of Company A and the U.S. Engineer Battalion made history on 14 June 1864 when they constructed the James River bridge, which reputedly still holds the world’s record for the longest temporary military bridge. Months and years of engineering experience had allowed them to respond quickly and professionally to Grant’s plans to outwit Lee and expedite the army’s combat mobility for the assault on Petersburg. That the final outcome did not succeed should not reflect unfavorably on their notable achievement.