Friday, June 17, 2011

Guarding the Fords

On June 17, Charles P. Stone faced more signs of belligerency on his Rockville Expedition than he had so far. At 10:00, Confederate artillery opened fire across the Potomac River at his New Hampshire troops stationed at Conrad's Ferry. Conrad's Ferry, along with Edwards Ferry, are the two main crossings leading into Leesburg (and Conrad's Ferry still operates today as White's Ferry, motoring cars across the Potomac River, though it has had some trouble with the U.S. Coast Guard in recent years).

He reported when the action was well over at 4:30 pm:

The enemy was reported to have three cannon, but in a careful examination I was unable to discover more than a one 6-pounder field piece. They amused themselves, by firing some twenty shots, apparently at the staff on which the New Hampshire troops had raised the national colors. No damage whatever was done to our men in the firing, and it appeared so objectless, that I conjectured it must have been intended to cover an advance at some other point. I therefore made dispositions for watching the fords above and below...
Stone had been nervous about the meaning of the retreat of a Confederate army under Joe Johnston from Harper's Ferry, ever since local sources had told him of it two days prior. The corresponding Union army under Robert Patterson had not acted on his information yet. He had just reached Hagerstown the night before, and had then sent General-in-chief Winfield Scott a four step plan for taking Richmond, littered with complaints about insufficient transportation.

The same night, Scott bit back a clipped reply in which he eviscerated Patterson's plan and outlined for him how he needed to simply take Harper's Ferry. "Keep within the above limits until you can satisfy me you ought to go beyond them," he wrote. "Report frequently."

Back on the afternoon report of June 17, Stone (who had no idea about Patterson's communications with Scott) explained the purpose of Patterson taking Harper's Ferry as crucial to his own mission of securing the Potomac, wondering if maybe someone in Washington had missed it:

It is very necessary to hold these ferries and protect this [the C&O] canal, for the enemy seem disposed to destroy everything they do not control, and the canal is absolutely necessary to the well-being of this neighborhood--one of the best small grain districts in the State. It is now suffering for want of means of transportation, and the appearance of troops here has had an excellent effect.
"It seems to be universally conceded here," he added, "by the people along the river that Harper's Ferry has been abandoned, but it appears to me strange that no communication has come to me from General Patterson, who, if at Harper's Ferry, could communicate with me in four hours."

Stone, ever the good soldier, concluded by outlining his options if his biggest fear came true - that Johnston's army which had been at Harper's Ferry was on its way to Leesburg to strike at his little expedition. He assured Scott that his men "can all maintain their position until relieved" - by the silent Patterson? - "and, if attached by an overwhelming force, all can withdraw towards Georgetown, through defiles easily defended."

But things were about to get much more tenuous for Stone as the evening war on.

That's called a "teaser." Come back at 6 pm to find out more.

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