Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Major Gould at Harper's Ferry

I’m always on the lookout for new information about the 13th Mass., Vols. and its soldiers.   I was very surprised lately to discover the congressional testimony of Major Jacob Parker Gould before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War on January 13, 1862.   Major Gould is one of my favorite personalities from the annals of the 13th and it is particularly gratifying to discover new things about him.   Gould was an outsider among the regular officers of the 13th Mass., and his election as Major was unpopular.   It is said he kept to himself.   Yet, he proved a brave leader in combat,  at 2nd Bull Run, where he was the ranking officer in the regiment at the battle, and again at Antietam, where he was commended in General Coulter’s official report of the engagement.   He died from a mortal wound received at the 1864 Battle of the Crater, while leading his regiment in combat as Colonel Gould of the 59th Mass., Vols.

 The newly found report actually sheds much light on the affairs at Harper’s Ferry in the Fall of 1861, when Companies C, I, and K were doing detached duty there; particularly about the wheat harvest from Herr’s Mill, and the subsequent battle of Bolivar Heights which it triggered. Here’s the set up.
Major Gould, stationed at Sandy Hook, was in charge of the detached troops opposite Harper’s Ferry for a few miles up and down the river on the Maryland side.   The troops were guarding the C & O canal and picketing the river crossings.   As Austin Stearns of Company K writes in his memoirs : “All the boats, scows, skiffs, for miles up and down the river, we had destroyed or taken to our side.”

Unionist sympathizer Abraham Herr owned several businesses on Virginius Island adjacent to the town, among them a large mill with about 20,000 bushels of un-milled wheat.   His mill had been disabled by General Patterson’s Union forces during their occupation of the town earlier in the summer.   Mr. Herr or perhaps, Herr Herr, offered up the un-milled wheat to the government, to make bread for the soldiers.   Major Gould passed the offer along to his commander, General N.P. Banks, at Darnestown and the offer was accepted.   The wheat harvest began about October 11th.    The rebel forces in the area didn’t like the wheat harvest and decided to attack to put a stop to it. They showed up in force October 16th and the Battle of Bolivar Heights ensued. (Herr's Mill is the large building in the center of this lithograph showing Virginius Island in the 1850's).

 Major Gould’s testimony is interesting for its details.  It describes the ferry system he rigged together using several boats and a long rope cable. The ferry was used to transport troops, artillery and wheat. The actual amount of wheat saved was always in question, usually estimated at 20,000 bushels.   He gives the correct figure at 15,000 bushels.   Some rebels secretly returned to Virginius Island a couple days after the battle and burned Herr’s Mill to the ground. This fact is routinely mentioned in reports on the affair, but Gould states he shelled the miscreants with artillery, to hasten them away, alas too late.   The mill was destroyed. This document is a great resource and I offer it up to all interested.



Question.   What is your rank and position in the army ?

Answer.    That of major of the thirteenth Massachusetts volunteers.

Question.   How long have you been in the army ?

Answer.    It is little more than six months since I had that commission.   I had the commission of captain previous to that time.

Question.   Where have you been stationed ?

Answer.   Up on the Potomac, in General Banks's division.

Question.    Will you state to the committee, as concisely as you well can, what you know in relation to the army during that time ?

Answer.    I have been stationed upon the outposts guarding the canal and the Potomac river, and most of the time have had under my individual command a body of troops separate from the rest.    My regiment has been brigaded, but I have only been at times with the rest of the division.

Question.    How many men have you had under your own command ?

Answer.   From 200 to 600.

Question.    State concisely the most important events that have transpired in your own command.

Answer.     I can speak generally of the good order of the men that have come under my observation.    They have been exceedingly faithful in the performance of their duties, and very careful in carrying out their orders.     The first signal service they performed was the arrest of Mr. Boteler, of Virginia.     The orders I gave my men then were particularly carried out.

Question.    Have you men stationed at Harper's Ferry ?

Answer.    Yes, sir ;  since then, during the fall, I was stationed there.

Question.    Have you had anything to do with the seizure of any wheat there ?

Answer.    Yes, sir. By order of General Banks I seized nearly 15,000 bushels of wheat.

Question.  Where was the wheat ?

Answer.    In Mr. Herr's mill, across the river.

Question.    At what point was this mill?

Answer.    At Harper's Ferry, opposite Sandy Hook.

Question.   State what happened at that time.

Answer.   I was five days in taking the wheat, previous to the Bolivar fight; that interrupted it, for on the second day after the fight the rebels came there to attack me.   But I had no force on the other side, and they set the mill on fire and burned up the rest of the wheat.   In consequence of my shelling them they did not set any other buildings on fire, but retreated to Charlestown.   That was the last I saw of the rebels.   I remained there ten days after that.   Previous to that time we had had some skirmishes. Sometimes we were across the river, but most of the time the enemy fired over at us.  I can say for the troops that were under my command that they were ready to stand fire.

Question.   Give us the particulars of the seizure of the wheat, and your mode of transporting it across the river.

Answer.   I  reported that wheat to General Banks a fortnight or so before I commenced taking it.   He immediately sent me an order to take it, and asked what force I wanted.   I sent word that I would require 300 additional men and a battery by a certain time, which were promised me.   No one in my command, not even my own officers, knew that I was going to take the wheat.   I had made arrangements for boats, for it is a good principle to go upon to keep the means of retreat open in an enemy's country.   I found in the canal there what is called a repair-boat, a large deck-boat, that would hold forty or fifty men at a time.   There were two large scows there that would hold twenty men each, which I attached together, making, as it were, one boat of them.   There was some rope there at the railroad depot which was going up to Cumberland, but which I had stopped because I was not certain about the loyalty of the owners, and a little because I wanted to use it in this matter.   Out of that I got rope enough to make a good cable that would reach across the river, so that I could cross in three minutes. I also sent some men off who obtained some two-inch cable for another rope across the river.  I also got some tackle-blocks to tighten the rope across the river, which there was about 550 feet wide.   For about 60 miles, as far as I have seen, the river averages about 1,000 feet in width.   But there it is not quite 600 feet wide.

I had two cable lines across the river, and kept the boats coming and going all the time—one boat going over while the other was coming back.   I could take one piece of artillery and the horses and men attached to it in a boat at a time; so that, with two boat-loads, I could take over a section of artillery and the men and horses connected with it.   Previous to taking the wheat I ordered two companies over to form a signal line, so that no information should get out to Charlestown.   Upon the firing of a cannon they were to establish a close blockade, which they did. As soon as the additional troops I had sent for arrived, I established another line out a mile further, and we put the cannon on Camp Hill to command all the roads.   The next morning I was ready to commence taking across the wheat. I proceeded to take it over at the rate of about 400 bushels an hour, from 7 o'clock in the morning to 12 o'clock at night.   About 400 bushels an hour was as much as I could get across the river during that time.   I had received information on Sunday that a force of the enemy was approaching, but I did not suppose there was any force in that section.   But some came up from Leesburg and got on Loudon Heights; and on Wednesday morning they made an attack upon our pickets with a 32-pounder, and drove them.   By order of some superior officers, previous to that time, some of the cannon were removed in the night time and put on the Maryland Heights; but when they fired over the river the shot fell among our own men, and we repelled the enemy by infantry, except those on Loudon Heights, which were shelled out by our cannon. Before 4 o'clock we drove the enemy very nearly to Halltown, and took eight prisoners.   That night, by orders of the superior officer, the whole command was withdrawn from the Virginia shore.   I thought it was wrong, because it left exposed some five Union citizens who had been led to express themselves freely for the cause of the Union in consequence of our presence there, and who had assisted me in every possible manner.    The enemy came there, arrested the owners of the mill, and burned the mill and the remainder of the wheat, some 7,000 bushels.

Question.   How much wheat did you get over and save ?

Answer.   Not quite 15,000 bushels.   It made some 3,100 barrels of flour here at Georgetown, where it was sent.   I also took a large quantity of lead and copper and three cannon.   The rebels, since then, have taken all the tin pipes and the cook-stoves they could get.   I took about three tons of lead and copper there.

Question.   Had you force enough there, if your artillery had been retained on the Virginia side, to have held the place against the force that was opposed to you ?

Answer.   I would have needed two larger pieces of artillery on Maryland Heights.   Maryland Heights control Loudon Heights, and Loudon Heights control Camp Hill, Harper's Ferry, and Bolivar.   The enemy did not serve their guns well during that day.   They had two regiments on Loudon Heights, and had their cavalry up opposite Sandy Hook.   Their plan was, as I afterwards learned, to engage us at Bolivar, cross the Potomac east of Loudon Heights, and surround and bag us, as they termed it.   They had 4,000 men there, as I heard, while we had only about 900 men after we were re-enforced.

Question.   With the arrangements you had there for crossing, how many men could you have taken over the river in an hour ?

Answer.   I think I could have taken over 300 men an hour easily; perhaps more.

Question.   With the boats you had?

Answer.  Yes, sir.

Question.   Could you have got that wheat across the river without great difficulty if it had not been for the cables you had ?

Answer.   No, sir.   The water was pretty high then.   It varies in the river very much.   A freshet in the Potomac lasts about three days, as I have noticed.

Question.   So far as you know, what is the condition of the troops in General Banks's division ?

Answer.   I think they are in very good condition indeed; ambitious to distinguish themselves, I think, when they get an opportunity to try their strength.

Question.   Are the men, in your judgment, ready to go into battle ?

Answer.   Yes, sir.   I know that from the experience I have had of them.   They express themselves as desirous of doing so whenever it is necessary.

Question.   Is there anything further, in connexion with these matters, which you would desire to state, and which you would consider it important for the committee to know?

Answer.   I do not know as there is.   Harper's Ferry has not been occupied since I left there.   I had orders, when I took the grain, to rearrest Mr. Boteler, and I came very near doing it, though he did not know it.   He was then returning from Richmond; but he kept himself behind a little force of the enemy there all the time.   I do not think we could cross the river well without cables.   At least, I should not want to try it. In the canal, once in every twenty or thirty miles, I think they have what is called a repair-boat.   It is a deck-boat, and the men can walk on and off it very readily.

Question.   How many men would such a boat carry across the river ?

Answer.   I put on forty men. I think one boat-load I put on more, but they said the boat was not a new one, and it might strain it.

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