A Medal of Honor at Waterloo Bridge

My wife and I spent a very pleasant afternoon recently at our favorite vineyard, Winding Road Cellars, on Leeds Manor Road in Markham. On the way home, as we passed through the historic hamlets of Hume and Orleans, we noticed multiple signs announcing the local effort to Save the Historic Waterloo Bridge. There was a time, however, when the destruction of the Waterloo Bridge was of vital importance.

In the early hours of August 18, 1862, Union cavalry, from Brig. Gen. John Buford’s brigade, captured Maj. Norman Fitzhugh near the village of Verdiersville. Fitzhugh was carrying documents outlining Gen. Robert E. Lee’s plans to attack Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia, as the Union army lay between the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers. Alerted to the imminent danger, Pope immediately began falling back across the Rappahannock River. Pope intended to use the Rappahannock as a natural barrier with which to protect his army, while he awaited the arrival of re-enforcements from the Army of the Potomac.

Pope initially concentrated his forces around Rappahannock Station, and the Orange & Alexandria Railroad Bridge. Crossing points farther upstream, to include Sulphur Springs and Waterloo, were held by small groups of Union cavalry pickets, though not for long.

General Lee had no intention of allowing the two Union armies to unite against him. On August 22, Maj. Gen. JEB Stuart’s artillery opened on Union infantry and artillery guarding Freeman’s Ford. Having focused the enemy’s attention on the ford, Stuart pulled back, replaced by Maj. Gen. Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson infantry. Then, as the fighting intensified around the ford, Stuart turned north, crossing the river at Waterloo Bridge and Hart’s Mill. Having turned Pope’s right flank, Stuart headed for the Union supply trains at Catlett Station. Likewise, Jackson ordered the advance of his wing of the army to cross the river at Sulphur Springs, between Rappahannock Station and Waterloo Bridge, even as his rear guard continued the contest at Freeman’s Ford.

Jackson’s men began crossing the river just as the skies opened. Within hours the placid waterway was a raging torrent, stranding Brig. Gen. Jubal Early’s brigade on the north side of the river. Jackson spent the following day rebuilding the bridge at Sulphur Springs (recently burned by the Federals) in order to insure the safety of Early’s men.

Aware of enemy cavalry and infantry across the river, Pope pondered whether he should take the offensive or concentrate his forces and continue to await the arrival of re-enforcements. The weather decided the question. By 7:15 on the morning of the twenty-third the river had risen six feet. Certain any enemy troops on the north side of the river were trapped, Pope sent Maj. Gen. Franz Siegel and his First Corps toward Sulphur Springs and Waterloo Bridge, with orders to attack “the enemy wherever you find him.” Pope, who expected Siegel “to be in the neighborhood of Waterloo Bridge by sunset,” sent Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks and his Second Corps, along with Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno’s division of the Ninth Corps to support him. Siegel moved slowly, however, and by the early morning of August 24 Early’s weary troops were safely across the river.

Stuart’s cavalry also re-crossed the river “below Waterloo Bridge,” early on the twenty-fourth. As Stuart later explained, “My command had hardly re-crossed the Rappahannock…when that portion of it left on outpost duty on the river became engaged with the enemy, who had advanced to the opposite bank. It was soon apparent that the enemy meditated the destruction of the Waterloo Bridge, the only bridge over the stream still standing. Appreciating its importance to us, I directed the sharpshooters of the two brigades to be sent to its defense, and the command of this party, numbering about 100 men, devolved by selection upon Col. [Thomas] L. Rosser, Fifth Virginia Cavalry, whose judgment in posting his command enabled him to prevent the destruction of the bridge in spite of desperate attempts to reach it, and held possession all day and night against infantry and artillery until the next day, when he turned over his position and the bridge intact to a regiment of infantry sent to relieve him.”

Stuart’s troopers were supported by Capt. Roger Preston Chew’s battery of horse artillery, along with one gun from Capt. John Pelham’s battery. Gunner George Neese surmised, the Yankees “have marked [the bridge] for destruction by the torch.” Neese, like every other soldier in Lee’s army, despised Pope for the manner in which he had prosecuted the war. “If I were a Yankee general and had made the bombastic announcement, just three weeks ago, that I had never seen anything of the Rebels but their backs, I would certainly be ashamed to resort to bridge burning to keep the Rebels from getting to me,” Neese taunted.

The Southerners initially engaged John Buford’s cavalry, including the 1st Vermont and 5th New York, in what one New Yorker termed “a severe engagement at Waterloo Bridge.” Brig. Gen. Robert Milroy’s infantry brigade, the van of Sigel’s tardy corps, arrived at the bridge “about 5 p.m.” Milroy deployed his artillery along a “commanding eminence on the left of the road and near the bridge, immediately” engaging Chew and Pelham. Milroy’s infantry battled Rosser’s sharpshooters from positions along the river bank and from behind the bridge abutments.

When darkness brought an end to the fighting, Chew re-positioned “his guns to rake the bridge in case the Yanks should attempt to burn it during the night.” According to George Neese, fighting flared throughout the evening as “the Yanks made three attempts…to burn the bridge.”

Fighting erupted again in the morning, August 25, as reported by both Sigel and Milroy. Sigel, who believed Buford had already destroyed the bridge, was a bit put off to find the span “in good order and strongly defended by the enemy.”

Following an artillery duel which “continued through the day without serious loss to us,” Milroy received orders at about 3 p.m. “to burn the bridge at once at all hazards, and to this end [I] brought forward my four regiments of infantry to engage the enemy’s infantry, concealed in the woods near the bridge on the opposite bank. By keeping up a steady artillery and infantry fire I succeeded in covering a party firing the bridge, which, being of heavy oak, burned but slowly, and it was not until dark that the bridge was entirely consumed.”

Why Pope had credited Buford with destroying the bridge the previous day is unknown. No written communication from Buford claiming to have destroyed the bridge has been found, nor is there any evidence that Buford wrote a campaign report, but other documents confirm his cavalry did make at least one attempt to destroy the bridge.

In May 1894 John Tribe, of Halsey Valley, New York, applied to the War Department “for information as to the mode of procedure in procuring a Medal of Honor.” Tribe had enlisted in the 5th New York Cavalry in September 1861, as a private in Company G. He was captured at Hagerstown, Maryland, on July 9, 1863. After being exchanged, he remained with the regiment throughout the remainder of the war, being mustered out in July 1865 as quartermaster sergeant.

In later years Tribe served as an officer on regimental reunion committees. He also wrote several articles for the National Tribune, concerning the regiment’s service during the war. An avid follower of the paper, Tribe noted in his 1894 letter, “I read in the National Tribune of such cases, but am not familiar with the law governing such cases or the mode of procedure to obtain [the medal].”

In February 1895, the War Department received an application from Dr. C. E. Hollenbeck, of Halsey Valley, on Tribe’s behalf. The application included statements from former major Abram Krom, former lieutenant Philip Krohn and former private Eugene Pratt.

Abram Krom, captain of Company G in August 1862, wrote a brief, and rather sanitary, statement in support of Tribe’s application. “[On] or about the 24th day of August 1862, volunteers were called for to burn [the Waterloo Bridge] as the enemy had possession of the opposite bank and were endeavoring to force their way across and that said John Tribe did there volunteer for such service and reported for the same with my consent and…that the call for the above mentioned service was made by Gen’l Buford our Brigade Commander.”

Philip Krohn, was a sergeant at the time, and must have just re-joined the regiment, as he had been captured in July 1862. Thirty-three years later, Krohn was pastor of the Lake View Congregational Church in Chicago, when he explained, “On the 24th day of August, 1862, Gen. Buford…called…for volunteers to burn and destroy the Waterloo Bridge…. Sharpshooters (rebel) had full possession on one end of the bridge, and also had several pieces of artillery located in full range of the bridge.” Pastor Krohn recalled “the purpose of destroying the bridge was to prevent Jackson’s corps from crossing the river at that point, and to force it to make a long march, which he did.” Krohn credited Tribe with being “the first man out of over a thousand to volunteer to burn that bridge. His brave and daring act, was looked upon as a certain sacrifice of his life. He, in company with myself, made his way under a terrific fire, to the bridge. He carried a box of burning tinder in his arms, placed it upon the bridge, and assisted by myself set it on fire, and thus was chiefly instrumental in its destruction.”

Eugene Pratt, a private in Company F, remembered the regiment was standing “in column about a half mile from said bridge, [when] an officer came riding along by the regiment and called for volunteers to go and burn the bridge. Lieut. Krohn, John Tribe and myself rode out and I think two others from Co. E. We were placed in command of an officer. We dismounted and got a hard tack box and started for the bridge. After we got near the bridge this box was prepared and lit and John Tribe says I will take the box and put it on the bridge if no other man dares to, if I live to get there. As soon as he started and was out of the brush the bullets came so thick and fast that I hardly know how he lived to get there, but he did and returned to us in safety. We were all surprised to have him get back after placing the burning box on the bridge.”

The author of another, unsigned, statement, believed by War Department officials, to have been Pratt, claimed, “Krohn, Tribe and a few others responded” to the call for volunteers. “Carrying a hard tack box which was filled with dry wood saturated with oil the party made its way to the bridge – part of the way on their hands and knees – and being partially screened by a few trees and low brush.” Noting the “lively fire” from both artillery and carbines the men endured, the writer acknowledged, “some of the party had close calls [but] all reached the bridge in safety and found shelter behind its apron which was built in sort of a curve.”

This unnamed affiant remembered the party being led by Capt. Ira Wright of Company C. No one responded to Wright’s first call for volunteers, but when the captain made a second plea Tribe “sprang forward and said ‘Fire it, Capt.’” Tribe then “set the box upon the apron of the bridge and leaped up beside it. In an instant the bullets were hissing all about him. He then seized the burning box and ran with it about twenty feet upon the planking where he left it and returned to his comrades without being hit though somewhat scorched by the fire he carried. An effort was made to feed the fire with sticks but the enemy’s firing was so incessant as to oblige them to retire.”

Possibly spurred by the wording of the above statement, the War Department asked Doctor Hollenbeck to try and locate any other troopers who may have been a party to the effort. Hollenbeck identified four additional men. Three of the soldiers, Christian Ehman, Company E, along with Philip [Hazelswoe] and Philip Carney, Company F, can be identified with some certainty. The fourth man, John Gregg, cannot, however, War Department officials were satisfied he had served with the 5th New York. Ehman and Gregg were believed to still be alive but Hollenbeck was unable to obtain statements from them.

“Taking into consideration,” Hollenbeck explained, “the party was made up from different companies and at a comparatively early period in the war when the men had not had the full opportunities for intimate acquaintance; that the expedition was of brief duration; that the excitement naturally attending a venture so hazardous to life as this was, tended to daze the memory as to minute details other than those bearing upon the work in hand, and that nearly a third of a century has elapsed since its occurrence, it seems remarkable that so full a history of such an event can at this late date be so well corroborated by proof from living witnesses.”

Captain Wright was dishonorably discharged in September 1862. In March 1864, Wright sought to have his name cleared and presented several letters “certifying to his intrepid and reckless daring in the face of the enemy.” One of the letters had been written by Buford, and referred specifically to the attempt to burn the Waterloo Bridge. Buford’s letter could not be found in 1895, but, as War Department officials had accepted the letter when adjudicating Wright’s case years earlier, Buford’s statements were seen as further corroboration of Tribe’s valor.

On June 1, 1895, John Tribe was awarded the Medal of Honor. All of the supporting statements attest to August 24, as the day Tribe attempted to burn the bridge. August 24 is also the day on which Buford must have notified Pope that his men had destroyed the bridge. Still, Tribe’s citation reads, “For most distinguished gallantry in action at Waterloo Bridge, Virginia, August 25, 1862, when this soldier was a member of a volunteer party which, in the face of a galling fire from the enemy, posted upon the opposite bank and end of the bridge, set fire to the bridge in question, resulting in its destruction.” War Department officials may have believed the aging veterans erred when dating the incident to August 24, as surviving contemporary records, including Milroy’s report, confirmed the bridge to have been destroyed on August 25. Thus the citation carries the later date, though Tribe made the attempt the previous day.

I believe Buford’s men made a valiant effort to burn the bridge, and that the bridge caught fire to such an extent as to lead Buford to send a courier to Pope reporting the bridge had been destroyed. But the old bridge, as Milroy’s soldiers learned, would not go easily. The stout oak planks soaked by recent heavy rains, and covered with dirt from the heavy traffic of the preceding days, may have flared spectacularly but then sputtered out after the courier had departed.

The current Waterloo Bridge, an iron and steel structure, built in the late 19th Century, has been closed to traffic for more than two years. Information regarding the efforts to save the bridge may be found at http://pecva.org/our-mission/transportation/995-save-the-waterloo-bridge

Sources:

Louis Boudrye, Historic records of the Fifth New York Cavalry

John Hennessy, Return to Bull Run

Horace Ide, History of the First Vermont Cavalry, edited by Elliott Hoffman

George Neese, Three Years in the Confederate Horse Artillery

Robert Trout, Galloping Thunder, The Stuart Horse Artillery Battalion

The Official Records

Documents from the National Archives

5 thoughts on “A Medal of Honor at Waterloo Bridge

  1. Great account, Bob.. Had never seen these great accounts, or heard of them.
    All this fighting of course takes place ing a very confined and tight spot–as any who have ever visited the site well know. (And steep bluffs on the north bank.)
    But one supposes the geographically compact battle scene facilitated these excellent descriptions of what each side saw, and experienced. I’m printing all this out for future reference..
    The river crossing “below Waterloo Bridge” is in all probability “Hart’s Ford,” as you well know.

    Just think of it: A Medal of Honor awarded for bravery at Waterloo Bridge. And it seems to me that John Tribe earned it!

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  2. Great story, Bob. Great research. Thanks for putting it together. Here’s a question–John Buford has just spent nine months in the Inspector General’s Department where he teaches general and field grade officers how to maintain company books and returns, muster rolls, regimental books. On his inspection rounds Buford is an absolute stickler about the paperwork. Then he takes over a brigade on active operations and he–the master–doesn’t file a report? It just doesn’t add up. I’m certain there’s a Buford 2nd Bull Run report out there somewhere. There must be something. But where? This keeps me up nights.

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    • I checked some of Captain Ira Wright’s files this week, on the chance I might find the Buford letter referred to in the MOH file. I found Judge Holt’s mention of the Buford letter, but the letter is indeed gone. It is amazing just how much Buford paperwork is missing

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