Official Records of the Rebellion

Official Records of the Rebellion


No. 5.

Report of Brig. Army, Chief of Topographical Engineers.

February 20, 1863.

GENERAL: In compliance with a request received through Brig. Williams, assistant adjutant-general, that I would make a report upon the operations carried on under my directions while serving as chief of topographical engineers with the Army of the Potomac, I submit the following hurried and imperfect sketch, regretting that the circumstances by which I am surrounded render it difficult for me to present even this meager account:

About December 1, 1861, I was assigned to special duty on the staff ofMajor-General McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac, and when that army took the field came into command of the officers of my corps serving with it. Previous to taking the field every available source was exhausted that promised to furnish information, general or special, respecting the character of the region in which the operations were to be conducted. The topographical information obtained was, however, very meager, and continued, careful reconnaissance was necessary to guide the march of the various portions of the army, to exhibit the relations between them, and to designate the positions for depots and the lines of supply. Reconnaissances were likewise made of the enemy’s several positions—at and near Yorktown, on the Chickahominy, and on the approach to Richmond from that stream, and also of the positions occupied by our army at Yorktown, on the Chickahominy, and at Harrison’s Landing. From these reconnaissances detailed maps of the scene of operations were prepared, multiplied by photography, and distributed to the commanders and staff officers of the various subdivisions of the army. It is not necessary that I should enumerate the various reconnaissances that were made and the particular object of each. A list of the chief maps that resulted from the [p.153]operations of that branch of the staff will sufficiently indicate the character and extent of its labors.

These maps were as follows, viz:

1. Of the position of Yorktown and Warwick Creek and River, with the approaches from James, York, and Poquosin Rivers.

2. Of the position of Williamsburg and the approaches and the adjacent Country.

3. Of the approaches to Richmond between the Pamunkey and Chickahominy.

4. Of the positions on the Chickahominy.

5. Of the approaches to Richmond from the Chickahominy.

6. Of the position at Harrison’s Landing and the approaches and the country adjacent from Malvern Hill to Charles City Court-House.

From these maps and the Coast Survey maps of the James and York Rivers and the State map of Henrico County a very detailed map was prepared in three parts, embracing the country between the James and York Rivers, and extending from Old Point Comfort to Richmond.

Since these maps can present comparatively little of the information required concerning a country that is the scene of military operations, they should be accompanied by a memoir. Notes were collected by me with the object of preparing one, and it was my intention to give so much of the physical geography of the region in which the campaign was carried on and the territory contiguous as was necessary to exhibit clearly the characteristic topographical and hydrographical features; the nature of the soil; its natural growth and degree and kind of cultivation, and the direction and character of the routes of communication, both by land and water. The characteristic features, natural and artificial, of the several positions of Yorktown, Williamsburg, the Chickahominy, Richmond, Malvern Hill, and Harrison’s Landing, would likewise have been described.

Continued sickness during the occupation of the position of Harrison’s Landing prevented my accomplishing this task, and immediately after the withdrawal of the Army of the Potomac from the peninsula of the James and York Rivers I was, at my own request, assigned to the command of troops, and the division of new troops that I have commanded since that time has occupied all my time.

Besides the officers, Coast Survey assistants, and civil engineers, who constituted the more or less permanent force of the topographical engineer department of the Army of the Potomac, many officers of the Corps of Engineers and of the line of the army and volunteer force served temporarily under my orders. Their names will be found upon the maps prepared from the reconnaissances in which they assisted, but I should not permit the opportunity to pass without acknowledgment of the zeal and efficiency with which the duties assigned them were executed.

Those who served more permanently under my orders were, Lieut. Col. W. R. Palmer, Capt. H. L. Abbot, First Lieuts. Orlando G. Wagner and N. Bowen, Topographical Engineers; Lieut. George A. Custer, Fifth Cavalry; Capt. James Hope, Second Vermont Volunteers; First Lieut. Carswell McClellan, New York Volunteers; Messrs. F. Dorr and J. Donn, assistants United States Coast Survey; Messrs. Fred. Churchill, F. Vaughn, H. Humphreys, Walter Taylor, civil engineers, and Mr. James McMackin, draughtsman.

I should not omit to mention my indebtedness to Col. G. K. Warren, Fifth New York Volunteers (now brigadier-general of volunteers, [p.154]captain Corps Topographical Engineers), for the valuable assistance he rendered in the reconnaissances and in the preparation of the maps.

It is not necessary that I should mention in detail the services performed by the gentlemen just named. Their duties were executed with energy, industry, and intelligence, and upon suitable occasions I have brought their conduct to the notice of the major-general commanding the Army of the Potomac, and I hope their valuable services may yet meet with the reward they deserve.

In this connection I beg leave to submit herewith a copy of a letter dated June 19, 1862, addressed by me to Brig. Williams, assistant adjutant-general Army of the Potomac, recommending Lieuts. Abbot and N. Bowen, Topographical Engineers, for promotion by brevet, the former for highly meritorious conduct, and the latter for distinguished conduct in a reconnaissance of the Chickahominy, made by him near New Bridge on May 24. In that letter I likewise requested that some reward might be conferred upon Mr. Dorr, assistant United States Coast Survey, for the valuable services he rendered in reconnaissances of the enemy’s positions.

Besides the duties they performed under my immediate orders, Lieutenant-Colonel Palmer served under General Stoneman; Lieutenant Abbot, throughout the siege of Yorktown, under General Barnard; Lieutenant Bowen under Generals Keyes and W. Smith, and Lieutenant Wagner under General Heintzelman. In the reports of those generals I have no doubt an appropriate acknowledgment of the value of the services rendered by those officers will be found.

The duties of the officers associated with me were not performed without severe loss, and it became my painful duty to report the death of Lieut. Palmer, Topographical Engineers, on June 18, of disease caused by exposure in the zealous discharge of duty, and of First Lieut. Wagner, Topographical Engineers, on April 21, of a wound received while examining the enemy’s works at Yorktown. In the death of Lieutenant-Colonel Palmer the corps lost a gallant and accomplished officer, devoted to its interests; in the death of Lieutenant Wagner a gallant and highly promising young officer, whose brief term of duty with the Army of the Potomac gave earnest of a distinguished future.

I am sensible of the very imperfect manner in which I have complied with the request of Major-General McClellan, and regret extremely my inability at this time to present a paper more in accordance with his wishes, and exhibiting more clearly the nature and extent of the operations (and their results) of the topographical engineer department of the army commanded by him, their bearing upon the movements of that army, and their evidence of the great difficulties that army overcame.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Maj. Top. Engrs. and Brig. Vols., Comdg. Third Div.

Brig. B. MARCY,

Chief of Staff of Major- General McClellan, New York.

Official Records of the Rebellion: Volume Eleven, Chapter 23, Part 1: Peninsular Campaign: Reports, pp.152-154

web page Rickard, J (9 October 2006)

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