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JULY 1861 TO JUNE 1865



By instruction from Prof. A.D. Bache, Supdt. U.S.Coast Survey, I was assigned to duty with Genl McCall’s Division of the Army of the Potomac, operating with F.W. Dorr and Cleveland Rockwell in the Topographical Survey of the Country bordering upon the Potomac River and the approaches north and west as far as the Great Falls. Completing this work we joined the command of Genl W. F. Smith on the Virginia side and extended the surveys from the Potomac nearly to Dranesville and Fairfax Court House. Having passes beyond the lines our work embraced a belt of country several miles wide lying between the opposing forces. During this period Rockwell was relieved from duty with the Army of the Potomac and I took charge of his unfinished work in Maryland and completed it.

man at top of mountain
Chattanooga, Tenn., vicinity. Tripod signal erected by Capts.
Dorr and Donn of U.S. Coast Survey at Pulpit Rock on Lookout Mountain

Reference: Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 / compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge,
Washington, D.C. : Library of Congress, 1977. No. 0681

While the Army embarked at Alexandria for Fortress Monroe and the Peninsula, we were attached to the official staff of Genl A.A. Humphreys, Chief Topographical Engineer. Arriving at Old Point Comfort we were directed to reconnoitre the whole country lying between the Point and Yorktown. In the meantime the Army passed on and sat down before the Enemy’s line of works. Having completed all the work in the rear of the Army our next duty was to approach the line of Confederate works as nearly as possible and study and determine its general form, and position. The ground was traversed in this way from the York to the Warwick River and thence to the James. The following incident is given in illustration of the hazards common to the duty of a topographical engineer. My especial duty along the lines was to direct the running [of] short base lines with a steel tape carried by two soldiers in a quick trot. F. W. Dorr with a plane table would occupy the ends of the base and rapidly sight the lines of redoubt batteries or breastworks drawing determining lines [???]. A very few minutes were given to each station but one unfortunate day Lieut. Wagner of the Corps of Topographical Engineers came up to the instrument "on station" and engaged Dorr in conversation [within sight of] a small battery about a thousand feet distant. The opportunity was seized by the Confederates manning the battery who opened fire upon the group about the plane table, comprising besides Dorr and Wagner, a number of pickets and my chainmen. The first shell fired, a percussion, struck the tripod and exploding literally blew up the whole group. Dorr escaped with a scratch but Wagner and one of my chainmen were mortally wounded both dying in two days. Three men were killed outright and several slightly wounded. Nothing was left of the plane table, and the sheet was torn in half and sprinkled with Wagner’s blood. Only the telescope of the alhidade was found. This was the last plane table work done during the campaign and thereafter reconnaissances were made with compass and lineal measurements.

When the Confederates evacuated Yorktown we continued our work up the Peninsula generally in advance of the Army and without escort as securing [to secure] a larger measure of safety. From the White House on the Pamunkey we reconnoitred and mapped the country as far as the bridges of the Chickahominy, miles beyond our advanced pickets. When headquarters were established near the Chickahominy swamp its bridges and fords became the object of our labors. We were daily in sight of the spires of Richmond but we got no nearer to it than the ford at Mechanicsville. Our work was troublesome and doubly difficult because the topographers of the Corps knew little or nothing of practical reconnaissance or rather of bringing its results into practical shape. A little map that accompanies this record is a type of the daily work furnished Genl. Humphreys for the use of the Cmdg. General. We were almost constantly in the saddle each starting out alone in a designated direction. I was upon the field of Fair Oaks the day before the battle fought upon that locality and reconnoitred the position in front of the two Corps occupying it and returned by way of Sumner’s Bridge in the midst of that terrible storm which precipitated the attack by the Confederates upon the force north of the Chickahominy which were apparently isolated by the raging river that obliterated the swamp.

When the headquarters were moved to Savage Station we extended our work toward Richmond. The flank movement to the James having been determined upon, all the topographers of the Army were ordered out for special reconnaissance to the White Oak Swamp. There was but one known crossing of that swamp, second only in general impassibility to the Chickahominy, and it was thought impractical to send the whole Army with its immense siege trains and innumerable wagons by that route alone. The object in making this special reconnaissance was to find an old ford that was once used by the natives and to discover method of reaching it directly from Savage Station. Dorr and I started out as usual without escort and riding toward Richmond as far as practicable entered a heavy body of timber and made directly for the swamp distant about three miles. After riding together until the ground commenced to fall rapidly toward the swamp we separated, Dorr continuing on to the border of the swamp which he followed downward and I taking a direct parallel to it examined every cart track and wood road that crossed my line of direction. Many such roads were examined and found impracticable, until one was reached that was better defined than any previously passed over. Riding in the direction of Savage Station, this road was traced through to a junction with the main road running from Richmond to White Oak Swamp Bridge. Beginning here by making a complete examination of the locality I turned back toward the swamp, sketching the narrow track upon compass lines and distances paced by my horse. A short distance from the swamp I met Dorr who had found the ford and had traced the road back to where we met. Having accomplished the object of our search we rode rapidly to Savage Station, plotted and connected our lines and reported the result to Genl Humphreys. A party of sappers and miners was started out at once to go to the swamp to put the ford in passable condition. I thought our labors which had been successfully accomplished, were at an end so far as movements of the Army of the Potomac were concerned. But about 11 o’clock we were summoned to Genl McClellan’s tent. We joined a conference [that] was being held, there being present Genl. McClellan, Genl. Marcy, Genl. Humphreys, and Genl. Sykes. We were informed that the Regular Division, Genl. Sykes’ command of 15000 men with artillery and wagon, had to be thrown across the new found ford by 5 o’clock in the morning and that we would have to guide the force through. I replied that I thought it would be impossible to find the entrance to the wood road in the intense darkness of the night, especially as the heavy trains that had passed down the bridge road during the afternoon in double and triple columns had changed the appearance of everything on the roadside. Genl. Marcy merely remarked that it was absolutely necessary and that it would be done. As there was no alternative I said I would do the best I could and would be ready in a few minutes. I had made the objection to Genl. Marcy because Dorr had stated that he knew nothing of the road until it approached the border of the swamp. We went to our tent, gathered up rubber blankets and other necessary articles and reported to Genl. Sykes. We had given orders to our driver to pack everything before morning and move with the headquarters for we knew that we would not return. I had my pocket compass and notes of the survey and Dorr had a few candles. Genl. Sykes at once started with us to find his command and it was midnight before it was in marching order. It was a terribly black night and a drizzling rain was falling as Dorr and I, two forlorn figures, rode away into the darkness.

If I had not by instinct been a topographer with a good faculty for remembering localities the regular division would not have crossed the White Oak Swamp by the upper ford at five o’clock in the morning, and it is hard to say what the consequences might have been. I knew by the change of level in the road when I was near the entrance of the track sought for and I called to Genl. Sykes to halt his command. I got off my horse and with a candle examined the woods lying on the right of the road. I found a track and followed it -- Dorr riding behind, throwing the feeble ray of a candle as far forward as possible. With the initial bearing I passed along the road until at a given distance I found that it was diverging from the proper direction. Returning to the starting point search was made for another track which was found. This too our examination found to be wrong but the third time brought us into the desired road which I proved by riding down it until three bearings and distances corresponded with my notes made during the reconnaissance. We marched until three o’clock when a halt was called and the command rested until daylight. I then turned over the guidance to Dorr who led them across the swamp. Here I left them and rode down the border [of the swamp] to the bridge and awaited the coming of Genl. McClellan and his staff. Dorr returned during the afternoon and reported that soon after reaching the highlands beyond the swamp Genl. Sykes’ command encountered a large force of Confederate cavalry just from Richmond on reconnaissance and it was driven back. We came together at a small school house half way between White Oak Swamp Bridge and Malvern Hill where headquarters was temporarily established.

The next morning at daylight we were again sent forward in the advance. We started two hours ahead of the vanguard and rode toward the James River. At Eleven o’clock we rested near Malvern Hill and remained until the skirmish line came in sight when we passed on to the James R., arriving at Wilcox’s Wharf early in the afternoon. In the morning we found the Headquarters established at the mouth of Turkey Creek near the foot of Malvern Hill.

Early in the following morning before the battle began beyond the hill, Genl. Humphreys sent for Dorr and me and said "Gentlemen our rear guard has been defeated and driven in and the Army of the Potomac is in a desperate condition. You have no recognized rank as military men and it will be best for your safety in case of the worst happening that you get away from here. I cannot give you passes or orders to leave the Army but you are at liberty to return to Washington if you can find a way of doing so, and I advise you to go." No protest or expostulation was of any avail so we packed the few articles that comprised our outfit and departed. We rode to Shirley which had been taken as a hospital and thence to Harrison’s Landing. Several steamers had arrived there during the night for hospital purposes but orders had been issued that only sick or wounded with surgeon’s certificate would be permitted to go aboard them. As it seemed to be impossible for us to get away Dorr decided to go back to Headquarters and refuse to leave the Army until proper instructions were given. I told him I was sorry to leave him there but I did not propose to go back but would endeavor by some strategy to go down the river upon the first boat. I took charge of his baggage and we parted. I succeeded by a stratagem in getting aboard a quartermaster’s boat and in thirty-six hours I was in Washington and reported to the Supdt of the Coast Survey Prof. A.D. Bache who was in a terrible condition of anxiety regarding the safety of the Army of the Potomac. I am glad to say that I did not leave the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac in a panic and felt confident that the Army could hold Malvern Hill against the whole Confederate Army. So when I saw Prof. Bache I told him of the situation and described the position of the Army and its general condition so far as I knew it, but sufficient to greatly relieve him his anxiety. Dorr remained with the Army of the Potomac two weeks after I left him and when Headquarters were established he made a reconnaissance of Herring Run and the country down to the mouth of the Chickahominy R. During this period he was attacked by a low malarial fever which held him in its teeth for many months. The seeds of disease were sown however in his system which germinated in after years and finally caused his death, long before he had reached his prime.

I have dwelt at considerable length upon this portion of my war record to show the anomalous nature of my connection with the Army of the Potomac while performing the most arduous duty that fell to the lot of a topographical engineer in time of war. If such service had been accomplished by an Officer of the Topographical Corps, he would have at the very least received honorable mention and a brevet. We received no particular mention and had nothing to pin a brevet to, all because we were a "bone of contention" between Secretary Stanton and Professor Bache.

I returned to Washington in July and was soon afterward ordered to join Whiting on Long Island. In October I was instructed to join Gerdes for duty in connection with the Mississippi Flotilla. Some "hitch" however occurred in this matter and after waiting for Gerdes until the close of the year I received orders to report to Lieut. Col. Macomb Topgl Eng Corps for topographical duty in front of the defensive lines on the S.E. side of the District of Columbia. I completed this work in June and was immediately ordered to report to Col. Lockwood, Cmdg at Baltimore for reconnaissance around the city and a survey for the establishment of defensive works. I had accomplished but a small part of this duty when I was relieved and ordered to report to W.F. Smith Chf Engr Army of the Cumberland, at Chattanooga Tenn. Dorr was ordered to the same place, Fendall to Vicksburg, and Rockwell to Knoxville. Dorr and I left Baltimore on the 13th of October 1863 for Stevenson Alabama with instructions to travel only so far as we could get transportation for our instruments. The story of our struggle through Alabama to Chattanooga hampered with instruments would make a long chapter. We were two weeks upon that journey of sixty-nine miles.

Arriving at Chattanooga in the midst of a half starved army we reported for duty to Genl. Smith. By his direction Dorr took charge of the Survey of the Eastern approaches including Missionary Ridge while I entered upon the survey of the river and the Western approaches including Lookout Mtn, Raccoon Mtn and the valley of Lookout Creek. The plane table work here was of a very difficult and trying character. The Confederates had learned the significance of the white-topped instrument and it became a target for rifled guns whenever it was seen. We had to seek secluded positions and work with great caution but the work was advanced rapidly and when the Confederates were driven from their entrenchments on Lookout Mtn and Missionary Ridge only a few days were required to enable us to complete our special work including the captured positions.

Our status in the Army of the Cumberland was very different from what it was in the Army of the Potomac. Maj Genl Geo. H. Thomas Cmdg the Army of the Cumberland issued a general order giving Coast Survey Officers on duty in his Department the assimilated rank of Captain which entitled us to the same consideration and privileges enjoyed by other Officers.

Genl. Grant having been made Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the U.S., Genl. Smith moved his Headquarters to Nashville. I accompanied him and Dorr remained at Chattanooga with Genl. Thomas who offered him the position of Chief Topgl Engineer of the Army of the Cumberland. I was ordered by Genl. Smith by direction of Genl. Grant to make a reconnaissance of the Cumberland River from the town of Carthage to the head of navigation at Point Isabel for the purpose of locating a water route for the transportation of supplies to Knoxville Tenn which was then being supplied by way of Chattanooga a long and circuitous route or by way of Camp Nelson and Cumberland Gap. I was instructed to examine all streams flowing into the Cumberland from the south and report upon their navigability. I was placed in command of the "Pilot Boy" an oak clad gunboat and joined a fleet of iron clads and transports at Carthage. At Carthage, finding the "Pilot Boy" drew too much water for Caney Fork, the first stream to be examined, I got a small steamer drawing fourteen inches of water. About four miles from the mouth of the Fork we struck the first rapids. Having made several attempts to remove the obstruction it was found to be impossible and I returned to Carthage. Careful inquiry showed that the stream was a succession of rapids up to the town of Sparta - seventy-five miles above its entrance into the Cumberland.

The fleet left Carthage when the river commenced to rise, the gunboats leading. For a hundred miles or more we had a running fight with guerillas. On the way I examined the Obey River and at the head of navigation, the South Fork both of which I found even more impracticable that the Caney Fork. While at Point Isabel the Cumberland began to fall and thus removed much uncertainty as to my early return to Nashville by steaming. I thought it important to get back to Headquarters as speedily as possible and to that end I secured horses from the quartermaster at Point Isabel and rode through Kentucky to Camp Nelson. From there I returned to Nashville. On arriving I found Dorr hard at work making a survey of the northern approaches to the city. He had declined Genl Thomas’s offer after full consideration because he was assured that his acceptance would excite the jealousy of many of the young officers of the Engineers Corps who were in the Army of the Cumberland.

I was directed by Genl. Smith to survey the southern approaches to the city and upon the completion of that work I relieved Dorr of a part of a part of that upon the North side. When all was completed Captain Orlando Poe Corps of Engineers having in the meantime relieved Genl. Smith as Chief Eng relieved me of duty and directed me to report to Washington which was done about the close of March 1864.

Early in April I was ordered to join the expedition under Genl Butler to the Appomattox R. and reported to Capt Farquahar Chf Eng of the Army of the James and went with the official staff of Genl. Butler to Bermuda Hundred. Capt Farquahar was relieved a few days after the occupation of Bermuda Hundred by Genl Weitzel and I was made Chf Topgl Eng of the Army of the James with several officers of the N.Y. Engineer battalion as Assistants. I personally determined the lines of Confederate batteries, located positions for pontoon bridges and made reconnaissance across the James R. in the direction of Richmond, and special surveys of the roads and approaches to City Point, Fort Powhatan and Wilson’s Wharf.

The Army of the James occupied so limited a position I asked to be transferred to the Middle Div. of the Atlantic, Headquarters at Harpers Ferry and during the period between October ‘64 and June ‘65 I made a survey of the portion of Harpers Ferry and the Potomac R. down to the Great Falls, closing upon the work of my first season with Dorr performed in Aug. 1861.


Frederic W. Dorr, Asst Coast Survey,

1861-1864* War Record

In July 1861 F. W. Dorr was ordered to duty upon the Official Staff of Genl. McCall, cmdg, Northern approaches to the Capital for special reconnaissance and survey of the country lying to the North and West. From July to December the area lying within the radius of fourteen miles bounded by the Rockville Road and the Potomac River was topographically surveyed. Before the completion of this work his field was transferred to the South side of the Potomac, under the direction of Genl. W. F. Smith, Div. Commander in the Army of the Potomac. The Survey of the western and southern approaches to the Capital was fully completed by Mr. Donn by Mr. Dorr and his assistant prior to the departure of the Army for the Yorktown Peninsula in April 1862. Mr. Dorr and his assistant became members of the Official Staff of the Col., afterward Brig. Genl. A. A. Humphreys, Chf. Topographical Eng. Accompanying the expedition to Fortress Monroe, the topographical survey of the Peninsula was begun at Old Point Comfort and rapidly advanced to the position of the of the Army before Yorktown. During the siege the work performed by Mr. Dorr was of the highest character and received the approbation of the of the Comdg. General. During the entire campaign closing at Harrison’s Landing on the James River the services of Mr. Dorr were of very great value in securing knowledge of the country in advance of movements of the Army. The condition of service required of the Coast Survey topographers in the Army of the Potomac, placed each one independently under the special direction of the Chief Topographical Engineer. But one of the three attached to the Army held a special commission. Asst. P. C. F. West was Captain and Aid-de-Camp upon the staff of Genl. W.F. Smith. During the entire campaign the other officers (two) served with no recognized military rank.

The association of F. W. Dorr and the writer in the movements of the Army of the Potomac from the day of its arrival at Old Point Comfort to the close of the campaign has been shown in the report of J. W. Donn. As shown there, F. W. Dorr remained two weeks after the battle of Malvern Hill and engaged in a special reconnaissance of the positions at Harrison’s Landing during which he contracted the seeds of the disease that ended his life prematurely. He returned to the North very ill and was unfit for further military duty until in the fall of 1863. In the meantime, however, he was engaged in making a reconnaissance of the country adjacent to Portland, Maine, in the interest of the proposed erection of defensive works for the protection of that city. In October 1863 he was ordered to the official staff of Brig. Genl W. F. Smith, Chief Engineer of the Army of the Cumberland, and was made by Genl. Order issued by Maj. Gen. Geo. H. Thomas Cmdg., the assimilated rank of Captain of [??? unreadable word] Engineers. His services in connection with the movements of the Army of the Cumberland and the combined forces under Genl. Grant’s Army during the siege of Chattanooga are shown in the report of J. W. Donn.

Mr. Dorr’s connection with the Dept. of the Cumberland closed in March 1864. He returned to Washington and was directly thereafter assigned to duty with Genl. Sherman then en route from Savannah to Raleigh.

The object of this paper precludes an extended statement of the important services performed by Mr. Dorr. Having been closely associated with him during the greater part of the period between July 1861 and March 1864 and shared with him all the hazards and difficulties attending topographical service in an enemy’s country, instances of which appear in my personal record, it is due to his memory to say that no man stood up more bravely and patiently in the performance of a duty from which no glory was to be gained , no promotion was promised, nor expected, and for which not even adequate pecuniary compensation was given. Through all his services, which were second to none in his line of duty, he was not even rewarded by personal mention and only shared in the general praise accorded to the Coast Survey Service at large.

John W. Donn

* Editor’s note: John Donn’s memory failed him on these dates. Frederic Dorr was among the first of the Coast Surveyors to take to the field in the early days of the war in 1861. Sherman’s march from Savannah to Raleigh occurred in 1865. Dorr was in the saddle during the whole campaign and was present at Confederate General Joe Johnston’s surrender at Raleigh on April 14, 1865, almost a week after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. No ninety-day or one-year conscripts, Frederic Dorr and John Donn were in the field sharing the hardships and dangers of the Union Armies throughout the duration of the war. Dorr’s and Donn’s battle map of Chattanooga has been called one of the best examples of Civil War topographical work ever produced although Fendall’s map of “Approaches to Vicksburg” is also a classic.

The Coast Surveyors who should be remembered for their combat roles during the Civil War include: Dorr and Donn; Clarence Fendall who served with David Dixon Porter before Vicksburg; John Oltmanns who served with Porter on the Mississippi, William B. Franklin in Louisiana, and Phil Sheridan in the Valley; and Cleveland Rockwell who served throughout much of the war with Orlandoe Poe associated with a number of commands. These men were the elite combat topographers, reconnaissance specialists, and scouts of the Civil War. On the hydrographic side, Charles O. Boutelle and Robert Platt should be remembered as combat hydrographers who served primarily with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron providing invaluable information to both Samuel DuPont and John Dahlgren. Preston C. F. West who served on the staff of “Baldy” Smith for much of the war also made major contributions as a scout, topographer, and combat intelligence officer who often-times was in front of the front-lines.

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