Civil War Profiles —Seaford's Hessey helped rebuild Lee's 'bridge of gold'

Date Published: 
Nov. 2, 2017

Army engineers often perform duties that, while important and often crucial to victory on the battlefield, are less well publicized and, therefore, do not receive the recognition they deserve. A Confederate engineer unit, however, received the abiding gratitude of the Army of Northern Virginia’s commanding general in July 1863.

After suffering a devastating defeat after three days of bloodletting at the small community of Gettysburg, Pa., the Rebel army, under Gen. Robert E. Lee, limped away toward the Potomac River. Lee’s unenviable task was to get the remnants of the troops from the Gettysburg catastrophe back to Virginia for rest and recruitment.

While marching northward through the Shenandoah Valley in June, toward Maryland and Pennsylvania, the Confederate troops crossed the Potomac either on a pontoon bridge at Falling Waters, Va., or by fording the river at Williamsport, Md. As fate would have it, during their attempt to return south while in retreat, those crossing points were no longer available.

Union troops had heavily damaged the bridge at Falling Waters, and incessant rains caused the Williamsport fords to be impassable. Lee’s army had no other choice but to hold off the Union army marching in its wake, rebuild the Falling Waters bridge and pray that the rain would soon abate.

While the Rebel army clustered around Hagerstown, Md., Lee ordered his engineers and pioneers to prepare entrenchments running some 10 miles from their current position south to the Potomac. The Union Army of the Potomac’s failure to pursue immediately from Gettysburg allowed Lee sufficient time to prepare fortifications.

When the rains continued and the river was still not fordable, Lee realized he had no other option but to repair the damaged bridge at Falling Waters. David Stewart Hessey, born and raised in Seaford, Del., and ranked second lieutenant, was a member of one of the engineer teams assigned to build new pontoons and repair damaged ones that had been recovered.

Work began on July 10, designing plans and gathering lumber by stripping wood from nearby houses and barns — desperate times calling for desperate measures. The pontoons were to be 3 feet high, 30 feet long, 7 feet wide at the top and 6 feet at the bottom.

Working in hot, sultry weather, by July 12, the engineers repaired or constructed a number of pontoon boats. They were floated down from Williamsport to Falling Waters and connected to the previously undamaged portion of the bridge.

Also on the July 12, Union Army commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade decided to order a probe of Lee’s fortified position to be transformed into an attack if the situation warranted. However, when his subordinate generals did not agree with his offensive plan, Meade further delayed action.

By July 13, with the bridge “lacking by little of completion,” engineer team leader 1st Lt. Henry Harris, according to his memoirs, took stock and found that nine reconstructed pontoons and 14 new ones were ready. Added to that was about 550 feet of trestle work.

Upon learning that the pontoon bridge would soon be completed, Lee ordered his troops to vacate their positions after dark on July 13, and begin moving across the bridge to the safety of Virginia. After taking time that day to scout the enemy positions, Meade ordered a reconnaissance-in-force to be turned into an attack the next morning.

On the morning of July 14, however, when the Northern troops marched forward, they found the Rebel entrenchments abandoned. The Confederate army’s timely movement to the south side of the Potomac caused Union Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday to comment that it was like they had escaped “on a bridge of gold.” (See “A Golden Bridge,” by Kent Masterson Brown, North & South magazine, Vol. 2, No. 6.)

As a token of his appreciation, Lee presented Hessey with a pair of binoculars that became a prized possession. The young Delawarean had helped the Southern army survive to fight another day.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at or visit his website at