One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 16, Number 2
February 2008

I never cease to be surprised at the seemingly infinite number of subjects that modern historians can come up with that relate to the Civil War, yet have never been fully discussed previously. I think that the author Earl J. Hess has indeed, found yet another such niche in his two books, Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861–1864, published in 2005, and a follow-up titled Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign, that was released last year. Hess plans to complete the series with a third volume on the same subject that will cover the cover the campaigning around Petersburg from June 15, 1864, to the end of the war.

It has long been recognized that earthworks played a prominent role in the later stages of the Civil War, especially when both Lee’s and Grant’s men began to dig in during the overland campaign of 1864. But up to now the prevailing opinion among most historians has been that the accentuation of earthworks later in the war was primarily precipitated by the increased use of rifle muskets as the war progressed. Because the rifles were much more accurate and deadly than the obsolete smoothbores much used by both armies during the early stages of the war, it was assumed that the increased danger naturally caused the soldiers to seek more protection, and hence the proliferation of defensive barriers as the war progressed.

Hess challenges the prevailing assumption that it was the rifle musket that caused the men to dig in. His interpretation is that it was the psychological shock of combat that accelerated the erection of fortifications. According to him, the men simply “wanted to improve their chances of surviving another contest as long as the enemy remained within striking distance.” He points out that this most basic instinct for survival existed in the very earliest days of the war at such places as Big Bethel, First Manassas, and the Peninsula campaign when the old smoothbores were still the dominant weapon. Therefore, according to Hess it was no earth-shattering break from tradition when in 1864 Grant’s and Lee’s men began to dig in during the Overland campaign. In his opinion the only real change in 1864 lay in one of degree or the extent to which the men relied on earthworks and the complexity and strength of the barriers. But I think the evidence shows that 1864 did, indeed, mark a fundamental shift in past practices with regard to field fortifications.

Hess places great emphasis on the emotional trauma of battle to explain his thesis, and is correct in his contention that there was a much greater tendency for both Union and Confederate soldiers tended to dig in after a sharp battle, rather than before, and especially when the enemy was still within striking distance. But he fails to consider the element of time. Two armies maneuvering toward battle against each other represent a dynamic and moving system. Unless you were someone like George McClellan or Bernard Montgomery of WWII who moved their ponderous armies into battle with great deliberation, there was rarely time available before a fight to fully plan and organize a static “set-piece” battle. Besides, if you intended going on the offensive, why would you prepare defensive positions?

It took time using the hand tools commonly available to Civil War soldiers such as a few picks, shovels and axes, and other primitive utensils such as bayonets, tin cups, spoons, canteens, and even sticks to dig trenches, holes, and traverses, as well as cut down trees and brush, clear fields of fire, and erect other protective barriers. The most elaborate and extensive fortifications were almost always produced in the hours and days after a major battle when the men on the front line had the time and opportunity to construct elaborate means of defense. There are exceptions of course, such as the Mine Run campaign of November 1863 that is sometimes described as the “great battle of the Civil War that never happened.”

Early in November of 1863 Meade’s 80,000-man Army of the Potomac moved south across the Rappahannock River and then swung west on the Orange Turnpike in an attempt to flank Lee’s army on the south side of the Rapidan River. Instead of waiting for Meade to attack, Lee took the initiative and pushed his depleted forces eastward to the banks of a north-south stream known as Mine Run. There, on the west bank of the little stream the 50,000 Confederates dug in and constructed a 7-mile long system of formidable earthworks, including the first use of headlogs by the Army of Northern Virginia. The more the Federals scouted the fortifications, the more they realized that a frontal assault was impossible and that there was no opportunity for a flank attack. As a consequence, Meade sensibly gave up the campaign, slipped away, and retired quietly to the north side of the Rapidan River.

Although it was tactically a defensive encounter, at Mine Run Lee had taken the strategic initiative when he moved his army forward early enough to give his men time to erect an impregnable defensive system.

Contrast Lee’s application of earthworks at Mine Run in late 1863 with say, Fredericksburg in December of 1862. In both cases the Army of Northern Virginia reacted to initial Federal movements and arrived at the site of the conflict early enough to erect substantial defensive barriers prior to the battle. But for the most part, the only significant fortifying that the Confederates did at Fredericksburg was to dig battery emplacements on high ground at such places as Marye’s Heights, Lee’s Hill, and Prospect Hill. Yet with minor exceptions, they neglected to provide any protection for the infantry. Even the famous stone wall along the existing sunken road at the base of Marye’s Heights was an afterthought and was not recognized as a strong defensive position until after the battle had started. Most of the trenches that you see preserved today running south and east parallel to Lee Drive in the National Park were constructed after the December battle.

Hess suggests that Lee did not construct strong defensive works at Fredericksburg because he wanted to keep his options open, maintaining that “digging in all along the line, infantry as well as artillery, would have represented a decision to stay put.” Then too, with the huge terrain advantage that he possessed, perhaps Lee wanted to induce Burnside to attack. Or, perhaps Lee simply wished to retain his mobility to shift his army in case Burnside opted to use other river crossing points. This is all speculation, but General G. Moxley Sorrel of Longstreet’s staff noted the absence of significant fortifications at the time and commented after the war that in hindsight it is surprising that so few fieldworks were constructed at Fredericksburg before the engagement. He wrote that “later in the war such a fault could not have been found.”

The two books contain an enormous amount of information on the fortifications used in the Civil War. When the third volume is completed, the author will have studied and diagramed the earthworks in just about every battlefield in eastern Virginia, not to mention several others in North Carolina and South Carolina. His commentaries of the various battles ad little insight to what previous writers have said, but his emphasis on the fortifications is a worthy addition to our knowledge. For example, he goes into great detail in an appendix of volume II on “The Design and Construction of Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign” with diagrams and sketches that are extremely useful when visiting some of the sites and determining the origin of the myriad earthworks.

I particularly appreciated the diagram of the earthworks representing the “Left Wing of Lee’s Last Line, Mule Shoe Salient, Spotsylvania, May 12–21, 1864.” I have walked through the woods along this line southwest of the Harrison House several times without fully appreciating the complexity of the trenches. Hess’s mapping is a great help in understanding the configuration and details of the system.

According to Douglas Southall Freeman, the first time that Lee ordered the construction of field fortifications in open operations was on April 30, 1863, during the Chancellorsville campaign. On that day General R. H. Anderson’s division was instructed to dig in and put his men under cover near Zoan Church on the Orange Turnpike to resist Hooker’s Federals who were marching east and attempting to turn the Confederate left flank. The entrenchment didn’t last long however, because the very next day Stonewall Jackson arrived on the scene with reinforcements and in a momentous decision ordered the men to abandon their fortifications and move west towards Chancellorsville.

I really have only one serious criticism of Hess’s two books. Although the numerous illustrations (sketches and diagrams) of the fortifications are excellent and represent an enormous amount of field research by the author, and are called “maps,” they are not maps because they have no scale! The reader is left to wonder if a trench shown in a diagram is 10 feet, 100 feet, or is it 500 feet long? I would hope that between the author, the editor Gary Gallagher, and the University of North Carolina Press an effort will be made to ensure that the forthcoming volume’s “maps” do not have this problem.

Another great improvement to Hess’s illustrations would be to use the U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps as a base. A good example may be found in the Civil War Battlefield Guide published by the Conservation Fund. In addition to the invaluable representation of the terrain and the drainage, these maps also show modern cultural features.