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448 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 45 illus., 23 maps, appends., glossary, notes, bibl., index

$45.00 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2931-5

Published: Spring 2005

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Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War
The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864

by Earl J. Hess

Copyright (c) 2005 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


The first shot of the Civil War was fired in an argument over an unfinished coastal fort at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. During the next three years, both sides developed a keen realization that it was better to live behind a parapet, enduring the dirt, mud, baking sun, and bitter cold, than to die in the open. Fortifications of some kind played a role in all campaigns of this immense conflict. Civil War soldiers became experts in the building of field fortifications, and earthworks came to play a vital role in determining the outcome of the conflict. The Civil War ended in the ditches around Petersburg, where Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was pinned to the earth in the most sophisticated system of field fortifications yet seen in the history of the world.

Surely, the topic of fortifications is one of the more important yet to be explored by historians. I did not become aware of this aspect of Civil War military history until I moved south to take up my first full-time academic appointment, at the University of Georgia, in 1986. Driving back and forth between Indiana and Georgia took me by many battlefields of the Atlanta campaign. I was amazed to find remnants of earthworks and became fascinated with them, how they came to be there, and who had built them. They are tangible links, of a quality different from that of letters, diaries, or memoirs, with the Civil War past.

What followed was a massive research project that took me to many places over the next fifteen years. During that time, I visited a total of 303 battlefields and fortification sites of the Civil War and found remnants of earthworks or masonry forts at 213 of them. Of the 303 sites visited, 136 are relevant to the eastern campaigns. I found remnants of earthworks or masonry forts at 94 of the eastern sites. Additional visits to non-Civil War military sites have helped to set the conflict in perspective. I have visited thirty-three places in the United States, most of which are related to pre-Civil War military operations. Further perspective was gained by examining sites outside the United States. I have been fortunate in seeing a large variety of earthen and masonry fortifications, as well as battlefields, in nine countries. Sites in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, England, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, and Sweden have proved to me that the similarities in fortification use and style are more important than the differences, when seen within a global context. The remnants of prehistoric earthen forts in England are similar to the remains of Civil War fieldworks, and the engineers of eighteenth-century India obeyed the same imperatives as American engineers in laying out their masonry forts to conform to the lay of the land.

By taking me to so many interesting places across the South, this project has given me the widest possible exposure to the varied climate, terrain, and vegetation upon which the drama of the Civil War was played out. Such a comprehensive view of the landscape of the war is necessary if one is to gain a full appreciation of its magnitude, the varied problems faced by field commanders, and the enormous difficulties surmounted by ordinary soldiers. While struggling through the swampy bottomlands of Mississippi, digging through the coastal sand near Charleston, or climbing up the vertical slopes of Rocky Face Ridge, the Civil War soldier of both sides mastered a wide variety of landforms.

There simply is no substitute for field visits to military sites. Examining the remnants of earthworks answered many important questions that are not addressed in the voluminous primary literature. While many officers and men described earthworks in their letters, diaries, and memoirs, they did not address all topics relevant to understanding how fieldworks were configured, how the diggers dealt with rocky outcroppings, and how they accommodated other features in the landscape. Existing maps often fail to detail the finer points of construction. I have found that, although a marvelous and valuable technological aid, even satellite positioning can only identify the area and general outline of trench systems. Details in a fieldwork small enough to accommodate a single soldier do not appear on maps or satellite images. One must walk through the woods, compass and notepad in hand, in all sorts of weather. Brambles and briars were my worst enemy; an obscure but interesting configuration of trench, seldom seen by a visitor in more than 130 years, was my reward. Such a find made up for the torn clothes, scratches, and thousands of miles traveled in search of a tangible connection with the war.

I do not attempt to cover the entire history of fortifications in the Civil War; this study addresses one theme of that history. The complexity of Civil War fortifications as a field of study can be appreciated by dividing them into six major categories based on their types and uses. They include coastal defenses, city and town defenses, railroad defenses, river fortifications, siege works, and field fortifications. This classification system focuses on the works themselves and offers a technical approach to the history of fortifications.

This study, instead, concentrates on the campaigns of the major field armies, North and South. I will fully cover the topic of field fortifications, as that type played the most central role in the story of the field armies and their campaigns, but I will also touch on all other categories of fortifications as needed. Some coastal forts (such as Fort Macon and Fort Sumter) were attacked by elements of field armies. Washington, Richmond, and a host of lesser cities and towns had to be defended or attacked by contending field armies. Railroad defenses were needed to protect lines of communication, especially for Federal armies. River defenses came into play in the campaigns of many commanders, especially Ulysses S. Grant. Siege operations were conducted by Grant, Nathaniel P. Banks, and the Army of the Potomac, among others.

This is not a technical study; the focus is on military operations. I introduce technical aspects only to make sense of the fortifications. To that end, a glossary of technical terms used throughout this volume is appended.

The purpose of the study is to see how much and why fortifications played a role in the success or failure of Civil War field armies. This is a unique approach to the subject, only partially taken by one other historian. Edward Hagerman's American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare, published in 1988, examines fortifications, logistics, communications, and army administration in an effort to see how modernizing trends in military affairs affected the conduct of Civil War operations. Thus, Hagerman was forced to make only general points about the use of fortifications. To date, I am not aware of any other historian who has taken my approach to the topic in any conflict other than the Civil War.

A handful of army officers wrote articles on the use of fortifications by Civil War armies. These were published around the turn of the twentieth century and have remained obscure ever since. These authors based their conclusions on very limited research and tried to cover the entire war in a few pages. Also, there are a number of interesting articles and some books on individual forts used in the Civil War, but they focus mostly on the engineering perspective.

I hope my efforts will take the study of fortifications to a new level of understanding by incorporating the engineering aspects into the operational perspective. I will attempt to explain why fortifications are an important component of understanding how the Civil War was fought.

Even military historians who write detailed tactical studies of major battles in which field fortifications played a role simply mention the works in passing, without explaining how, why, or by whom they were made. This seems to be largely true of other American and European conflicts as well. For their part, historians of fortifications tend to focus on permanent or semipermanent works, writing books and articles on the structures themselves, not on military operations designed to attack or defend them. There is a real disconnection between those who study operations and those who study fortifications. This work will attempt to bridge that gap.

Therefore, I address a number of topics in this study. What did the soldiers and their commanders think about the use of fortifications? How did fighting behind earthworks affect their morale? How much were fortifications used? How were they constructed? How were they designed to conform to the landscape? Who laid them out and built them? How sophisticated and strong were they? How and why did the reliance on earthworks evolve? What role did fortifications play in altering the tactical outcome of a battle and the strategic course of a campaign? What were the factors that led to success or failure when troops attacked earthworks? What role did the presence of obstructions placed in front of the earthwork play in affecting the outcome of an attack? Were fortifications more important as a defensive or an offensive feature on the battlefield?

It became apparent in the course of my research that fortifications cannot be understood without recognizing how they related to the lay of the land and to the presence of vegetation. Trenches, parapets, and forts were features on the landscape of war just as were trees, hills, and ridges. Another complicating factor is that soldiers often used existing features on the battlefield for cover. A ridge line, a rocky outcropping, a railroad grade, a barn, or a sunken road could serve well in this regard. They were often used during engagements where no fortifications were built. Pre-Civil War engineering manuals recognized this use as a legitimate part of the art of fortification. Thus I discuss battles such as Second Bull Run, where no earthworks were dug, as the Confederate use of the unfinished railroad grade made that engagement a legitimate part of the story of fortifications in the Civil War.

Another related topic is military engineering. I found it necessary to understand something of the professional military engineer, both before and during the Civil War, in order to understand the topic of fortifications. Thus I include a certain amount of institutional and professional history in this study. Engineers were generally well regarded in mid-nineteenth-century America, but they labored under several handicaps during the war. Too few to handle all engineering duties and restricted in rank and pay scale, they often were ignored when credit was doled out for successful campaigns. Engineer officers and enlisted men alike played quiet but essential roles in the operations of field armies, and they deserve their due.

During the past twenty years, a revolution in public attitudes toward battlefield preservation in the United States has occurred. There is a growing realization that, with further development and the passage of time, whatever remains of our Civil War landscape is threatened if not doomed to be eliminated in the coming decades. Preservation of the remnants of Civil War fortifications has been greatly advanced as a result of this new awareness. I hope that my efforts aid this worthy cause. To that end, I make full use of the insights gained from my field visits in describing various earthworks. Also, I give some indication of what remnants were found at various sites. Earthworks were being destroyed at several places when I visited them, and I know that remnants have been demolished since my visit to other sites as well. The joy of finding a well-preserved work at one site was often counterbalanced by neglect or destruction at other places. A precious relic callously denuded of its protective cover by tramping feet, or in some cases, being driven over by heavy logging equipment that left terrible gashes in the parapet, was a sad discovery that proved that we need to save everything possible.

The study of fortifications has been advanced by a number of dedicated scholars in the past twenty-five years. In his unpublished thesis on Civil War field fortifications, which mostly focused on Fortress Rosecrans at Murfreesboro, David Russell Wright made good points about the state of scholarship in 1982. "The study of field fortifications of the Civil War is a relatively unbroken ground," he wrote, "with most extant earthworks being overlooked by the scholar and amateur alike. Both field and library research and documentation have yet to be initiated on a large scale." Wright also noted the importance of on-site study of fortification remnants as an important way to rectify this situation, a point I discovered when those Atlanta campaign earthworks first attracted my attention in 1986. "Most Civil War writers neglect to mention or describe fortifications," Wright continued, "while others do so in passing and only then with great apprehension. The lack of justified recognition stems from the fact that most students of the Civil War do not understand nor have sufficient reference material concerning the study of fortifications."[1]

I would not say that the same is true today, for the study of earthworks has blossomed since Wright completed his thesis. Most of it is has been done by talented and dedicated historians working for the National Park Service, using global positioning as well as intensive on-site examination of remnants. The results appear in reports that are seldom, if ever, published. I have used this material whenever possible, along with papers and reports written by historic archaeologists who also have devoted a growing amount of attention to Civil War earthworks. The publication of Clarence R. Geier Jr. and Susan E. Winter, eds., Look to the Earth: Historical Archaeology and the American Civil War (1994), highlighted the promise of this approach to understanding the history of Civil War fortifications. In addition, George G. Kundahl, Confederate Engineer: Training and Campaigning with John Morris Wampler (2000), sheds a great deal of new light on the professional military engineer in the Civil War.

Finally, the visual documentation of Civil War fortifications has been an important source of information for my study. There are hundreds of photographs of forts, trenches, obstructions, and siege works easily available to the scholar, and I have pored over them to gain insight into how earthworks were constructed and how they fit into the landscape of the battlefields.

In short, everything from a soldier's letter to an official report, a photograph, a conversation with a park ranger, or an obscure and lonely remnant of an earthwork has informed this study. All inquiries have been focused on the fortifications and the role they played in the operations of the major field armies, North and South, during the four years of war.

After fifteen years of research, I wound up with more than two filing cabinets crammed with material. The question then was how to organize and make maximum use of it. A multivolume series seemed the best approach. This initial volume will cover the eastern campaigns from Big Bethel in June 1861 to the Confederate capture of Plymouth, North Carolina, in April 1864. This period saw a transition to the habitual use of field fortifications in the Overland campaign, and thus one purpose of this initial volume is to explain how the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia came to rely on cover whenever possible by the time of the Spotsylvania phase of Grant's drive toward Richmond.

But this initial three-year period in the eastern campaigns is not important simply as a prelude to the Overland campaign. There is a widespread assumption that fieldworks were significant from the Wilderness on, but not before. A three-year period of open, fluid warfare, it is thought, was suddenly replaced by static, even stalemated operations. That is a misperception. There was no such sharp break between the Virginia operations of 1861-63 and those of 1864-65. This volume will show that the use of some kind of field fortification was common throughout the eastern campaigns and was not confined to a specific time period. The difference is one of degree. Fieldworks were less used in battles such as Second Manassas and Antietam but were heavily implemented during the Peninsula campaign, after Fredericksburg, and at Chancellorsville. They were also widely used at Gettysburg. There was a trend toward more heavy reliance on field fortifications on both the Union and Confederate sides, but it was not inevitable or uniform. In fits and starts, by 1864 the armies in the East had intensified their use of quickly constructed fortifications, building on a long period of experience in their construction.

Two subsequent volumes will follow this story to its conclusion in the East. One will detail the use of fortifications in the Overland campaign, and the other will cover the Petersburg campaign.

In addition to detailing the use of fortifications in the major campaigns of the East, I follow several lines of interpretation in this book. First, as already mentioned, the campaigns from 1861 to the early months of 1864 saw the widespread use of fortifications. There is no clearly defined break between this period and that of the Overland campaign. Second, there has been some discussion about who initiated the construction of field fortifications. I argue that fieldworks were started by a wide range of people. Middle-level officers—regimental, brigade, or division commanders—usually initiated them, but on fewer occasions corps and army commanders ordered their construction. On still other occasions, the rank and file took it upon themselves to build them. A third line of interpretation identifies who actually did the digging. While engineer officers usually planned and laid out the works, there is no doubt that the men in the ranks did the vast majority of the labor. The engineer troops in both armies were far too few in number to do much in this regard. Slaves and free black laborers were an important part of the workforce only in constructing semipermanent defenses around Yorktown, Richmond, Petersburg, and a few other places.

The fourth line of interpretation relates to a slow evolution in the use of fieldworks and in their growing sophistication. Early in the war, soldiers usually dug a simple trench with a parapet. More sophisticated features gradually adorned it, including obstructions placed in front, traverses dug to offer flank protection, and headlogs. This trend toward more elaborate trench systems evolved into the sophisticated fieldworks at Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, which cross the line between a field fortification and the semipermanent earthwork systems that guarded important cities like Richmond and Washington, D.C. Defense in depth, in which one or more trench lines were constructed behind each other, was another more sophisticated design. It was relatively rare in the Civil War, simply because the number of men available to any field army was limited, yet one can see evidence of it at Cold Harbor.

A fifth line of interpretation identifies why armies had come to rely habitually on field fortifications by the time of the Overland campaign. The prevailing view has been that the full employment of the rifle musket, with its longer range, by both armies led to this heavy reliance. I strongly argue against this view, convinced that the shock of combat and continuous contact between the armies, or at least the imminent threat of continued fighting after a pitched battle, were the keys to either army's willingness to dig in. This can be seen in several engagements of the eastern campaigns during 1861-64, including First Manassas and Fredericksburg.

Finally, a sixth line of interpretation deals with whether the use of field fortifications helped or hindered tactical operations. Of course, the answer depends on which army and which campaign one refers to. Generally, the armies of the Civil War made effective use of fieldworks. There are only a few cases where they dug in unnecessarily, such as the Federal construction of an elaborate defense system to protect Suffolk, Virginia, a town of little strategic value. There are other instances where field armies failed to dig in widely or effectively, as with Lee's army at Second Manassas and Antietam. In both battles, more extensive use of fieldworks would have been fully justified. But in most other cases, the use of field fortifications was balanced and rational. Both sides built impressive fieldworks during the Chancellorsville campaign, deftly aiding their particular tactical needs (the only exception was the failure of the Eleventh Corps to properly fortify its position on May 2). Gettysburg saw the eventual construction of fieldworks that were appropriate to the terrain along nearly the entire length of each opposing line of battle.

The list of campaigns in which fieldworks played a significant role would include nearly all the campaigns addressed in this volume. Sometimes they failed to stop a vigorous attack, as at Gaines's Mill, but on other occasions they played the decisive role in abruptly deciding the outcome of the campaign, as at Mine Run. Sometimes they were poorly planned and built and were cracked open by smart attacks, as at Rappahannock Station and Plymouth. They were used both offensively and defensively. By and large, one is tempted to argue that American field armies made more effective use of field fortifications than did their European counterparts, although this a thesis in need of study.

Finally, a word about sieges is in order. The strong tendency among Civil War contemporaries to call any static positioning in a fortified field position a siege has largely been accepted by modern historians. There were many different kinds of siege operations; only a few were employed at Yorktown and Suffolk, while a fuller range was used against Fort Wagner on Morris Island. The latter is, in fact, one of the classic siege operations in American military history. I refrain from overusing the word "siege" but will deal with the varied components of siege operations as they were applied to these campaigns.

These six lines of interpretation will continue throughout the three volumes that are planned to cover the eastern campaigns of the Civil War. Further elaboration of all six are offered in the conclusion of this volume.

I wish to offer a special note of gratitude to the staff members at all the archives and libraries I visited or contacted for information. Additionally, several people have gone beyond the ordinary to offer help or encouragement. They include Christopher Calkins at Petersburg National Battlefield; Robert E. L. Krick and Joseph Kyle at Richmond National Battlefield; A. Wilson Greene at Pamplin Park; Jerry L. Bochek at Newport News Park; Richard Sommers and Arthur Bergeron at the U.S. Army Military History Institute; and Jane M. Sundberg at Yorktown Battlefield. The Harrisburg Civil War Round Table offered me a James F. Haas Fellowship in 1998 to aid in the completion of research at the U.S. Army Military History Institute. I would also like to thank William L. Shea for helpful ideas and encouragement.

A special note of gratitude is due the self-proclaimed "trench nerds" of the Civil War Fortifications Study Group. Formed in 1992, mostly by dedicated historians working for the National Park Service, this is the only organization devoted to the study of Civil War fortifications. It organizes yearly conferences centered around visits to the remnants of fortifications. The members of this small but vibrant group are the richest storehouse of information about Civil War fortifications. They are a sounding board for anyone interested in learning about the topic or anyone in need of reliable information regarding identification, preservation, and assessment of earthwork remnants. I would like to thank specifically several members of the study group who have been particularly helpful in influencing my thinking on the subject. They include Dale Floyd, Philip Shiman, Stacy Allen, and Paul Hawke.

I wish to thank Gary W. Gallagher and Robert K. Krick for their careful readings of the manuscript and their helpful suggestions for improvement. David W. Lowe of the National Park Service and the Civil War Fortifications Study Group read the manuscript as well. He offered many helpful suggestions and saved me from several embarrassing mistakes. His deep and comprehensive knowledge of Civil War earthworks, his enthusiasm for the subject, and his stylistic suggestions improved the manuscript a great deal.

Finally, as always, I am eternally grateful for the support, encouragement, and love of my wife, Pratibha. It would all be useless without her.

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