During our latest adventure to Virginia, my husband and I got to tour through many of the major battles from the final years of the war. Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, North Anna, and Petersburg. At each one, I lost my mind over the preserved earthworks around every corner. I just about cried when I saw the recreated fortifications at Petersburg.
While I was going on and on about their construction, their uses, and everything in between, my husband asked me, “Why do you like earthworks so much?” The answer he got was deeper than he might have expected. It’s not because they’re “pretty” or even anything to do with how they were used in that specific battle. It had everything to do with what the earthworks represent.
If one looks at the terrain of the battlefields from the first couple of years of the American Civil War, you can notice a general pattern. They’re flat. They’re on open ground. There’s not much variance to the terrain, apart from fences or copse of trees. Sure, there are hills, but not many earthworks. Why is that? Because of the attitude toward the idea of fortifications on the battlefield during an engagement.
It surfaced in enough primary sources from soldiers and commanders to suggest that they believed digging trenches and building up walls to hide behind was a cowardly tactic. Digging and manual labor of that sort was also reserved for the lower class or enslaved persons available to the army. Robert E. Lee was even nicknamed the “King of Spades” for ordering his men to dig entrenchments so often when in a defensive position. No soldier “wanted” to build earthworks, so very few exist on the early battlefields. There are some exceptions, but the majority of early battlefields do have a startling lack of fortifications.
So what changed? Why are earthworks practically everywhere on the 1863 and 1864 battlefields?
Soldiers began to see the wisdom and practicality of using terrain – specifically high elevations and obstacles for hiding behind – as the war progressed in its intensity. Specifically in the spring and summer of 1862 after both armies were reeling from the battle at Manassas.
During the Valley Campaign with Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in April and May of 1862, we see the Union army taking advantage of the field. I’ll use the first battle of Winchester for an example. The Union army had positioned heavy artillery on Bower’s Hill to the south of town. Because of this artillery, Jackson’s men had a hard time breaking the lines of defense on the Union left flank. While the Stonewall Brigade couldn’t carry the hill, the Louisiana Brigade made a daring charge to take the harassing batteries.
A similar situation, which the Confederates failed to overcome, was at Boatswain’s Swamp upon the Malvern Hill battlefield. Not only was the Union line well protected by elevation and a semi-dense forest, but the Rebels were – literally – being bogged down in the swamp at the foot of the incline, making it that much more difficult for their ascent to claim any part of the field.
Then comes the battle of Second Manassas – or Second Bull Run if you prefer it that way – where Jackson’s division utilized the unfinished railroad to hold Pope’s army at bay. For two days, they held against wave after wave of charges, down to the point they were throwing rocks to keep the bluecoats off their front. And it was because of their ability to tire out the Federals from behind the railroad cut that enabled Longstreet’s men to sweep them off the field. To me, this is one of the first instances where soldiers began to realize that earthworks, or some altered piece of terrain, really worked. It wasn’t fighting scared. It was fighting smart.
One more example leading up to my ultimate point, comes from the battle at Antietam in September of 1862. Carolinians and Alabamians managed to hold out well against Union advances upon the Sunken Road. This piece of manmade landscaping originates from farmers and merchants needing a road to handle their carts and wagons. These sunken roads – evident on many major battlefields that take place around farms or villages – provided ample cover for the troops to shoot from. They could fire, duck down, reload, and come up to fire again. Sending up more ammunition was easier because it gave cover to those having to run back to the supply wagons. While the Confederates still failed to maintain that piece of ground due to a confusion of orders, the usefulness of the “earthworks” was confirmed in their minds.
Then comes December. Fredericksburg, as stated in previous posts for this series, was packed with genius defensive decisions. One of which being the placement of artillery along Marye’s Heights and the line of Georgians to defend the road behind the stone wall. The Union army spent an entire day, sending brigade after brigade to the slaughter while the Confederates sat comfy behind their exploited fortifications along the Heights. Similarly, Jackson used the unfinished railroad cut to the southeast of the town, along with the boggy ground to maintain the Confederate right flank.
A line from Shelby Foote’s Civil War Narrative was what made me begin to think that Fredericksburg was the real turning point for the army’s attitude toward building earthworks.
“So well had they plied their tools, these soldiers who six months ago had sneered at digging as cowardly work ‘unfit for a white man’ and in derision had dubbed their new commander ‘the King of Spades,’ that Lee remarked with pleasure at the sight: ‘My army is as much stronger for these new intrenchments as if I had received reinforcements of 20,000 men.’ No longer in need of prodding, or even suggestion, they kept digging.“[i]
The line implies that the soldiers weren’t scoffing at the idea of hiding behind dirt anymore. They were eager and willing to fortify their position with shovels, bayonets, tin cups, and their bare hands to make sure that the Federals would have no chance of a breakthrough.
From that point on, earthworks and fortifications seemed to pop up on countless battlefields as a key defensive strategy for either side. Not just in the eastern theatre, but also in the west, notably during the
siege of Vicksburg.
It’s not just the concept of earthworks that changed as a result of war. A whole slew of ideas and theories evolved as the war carried on for another two and a half years after that fateful day at Fredericksburg. Medical practices improved, the idea of the government taking responsibility for their fallen soldiers emerged, social and political upheavals caused people to begin to think different about their place in the world and the country’s position as an economical power.
If the country didn’t endure this Civil War, I can guarantee you that nothing would be like it is now. We wouldn’t have national cemeteries and our medical knowledge would probably be a good deal behind of where it was now. Bringing this full-circle, if we didn’t have to employ some form of ingenuity during the Civil War, earthworks and trenches might not have been as prevalent in the subsequent wars in Europe. That’s my theory, anyway.
Earthworks on a battlefield represent two things to me. As I said, they’re an example of how war can change the attitudes and priorities of the soldiers to what was going on around them. But they also stand as a testament to the soldiers’ determination to defend the line. When one looks at the battle of Spotsylvania at what became known as the Bloody Angle where soldiers engaged in aggressive hand-to-hand combat for over twenty hours, they have to consider what they were fighting over. The salient, a naturally weak corner along any battle line, had only one thing standing in its way from total collapse and that was its earthworks. And because the soldiers dug in and reinforced these positions prior to the Union showing up on the field, they were able to withstand the fierce charges that hammered them in the summer of 1864.
Today, those earthworks, as well as the ones at Cold Harbor, Wilderness, and Petersburg, remain as reminders to these bloody and gruesome events. They are the product of a man’s resolve to live for just one more day.
It’s thanks to history buffs like myself who realize their significance that these earthworks can be visited today. Unfortunately, not all have been saved. In places like Williamsburg, there’s few earthworks left hanging onto the land as efforts are made to preserve and protect these historic landmarks.
Next time you go onto a battlefield and you see these seemingly unimpressive mounds of dirt, think a little deeper. Think of who had hidden behind these structures. Of their families they were able to come home to. Of the bullets thudding against the head logs that saved lives. They’re not just big piles of dirt, but a lifeline for those who understood their importance.
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Volume 2, Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York City: First Vintage Books, A Random House Publisher, 1963. Print. (pg 41)