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April 5, 2009

This Article is a result of discussions on the NSD Forum between  Gfran64 (Greg) and myself plus a host of other members.

There's plenty to be learned about fortifing. Many battles in a litany of wars depended which side used fortifcation to their best advantage.  There are a number of types of fortification, this article is going to be about field fortifications, Primarilly about Entrenchment and Breastwork/parapets .  There is a long list of different types of fortifications, which can be discussed later.  Greg and I are still gathering research to develop this article.  Gettysburg had entrenchment,  breastworks/parapets, ect., which has piqued the interest of many in the Civil War community.and of course of anything in the near future.

Early in the Civil War there were few officers that had experience building earthen field fortifcations.  As the war went on, the defenders of field fortifications  realized a multiplier of at least 2 kills to their one loss 2:1, often near 10 or more to 1.  A good example would be the Battle at Cold Harbor where Grant ordered frontal assaults on Rebel fortifcations, the Union lost 7000 men in 8 minutes to the Rebel's loss of  just  1500 men.  The tactics on both sides were repeated over and over again during the war.  Union Officers were being trained at no more than regimental level in the art of war,  from doctrine developed before the Civil War (Mahan's Manual 1836 West Point) using smooth bore type weapons of muskets and cannon.  The doctrine continued for years into the war even though weaponology had changed to rifled muskets and cannons.  So green officers would be marching their men up to Rebel fortifications thinking they would'nt be taking many losses over 100 yds., then quick time a bayonet charge, instead of double quick.  In the meantime Rebel units with rifled muskets and cannons would be tearing into the ranks long before they got there.  It's estimated that a rifled regiment could get off 18 volleys at a target approaching from 1000yds away and smooth bore muskets would do 2 to 3  volleys in the last hundred yds. 

Volunteers or green troops got a boost in morale when in field works, they felt safe, they felt they had an advantage.  Why?  It was found that smooth bore muskets penetrated earth 18 inches, rifled muskets twice as much, so they built their fortifications at least three feet to five feet thick of earth, if they were building to protect from 6 lb.cannons they would build 6 feet thick and so on for heavier artillery. Usually these fortifcations would be breastworks/parapets with entrenchments immediatly behind them.

When building field fortifications it was figured that each man could move 1 cubic yard of earth per hour.  Special engineerng soldiers bore uniform patches with crossed picks, they were in great demand to build field fortifications and other works during the war.  Work parties were assigned by every unit to build fortifications and or to improve them.

Methods of defeating fortificaction (Tactics) were done by trial and error with mens lives.  Examples of these were; Changes to attacking formations (attack column developed), Element of surprise,  weather (use of fog to block the defenders' sight), Night attacks,  Flank attacks,  especially after breeching a fortified position (field fortifications often were supported by other field fortifications)  and don't forget tunneling under fortifications.

Not all fortifications got fully completed, however, having something was better than nothing for personal protection.

At Shiloh, April 6, 1862 Sherman had his force make camp not anticipating an attack.  Had only camp guards posted.  His men were surprised  attacked by Confederates while having breakfast in their tents and became over run.  Had Sherman ordered field fortifications the night before, chances are they would'nt have gotten routed.  

Another factor discovered during the war was that  24 lb. artillery could penetrate  2 feet of masonary fortification, but only several inches into earthen fortifications. Simular results with all artillery.

Some statistics;

At the end of 1861 Washington D C had 60 enclosed forts, 37 miles of trenches, 20 miles of rifle pits, 93 batteries with 762 heavy guns and mortars.

1861 Richmond had 12 miles of forts with 218 guns on the banks of the James River.

1864 Richmond had 120 miles of fortifications and entrenchments.

Doing this article was a treat, educational and work.  If there is holes in what you read, "Fill them!" For I could not possiblly cover everything short of writing a book..  I give a lot of credit to Greg for finding a Thesis from  which I based  this article on.  If you have the time, read it (154pages) it's very interesting, it's posted at the bottom of this page. 

Below are available descriptions of the subject:, It's to give  an idea to those who don't know   the difference between Entrenchment and Breastworks.

Improvements will come later.   Thanks for now


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Entrenchment may refer to:

  • A method of trench digging, particularly with relation to Trench warfare.
  • A type of fortification created by digging (which may or may not be manned).

3 rd Wisconsin at Gettysburg

http://wwwAbout six o'clock we were hurried out of our entrenchments at a double-quick toward Little Round Top, where it was understood that Sickle's Third Corps had been driven back with severe loss. But before we arrived, the enemy had been repulsed, and the firing ceased. We were now started back to our entrenchments. We found, however, upon our arrival, that the enemy had in our absence taken possession of them. It was exasperating to see them benefiting by our labors.

More on entrenchments at this site;



A temporary, quickly constructed fortification, usually breast-high. See synonyms at bulwark.

n. a low temporary defense or parapet.

Architecture: breastwork

1. Masonry work for a chimney breast.
2. The parapet of a building.
3. A defensive wall, hastily constructed, about breast high, often protecting the summit of a mound.
Union 12th Corps Breastwork construction on Culp's Hill, Gettysburg ;
The woods covering the greater portion of this part of our line afforded abundant material for the construction of formidable works of defence, and during the night of the first and morning of the second, men accustomed to wood craft built log breastworks, felling the trees and blocking them up into a close log fence, battening with cord word from piles near by, and surmounting the whole with "head-logs" which later proved of inestimable value in the close contact of the contending forces. So formidable were these works in places, that the Confederates reported them to be log forts requiring scaling ladders for their successful assault. Some regiments more fortunate than others had picks and spades, and strengthened their works with earth. All along the line, earth, logs, boulders, cord-wood, brush, in fact anything which could be made use of, was taken advantage of to complete the line of defence. About ten o'clock on the morning of the second the works were in a great measure completed, although men were employed for the greater part of the day in strengthening the angles, developing salients whenever the ground admitted, and in Greene's Brigade, under the supervision of that gallant officer, in constructing a traverse from his right along the crest of a ridge, which, nearly at right angles with the main front, ran back toward the Baltimore pike.
 Sourse;  MOLLAS

Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 (Book Review)

Reviewed by Perry D. Jamieson, Air Force Historical Studies Office
By Earl J. Hess
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2005

Many books describe Civil War military operations in remarkable detail, but prove disappointing when it comes to the subject of field fortifications. They mention the features on the battlefield, but leave the reader with many unanswered questions.

Did the men in the ranks prepare a particular line of fortifications on their own initiative, or at the orders of some commander? What role did engineers play in constructing field works? How did the soldiers take advantage of the terrain available to them? Did the fortifications on a given battlefield influence the outcome of that engagement or its campaign?

In Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2005, $45), Professor Earl J. Hess addresses those and several other important questions. Field entrenchments played a significant role in the conflict of the 1860s, and they well deserve the thorough attention that this book gives them. Readers will be glad to learn Professor Hess intends to follow this volume with two others that will continue his treatment of the Eastern theater through the end of the war.

It is possible to admire Hess’ work without accepting all of his interpretations. His effort to minimize the significance of rifled shoulder arms fails — in part because it is based on his incorrect assertion that the only advantage that the rifled weapon held over the musket “was a range that was about three times longer.”

That contention is wrong because it ignores the fact that the new shoulder arm had not only a longer range, but also greater accuracy, than the old. Like other efforts to discount the importance of rifled muskets on Civil War battlefields, one runs into the fundamental truth that casualties in this war — both in absolute terms and also relative to the numbers of troops engaged — were far higher than in previous American conflicts.

In the Eastern theater from the beginning of the war through the Plymouth, N.C., operation, as Hess himself recounts, thousands of dead and wounded littered the ground from Gaines’ Mill to Bristoe Station. No amount of revisionism can explain away those bodies.

Disparaging the rifled musket and some of the other interpretations of Field Armies and Fortifications can be debated, but the book belongs on the “must read” list. It has many strong points, beginning with the author’s basic decision to concentrate on how field defenses were prepared and how they influenced battles and campaigns, rather than on the details of their engineering. He states in his preface that this book “is not a technical study; the focus is on military operations.” His text carries out that intention. Hess gives both scholars and general readers what they want: a readable survey that integrates the history of field fortifications into a narrative of military operations. For those who are interested in the technical aspects of the subject, the author adequately covers them in the book’s illustrations and their captions, a glossary and appendices.

Another strength of Field Armies and Fortifications is its research. Hess draws on an impressive range of primary accounts and secondary works. He makes good use of popular articles, National Park Service resources (including conversations with NPS historians, who in recent years have produced some excellent work on their specialties) and archeological studies.

Photographs are a particularly important source for a work on field fortifications. Hess has selected informative ones and has written captions that further their value. Battlefield surveys also are essential to understanding the subject of this book. As Hess rightly observes, there “simply is no substitute for field visits to military sites.” All too often, Civil War readers encounter an author who tries to describe a battlefield that the writer has never seen. Hess is not guilty of this. He’s done his homework — in archives, in libraries and on the ground.

The author also deserves credit for the ambitious scope of his work. Field Armies and Fortifications covers events in western Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, areas that some historians would have omitted from a book on the Eastern theater. Hess gives Rich Mountain, New Berne, Suffolk, Battery Wagner and other actions the attention they merit. He makes a strong case that even in the war’s backwaters, fortifications played a significant role in operations.

Earl Hess deserves much credit for taking on the important subject of Civil War fortifications. Students of this great conflict, of American military history and of 19th-century warfare should read this book carefully. Some of its arguments miss their mark, but they deserve serious consideration. Wisely focused, widely researched and well written, Field Armies and Fortifications is an informative work. Readers can look forward to the author’s future volumes on this topic, and expect them to be as scholarly as this one.

Some-thing-else to consider reading about fortifing, the only problem is that it does not seem to cover Gettysburg.

THESIS on field fortifications:
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