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

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Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 * Earl J. Hess * Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005 * xix, 428 pp. * $45.00

For many Civil War enthusiasts, the Petersburg campaign of 1864-65 represented a sharp break with the first three years of the war. Confederate and Union armies abandoned costly frontal assaults and embraced the protection of complex chains of earthworks. According to this view, the final year of the war in Virginia had more in common with the Western Front of World War I than with the costly assaults of earlier years. Earl J. Hess challenges such long-standing assumptions and argues convincingly for the centrality of fortifications in understanding how armies operated and adapted to changing conditions throughout the first three years of the war. Though this is not the first modern study of the role of fortifications in the Civil War, it is the first study from outside archaeological and National Park Service circles.

In the first three volumes, Hess analyzes fifty-seven battles and campaigns of the Eastern Theater between the battle of Big Bethel and the fall of Plymouth within a wide net that spans operations not only in Virginia, but also in the coastal areas of North and South Carolina and the western mountains. Additional volumes will explore both the Overland and Petersburg campaigns. The author addresses not just the technical questions of how fortifications were constructed, but also how their presence affected the outcome of an attack, and how soldiers responded to the presence of earthworks on battlefields. In examining such questions, readers will be challenged to learn a relatively new set of terms that cover a spectrum of field fortifications from hasty breastworks to semi-permanent earthworks. A glossary makes this job much easier.

One of the overarching claims in this study is that "some degree of earthwork construction" defined Civil War battles in the first half of the war "even if the average soldier doubted the usefulness of the labor he expended" (p. 30). Reliance on earthworks ebbed and flowed as commanders continually assessed the value of offensive operations. …