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

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

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

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


The eastern campaigns of the Civil War involved the widespread use of field fortifications, from Big Bethel and the Peninsula to Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Charleston, and Mine Run. While many of these fortifications were meant to last only as long as the battle, Earl J. Hess argues that their history is deeply significant. The Civil War saw more use of fieldworks than did any previous conflict in Western history.

Hess studies the use of fortifications by tracing the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia from April 1861 to April 1864. He considers the role of field fortifications in the defense of cities, river crossings, and railroads and in numerous battles. Blending technical aspects of construction with operational history, Hess demonstrates the crucial role these earthworks played in the success or failure of field armies. He also argues that the development of trench warfare in 1864 resulted from the shock of battle and the continued presence of the enemy within striking distance, not simply from the use of the rifle-musket, as historians have previously asserted.

Based on fieldwork at 300 battle sites and extensive research in official reports, letters, diaries, and archaeological studies, this book should become an indispensable reference for Civil War historians.


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 . . .

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