Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hess: "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 by Earl J. Hess. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). Pp. 391, $45.00, Hardback, photos, illustrations, maps, notes, glossary, appendices. ISBN 0-8078-2931-5)]

Earl Hess’s new scholarly study of field fortifications is a significant and welcome addition to our understanding of this important military facet of the Civil War. After a short introduction outlining the development of the Union and Confederate engineering corps, Hess immediately launches into a detailed yet non-technical examination of the design and construction of field fortifications in the eastern theater during the first half of the war. By the author’s count, fifty-seven battles and campaigns are included in the discussion. Far from being limited to the actions of the main armies in Virginia, equal attention is given to operations in the western mountains and the coastal areas of North and South Carolina. Field Armies and Fortifications only incidentally addresses permanent fortifications such as masonry forts. Instead, it is tightly focused on the subject of field fortifications, the variety of which ranges from hasty breastwork construction for immediate tactical purposes to semi-permanent fortifications such as the earthwork lines ringing the city of Richmond and coastal enclaves like New Bern and Plymouth.

As befits a largely visual subject of study, a number of maps and photographs (many rare) are included. The author’s review of archaeological research, supplemented by personal fieldwork at hundreds of sites, has resulted in a treasure trove of highly detailed drawings of selected fortifications. However, it would have been most helpful if more “big picture” tactical maps were also provided in order to allow the reader to quickly place these excellent drawings of bastions and stretches of earthworks in the context of the entire battlefield. Additionally, many battle descriptions in the book regrettably do not have any accompanying maps at all.

Hess rightly contends that the inclination to construct field fortifications existed in one form or another throughout the entire war. It was a question of degree. He also argues that the progression of trench warfare was intimately tied to commanders’s evolving conceptions of offensive and defensive action. An early war commander planning a tactical offensive generally would not consider entrenching his force as that would indicate a static posture. Similarly, an undecided leader often viewed entrenchments as limiting his tactical options. It is also asserted that the increased killing range of the rifle had far less to do with the average infantryman’s desire to dig in than did the increasingly constant nature of close contact between opposing armies in the second half of the conflict. The author also demonstrates that the nature of the war’s increasing reliance on earthworks was not linear but rather was characterized by fits and starts interspersed with periods of actual regression, where the preceding campaign’s lessons seem to have been forgotten. Perhaps uniquely among historians, Hess places the watershed moment of this evolution of trench warfare in the east at Chancellorsville.

This book is the first of a planned trilogy, with volumes two and three covering the Overland and Petersburg campaigns respectively. A complete assessment of Hess’s study and its conclusions must await the completion of the series, but the author is certainly off to a good start. This valuable work deserves to be read and digested by military students at all levels and will likely prove to be an important reference work for some time to come.

(My review is reprinted with permission from North & South Magazine. Originally published in Vol. 8 #4, pp. 82-83)

1 comment:

  1. I need to pick this one up as well. I'm especially interested in the Petersburg Volume. Hopefully Hess doesn't take too long in between volumes. So many books, so little time (and money).

    Brett S.

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