Review in Brief: Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War by Earl J. Hess

by Brett Schulte on June 9, 2008 · 1 comment

Earl J. Hess. Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press (April 6, 2005). 464 pp., 23 maps, appendices, notes, index. ISBN: 0-8078-2931-5 $45.00 (Hardcover w/DJ).

Earl Hess sets out to chronicle the use of fortifications during the Eastern Campaigns of the Civil war from 1861 up to just prior to the Overland Campaign of 1864. He believes the march towards extensive use of fortifications in 1864 on was neither smooth nor inevitable as has been assumed by so many historians and buffs. The author found that troops tended to dig in after a battle or prolonged contact with the enemy. Lengthy periods away from the enemy diminished this tendency and troops had to relearn the usefulness of fortifications. Hess believes the Civil War to be notable for the widespread use of “hasty entrenchments”, those dug while in contact with the enemy. However, he doesn’t believe the ascendancy of the rifle caused a more extensive use of field fortifications, citing the willingness of others to believe this based on the proximity of the two events.

His work is peppered with interesting anecdotes about Civil War firsts regarding fortifications. For instance, he says the first documented use of headlogs occurred at Chancellorsville along the Union XII Corps line on May 3, 1863. Another interesting first is the use of fortifications in the Mine Run campaign being the first to alter the outcome of a campaign without being assaulted. Readers will notice more detailed chapters where campaigns saw a more widespread use of fortifications. This leads to some interesting results where major battles such as Antietam only receive a few pages and the reduction of Battery Wagner on Morris Island near Charleston, South Carolina sees a long and detailed account.

Field Armies and Fortifications is not for the beginner. A working knowledge of all campaigns in the Eastern Theater from 1861-1864 is required to get the most use out of this book. As you may have figured out by now, there is strictly a military history focus on these campaigns. Civilians receive nary a mention. Hess gives a basic overview of each campaign, always with the use of fortifications in each campaign as the main topic. I wasn’t too familiar with some of the North Carolina campaigns, and so the lack of maps hurt. I hate to say there was a lack of maps, especially since the University of North Carolina Press included 23 maps. However, even with these 23 maps there could have been more, especially considering the topic. Hess visited as many sites as possible to look over existing fortifications from these campaigns, and most of the maps are based on this field investigation, providing a valuable service to researchers.

The two appendices and glossary are worthwhile additions to the book. The first appendix focuses on the Siege [sic] of Yorktown and John Magruder’s Warwick River Line, the most significant field fortifications in the Eastern Theater before the Battle of Chancellorsville. Hess goes into great detail covering the line and how it was constructed. Several maps accompany this appendix alone. The second appendix relates efforts to preserve the fieldworks at Gettysburg, the most famous battle ever fought on American soil. Lastly, the glossary covers the myriad of terms associated with the various types of earthworks and siege terms used repeatedly throughout the book, a very nice touch.

Hess provides a thoroughly informative yet entertaining look at the field fortifications constructed in the Eastern Theater during the campaigns of 1861-early 1864. His work will serve as a very useful starting point for those looking to dig deeper into this topic. I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to the beginning Civil War reader and especially to those just getting into military history in general. However, anyone familiar with the major campaigns of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia will absolutely want to have Field Armies and Fortifications in their library.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gil R. June 12, 2008 at 12:44 am

I read Hess’s book doing research for a computer game project and definitely found it worthwhile. It’s an odd book, since EVERYTHING is looked at from the perspective of field fortifications. Case in point, it goes on for a number of pages about Chancellorsville, but doesn’t mention Stonewall Jackson getting killed — after all, that had nothing to do with field fortifications!

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