Origins of the Rifle-pit

by Fred Ray on November 16, 2008 · 1 comment

One of the most common features of the Civil War battlefield was the rifle pit, especially in the last two years of the war. Yet this feature was unknown in Napoleon’s time. As the name suggests, the rifle pit’s introduction coincided with the widespread use of the rifle, and can be dated to the Siege of Sevastapol in 1854-55. It was the brainchild of a Russian engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Franz Todleben, whom one historian described as:

a man whose talents as a military engineer were close to genius. Born in the Baltic provinces of Russia, Todleben was in appearance, origin and temperament a Prussian. He was tall and broad-shouldered and had a commanding presence. His eyes were penetrating, his nose long and beaked, his large, well-brushed moustache followed in its downward curves a wide, determined mouth. He was only thirty-seven but already enjoyed a reputation as a revolutionary military thinker, refusing to accept the concept of a fortress as a static position. The defences of a fortress, as of an entrenched position, must, he thought, be made elastic and capable of constant alteration and modification as the exigencies of the siege demanded. It was an idea which, given time, he was determined to apply to Sebastopol.

After almost being canned for criticizing his superior, Prince Mentschikoff, Todleben took over preparations for the defense of Sevastapol. Most of the Russian defenders were armed with smoothbores, some of which were flintlock relics from the Napoleonic era, while most of the Allies had rifles, many of them the latest Minié versions. The Allies began digging in for a siege, thinking they were secure if they were out of musket range i.e. about 300 yards or so. Todleben, however, was not going to leave them in peace. He concentrated the riflemen he did have to harass them.

Thus, Todleben developed a new feature in trench warfare, which the range and accuracy of the rifle had rendered possible. At night, parties issuing from the place dug, on selected parts of the ground between the opposing lines, rows of pits each fitted to hold a man, and having in front a few sandbags, or sometimes a screen of stones, so disposed as to protect his head, and to leave a small opening through which to fire. At daybreak they began to harass the guards of the trenches opposite, within easy range of them. The French especially suffered by being thus overlooked, and their proximity caused the enemy to adopt this form of warfare chiefly in opposing them.
To direct guns on objects so small as these pits, and frequently at a great distance from the batteries, seemed but a doubtful policy, and they were therefore opposed by men, similarly covered by sandbags, from the parapets.
After a time, Todleben, finding his idea so successful, expanded it; the rows of rifle pits were connected, by trenches, in parts of which shelter was given to continuous ranks of riflemen, and the defence being thus pushed out in advance of the general line, wore the aspect of besieging the beseigers. He had begun these enterprises in November, greatly aggravating the cares of the scanty defenders of the trenches.

To oppose the Russians the French and British both organized sharpshooter detachments of their own, and soon much of the action in the siege centered around vicious little picket fights for commanding terrain. In spite of their superior rifles (the British sharpshooters used the brand new P53 Enfield, the most advanced rifle then in service) they were never able to silence the stubborn Russians, who managed to seriously retard the progress of the siege.

One of the foreign observers in the Crimea was a young engineer captain, George Brinton McClellan, who wrote a detailed report of the siege, including the uses of the rifle pit. Even though barely mentioned by military theorists like Halleck and Mahan, both sides quickly adopted it during the Civil War for the same reasons Todleben found it so useful—it protected your own line and allowed you to harass your enemy’s.

I looked at what a Civil War rifle pit actually looked like in a previous post.


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