Review: In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat

by James Durney on July 27, 2009 · 1 comment

In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat
by Earl J. Hess

IntheTrenchesatPetersburgFieldFortificationsandConfederateDefeatEarlJHessProduct Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807832820
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807832820

Joined with “Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns” and “Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign”, this book completes an extensive discussion of fortifications in the East.  The series traces both the development and acceptance of “digging in” during the war.  While these books are specific to the East, all armies shared many of the techniques and attitudes.

The Petersburg Campaign has very few general studies and only this book concentrates on fortifications.  The author has created a first rate history of the campaign with the fortifications central to the story.  In doing so, he has added a valuable and much needed book to our library.  This book works on several levels: it completes the study of fortifications, it is a comprehensive history of the Petersburg Campaign and it is an excellent read.  Earl J. Hess is one of our best authors, writing with a sure ability and full knowledge of the subject.  He can make complex technical issues understandable without having to “dumb down” the discussion.  His books are a joy to read as well as a source of information.

We start by covering the engineering abilities of the two armies and their approach to fortifications, cross the James River encounter the Confederates and stalemate.  These fifty pages are a solid foundation for the balance of the book.  Each decision comes after a decision of the events leading up to it, allowing the reader to fully understand the issues, options and reasons for this course of action.  This approach makes the campaign both understandable and logical.  Interspersed between these chapters are chapters on the fortifications.  These chapters cover the building and maintaining of earthen forts.  The strongest part is living conditions and how the armies tried to cope.  This is some of the strongest writing on the Petersburg Campaign I have seen.  The author is not inserting a couple of required chapters but making this part of the story.  The result is a very strong dual history of military operations and fortifications.

Maps are very good, plentiful and illustrative of the text.  As we get deeper into the military operations, the maps are closer together.  I never had problems finding a map nor finding what I need on a map.  The illustrations are excellent.  For the most part, they are Nineteenth Century photographs of the fortifications taken shortly after the war.  The well-placed illustrations have text telling us what we are looking at and what to look for.  The footnotes are helpful, use excellent sources and correctly formatted.

Appendix 1 is a look at how the fortifications fared after the war, a short history of preservation or exploitation that resulted in the present parks. Appendix 2 is a technical discussion on the fortifications.

This is an excellent readable history of the Petersburg Campaign and a technical discussion of the fortifications.  You should consider this when building or maintaining your Civil War library.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Will Hickox July 27, 2009 at 10:41 pm

It is certainly true that the chapters on living conditions in the trenches are some of the strongest Civil War writing in years. Hess has made what could have been a dry technical tome into a compelling account of a forgotten campaign.

I found a few errors–e.g. he calls the 1st maine Heavy artillery “previously inexperienced in combat” when they had already taken heavy casualties at Spotsylvania (Hess made the same mistake in a North and South article a few years back), but overall this is an invaluable work.

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