Rifle pits

by Fred Ray on April 3, 2008 · 1 comment

When reading about battles we frequently come across references to rifle pits, usually strung out in a line across the battlefield, often in front of a defensive position. The immediate tactical purpose was to screen the front and provide warning of and harassment to an approaching enemy force.

Fine, but what did a rifle pit actually look like? Our mental image is probably something like a modern foxhole, but CW soldiers did not normally carry entrenching tools, making digging in somewhat more difficult than today, especially on a fluid battlefield. Sharpshooters and pickets had to be able to set up a rifle pit quickly and then move it as required.

Confederate sharpshooter Berry Benson explained:

There were logs lying about and these we took to make rifle pits. From the general method of constructing protection for sharpshooters by digging a hole in the ground and throwing up earth in front of it as a breastwork, arose the use of the word ‘pits’ as applied to any construction serving the same purpose. A pile of rails was called a ‘rifle pit,’ and so with the logs. No hole was dug; the rails were simply arranged in low piles behind which the men lay.

The illustration above shows this nicely. I have also seen accounts where the pickets and sharpshooters carried their rails with them, ready to drop them instantly for a “pit.” Properly set up and manned by the right men, a line of rifle pits could be a formidable obstacle to an attacker.

A few days ago I posted another illustration of a sharpshooter in a much more prepared rifle pit at Petersburg, complete with a berm, slit trench, and overhead cover. However, this pit was constructed in mid-July 1864 when things had settled down enough to permit this sort of thing. The one I’ve posted here was constructed after the fighting at Fort Stevens (just outside Washington, DC) after the stiff fighting on July 12, 1864 and was abandoned the next day.

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