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CWT Book Review: Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee

By Eric Ethier
5/2/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign

by Earl J. Hess, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2007, 336 pages, $39.95.

Civil War battle tactics have received renewed attention in recent years, most notably from Paddy Griffith and Brent Nosworthy. With his 2005 effort Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861- 1864, Earl J. Hess began carving out his own niche in the related, though understudied, area of Civil War fortifications. He continues his work with the second book in a planned trilogy, Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign.

Hess makes good use of private letters, diaries and the Official Records to examine Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 campaign through the opposing commanders’ use of ramparts. These, as one Georgian discovered to his horror in the Wilderness, included everything from improvised sandbags of rubber ponchos to dead soldiers, their “limbs extended out from among the logs and rubbish.” Real entrenching—the sophisticated use of revetments, parapets, protective headlogs, etc.—began at Spotsylvania, and Hess carefully examines the bullish Union attacks on the Confederate Mule Shoe Salient (“an engineering mistake from the standpoint of terrain and troop position”). The value of Hess’ book is most apparent when his own findings help verify the construction and significance of these fortifications. Today, for instance, a close look at Fort Darling’s Inner Line “shows that the line was constructed in a manner similar to most other semipermanent works in the early part of the war.”

Trench Warfare includes a number of revealing wartime photographs of battlefield fortifications as well as some less valuable modern shots. More interesting are Hess’ own drawings—remarkable re-creations of the original lines based on eyewitness accounts and the author’s pointed study of the ground. These provide a semblance of the view “enjoyed” by the soldiers forced to confront them, and will add to readers’ understanding of how fortifications were used.

Hess occasionally gets into trouble with assorted stale conclusions (“Grant really was not a butcher”; “Fortifications were the result of continual close contact, not rifle-muskets”; etc.), but his focus on the thin and underappreciated ranks of the engineers—who designed and built everything from zigzagging communication trenches to elaborate bombproofs, often under enemy fire—is both compelling and refreshing.

“This book” Hess says, “is meant to stand on its own as a study of field fortifications during the Overland campaign.” Considered strictly in that form, Trench Warfare represents something new for the serious enthusiast.

 

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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