Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 (Book Review) | HistoryNet MENU

Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by Perry D. Jamieson, Air Force Historical Studies Office
By Earl J. Hess
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2005

Many books describe Civil War military operations in remarkable detail, but prove disappointing when it comes to the subject of field fortifications. They mention the features on the battlefield, but leave the reader with many unanswered questions.

Did the men in the ranks prepare a particular line of fortifications on their own initiative, or at the orders of some commander? What role did engineers play in constructing field works? How did the soldiers take advantage of the terrain available to them? Did the fortifications on a given battlefield influence the outcome of that engagement or its campaign?

In Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2005, $45), Professor Earl J. Hess addresses those and several other important questions. Field entrenchments played a significant role in the conflict of the 1860s, and they well deserve the thorough attention that this book gives them. Readers will be glad to learn Professor Hess intends to follow this volume with two others that will continue his treatment of the Eastern theater through the end of the war.

It is possible to admire Hess’ work without accepting all of his interpretations. His effort to minimize the significance of rifled shoulder arms fails — in part because it is based on his incorrect assertion that the only advantage that the rifled weapon held over the musket “was a range that was about three times longer.”

That contention is wrong because it ignores the fact that the new shoulder arm had not only a longer range, but also greater accuracy, than the old. Like other efforts to discount the importance of rifled muskets on Civil War battlefields, one runs into the fundamental truth that casualties in this war — both in absolute terms and also relative to the numbers of troops engaged — were far higher than in previous American conflicts.

In the Eastern theater from the beginning of the war through the Plymouth, N.C., operation, as Hess himself recounts, thousands of dead and wounded littered the ground from Gaines’ Mill to Bristoe Station. No amount of revisionism can explain away those bodies.

Disparaging the rifled musket and some of the other interpretations of Field Armies and Fortifications can be debated, but the book belongs on the “must read” list. It has many strong points, beginning with the author’s basic decision to concentrate on how field defenses were prepared and how they influenced battles and campaigns, rather than on the details of their engineering. He states in his preface that this book “is not a technical study; the focus is on military operations.” His text carries out that intention. Hess gives both scholars and general readers what they want: a readable survey that integrates the history of field fortifications into a narrative of military operations. For those who are interested in the technical aspects of the subject, the author adequately covers them in the book’s illustrations and their captions, a glossary and appendices.

Another strength of Field Armies and Fortifications is its research. Hess draws on an impressive range of primary accounts and secondary works. He makes good use of popular articles, National Park Service resources (including conversations with NPS historians, who in recent years have produced some excellent work on their specialties) and archeological studies.

Photographs are a particularly important source for a work on field fortifications. Hess has selected informative ones and has written captions that further their value. Battlefield surveys also are essential to understanding the subject of this book. As Hess rightly observes, there “simply is no substitute for field visits to military sites.” All too often, Civil War readers encounter an author who tries to describe a battlefield that the writer has never seen. Hess is not guilty of this. He’s done his homework — in archives, in libraries and on the ground.

The author also deserves credit for the ambitious scope of his work. Field Armies and Fortifications covers events in western Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, areas that some historians would have omitted from a book on the Eastern theater. Hess gives Rich Mountain, New Berne, Suffolk, Battery Wagner and other actions the attention they merit. He makes a strong case that even in the war’s backwaters, fortifications played a significant role in operations.

Earl Hess deserves much credit for taking on the important subject of Civil War fortifications. Students of this great conflict, of American military history and of 19th-century warfare should read this book carefully. Some of its arguments miss their mark, but they deserve serious consideration. Wisely focused, widely researched and well written, Field Armies and Fortifications is an informative work. Readers can look forward to the author’s future volumes on this topic, and expect them to be as scholarly as this one.

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