Armies in blue and gray laid waste to thousands of miles of fencelines that snaked across the South, destruction that proved a very real factor in the Confederacy’s collapse.
A disbelieving farmer wandered the farm lanes and fields of Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, in May 1864, surveying warfare’s bleak aftermath. He carefully picked his way across his land, littered with the wreckage of fighting that had raged across the region before it ebbed and drifted slowly away to the south.
On acre after acre, the evidence of a thousand personal tragedies was strewn about him—a seemingly endless display of horrors. But the farmer was mostly trying to absorb the graphic proof of his own personal losses. Despite the war, he had managed to plant his crops that spring, and had been looking forward to a bountiful harvest. Sheltered in firmly fenced fields, protected there from straying hogs, cows, horses and mules, the seedlings had seemingly wanted only time to reward him for his labor.
But now he faced stark reality: All the fences were gone. Any crops that hadn’t been trampled in the fighting would inevitably be devoured by the first critters that got to them. Fences that kept animals in, gone. Fences along the pikes, plank roads and farm lanes that kept driven herds corralled, gone. And fences that kept unwanted animals out—all gone. Eighty thousand rails worth, fences that took years to build and that were designed to be “hog tight, horse high, bull strong” had vanished within a fortnight. They had literally gone up in smoke, sacrificed for firewood by men in blue and gray.
Further exploration compounded the farmer’s misery. Surrounding forests had also been cut down, leaving nothing but an ugly stubble of bare stumps. All the wood for miles around had been used up. Not only were his fences gone, gone too was any possibility of replacing them.
Given the severity of his losses, it would have been scant comfort to the Spotsylvania farmer to realize that he was not alone in his plight. Farmers all across the South faced the same predicament before the war finally ended. The cumulative impact of this wholesale devastation—the destruction of the agricultural backbone of the Southern economy—had enormous consequences. It was as much a factor in the ultimate collapse of the Confederacy as the “overwhelming numbers and resources” of the Union that Robert E. Lee blamed for the defeat of his army and the Southern cause.
The North’s population and industrial capacity were no more a secret at the beginning of the war than they were at the end, and Southern leaders presumably recognized the Union’s capabilities and planned accordingly. But there is no evidence that they gave any forethought to the consequences of massive armies operating for years at a time within the pastoral South. The collapse of the South’s agricultural system was all the more devastating for being completely unanticipated.
Ironically, the notorious depredations by Union forces under Generals William T. Sherman, David Hunter or Philip Sheridan were nothing compared to the largely inadvertent damage—what Abraham Lincoln called “the frictions and abrasions”— of ongoing warfare. Certainly Southern leaders never dreamed that Unionists and Rebels alike would wreak havoc to such a great extent as both sides marched and maneuvered through the Southland. But armies North and South were voracious, and they were often utterly dependent on whatever resources were immediately at hand. In addition to destroying crops, they wrecked roads, fields, orchards, livestock, wells—and particularly fences. Missing fences in effect left the fields unprotected, like leaving the safe open in a bank.
The fences that figured so heavily in the Confederacy’s fate were mainly of the sort known as zigzag, worm, snake or Virginia rail. In fact, that basic barrier has been so widely used that it is sometimes referred to as America’s national fence. It was the easiest and most economical to erect and maintain. Even so, the cost of fencing often approximated the value of the land enclosed.
Farmers spent years splitting ash, chestnut, oak, black locust, pine or red cedar, typically into 11-foot lengths. Tall, straight trees about one foot in diameter yielded between eight and 16 rails. During his rail-splitting days, Abraham Lincoln earned about 50 cents for 100 rails, typically harvested from trees that had been cleared from a new field being fenced.
The usual practice was to set the ends of the bottom rails on large flat field boulders or “rest stones” to keep them from rotting. The intersecting rails were then laid, one upon the other, at an angle of 120 degrees to the next section or panel of rails. They were usually stacked five to six rails high. The weight of the rails stabilized the fence. No digging was necessary, and the rails were not otherwise secured.
Fence corners harbored weeds, varmints, brush and birds. But during the war, they often harbored troops as well. Soldiers of every stripe routinely settled near fences to seek refuge or rest. Numerous letters and memoirs mention coming across Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in fence corners all over Virginia. Most recall finding Stonewall either fast asleep in the shadow of a fence or sitting morosely atop one.
Unfortunately for the farmers, easy-to-construct rail fences were also easy to tear down. One firm tug, and a whole panel of rails would tumble in a heap. As a result, fence rails became the most accessible and widely available implement for soldiers both North and South. They were co-opted on a daily basis as seasoned firewood by the tens of thousands of men who marched millions of miles throughout the Southern states between 1861 and 1865.
In general when a column halted, according to one account by John D. Billings of the 10th Massachusetts Battery, it would “melt in a moment, dividing to the right and left.” Each man would “rush for the top rail of the nearest fence, until not a rail remained. The coffee would soon begin to simmer, the pork to sputter in the flames…little campfires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along the hills and plains, and as if by magic acres of territory would be luminous with them.” Ulysses S. Grant’s aide Horace Porter also describes the nice touch a rail fire gave to headquarters, noting that “A camp-fire of dry fence rails” burned in front of Grant’s tent “for the reason that the fire lighted up the scene and made the camp look more cheerful.” But most troops had no idea of the scale of the devastation they had authored. For example, all the fences on a 3,000-acre Georgia plantation were just sufficient to cook breakfast for the XVII Corps of Sherman’s men in 1864.
Confederate leadership tried to stop the practice of burning rails by their own armies. But the only fences that seemed to survive were those that surrounded graveyards. President Jefferson Davis wrote imploringly to General Joseph Johnston, “Unless the destruction of fences can be arrested it will materially lessen the crop…and impair the power of the government to subsist the Army.”
Stonewall Jackson made an effort to enforce his orders against burning fences. When the “neat paling fence” that surrounded his temporary headquarters at Warrenton Sulphur Springs was torn down, for example, Jackson had the commanders of the nearby South Carolina regiments arrested.
But during the bitterly cold weather of his ill-fated Romney campaign, Jackson was forced to relent and permit his men to build rail fires. His freezing troops reportedly crowded so closely around the flames that the uniforms of those nearest the blazing rails were actually smoking.
Nor did Jackson discipline his staff after he found himself entangled in a persimmon tree and had to be lowered back to earth on a skid his men had made of purloined fence rails. According to one account, during the Gettysburg campaign Robert E. Lee was seen to “dismount from his horse and replace the rails of the fence of a wheatfield which had been thrown down….It was the best rebuke he could have given to the offenders.” At the Second Battle of Manassas, Colonel Arthur Cummings of the 33rd Virginia sent his men into the woods to split new rails and rebuild the fences they had ripped down while in bivouac.
Most soldiers generally resented any such encroachments on their means of building comfortable fires. When orders went out to take only the top rail from a fence, troops successively removed “only the top rail” until all the rails were taken. “This part of Virginia,” wrote one Rebel, “is about ruined fences, all burnt.” During Sherman’s 1864 ride through Georgia, one of his men took a look at the destruction surrounding him and wrote in his diary, “God pity this southland when we are done with it.”
Even farms that were far away from marching armies were not necessarily immune from destruction. Gunboats patrolling rivers across the South, for example, routinely pulled up alongside riverbanks so that their crews could get ashore to tear down fences and stoke their boilers.
As casualties mounted on both sides, soldiers began to incorporate fence rails into the rudimentary breastworks they put up with whatever materials were at hand. These became progressively more elaborate as the war went on. Down came even more fences, sacrificed now to troops’ survival rather than mere comfort.
The word fence derives from the Latin defendere—to ward off—and that was precisely what the soldiers had in mind. At Spotsylvania Court House one Rebel described his own construction technique: “The neighboring fences were robbed, and the rails piled up before us. Earth was then thrown over these, from the inner side, so that by night we had a pretty good trench and breast work to cover us. The system of fighting behind fortifications was now established.”
Before the Battle of Atlanta in July 1864, General Sherman wrote, “The skill and rapidity with which our men construct these is wonderful and is something new in the art of war.” The men even began to tote the rails along with them—mobile breastworks—throwing them down to fight, then gathering them up again as they moved on to the next battle site. The Yankees dubbed the hurriedly gathered rails covered with earth that the Confederates devised in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 “bull pens.” Dirt thrown atop the rails helped bind them together; otherwise artillery shells reportedly “knocked and scattered the rails as though they were so many clubs….”
Soon even men in skirmish lines were fortifying their positions using fence rails and dirt. Troops also began to compete with one another in pre – paring their works. During the winter of 1862-63, Union pickets near Aquia Creek refined things still further, building a large shed of fence rails and roofing it with pine boughs to provide shelter during their frosty watches.
Any fences left standing could have an important and sometimes even decisive impact on battle tactics, troop movements and on occasion even the outcome of battles. In cavalry actions, a significant number of fences might paralyze the riders, particularly if they were confronting infantrymen. Then again, many battles turned on a focal point of a fence line or a stone wall. These contests typically became a race between two forces to get to a fence, the winner of the race usually becoming the de facto winner of the battle. Kernstown, Cross Keys and Port Republic are some classic examples.
Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg faltered in part because the mosaic of sturdy post and rail fences bordering the Emmitsburg Road disorganized the Confederate advance. They blunted Lee’s desired effect—a solid offensive mass hitting a strung-out defensive line and overwhelming it.
Gettysburg’s post and rail fences, with their deeply dug-in posts and rails tightly fitted into mortised holes in the posts, were hard to dislodge under any circumstances. Trying to knock them down under fire was deadly work. Rare in the South, where zigzag or Virginia rail barriers were commonplace, post and rail fences were prevalent in Pennsylvania and Maryland, where the land was more intensively cultivated. Wartime photographs offer graphic evidence of Virginia rail fencing scattered like chaff while post and rail fences stand unaffected, awash with bodies as well as the other flotsam and jetsam of a military deluge.
Sometimes fences served more as a distraction than a real threat during combat. At Gettysburg, Rebel Brig. Gen. William “Extra Billy” Smith grew alarmed when he spotted what he thought was “a line of troops” and hastily called for reinforcements. What he had seen turned out to be “a fence with a growth of small trees along it.”
During the Valley campaign of 1862 near Mount Jackson, Va., one disgusted Ohioan wrote home that he’d been frightened by what he thought was an array of Southern artillery, which in reality “proved to be six innocent rail heaps.” On occasion, troop movements were temporarily suspended because officers reported seeing forces on their flanks—which actually turned out to be nothing more than fences or stone walls. It’s even possible that Confederate Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s hesitation about attacking Culp’s Hill on Gettysburg’s first day was partially the result of such an error.
Fences were also sometimes employed as part of deliberate deceptions. On several occasions Union forces were intimidated when Confederate leaders concocted a ruse of “rolling empty wagons over fence rails” as a supplement to bugle blowing, trains whistling, drums pounding and other evidence that Southern forces were being reinforced when in fact they were beating a hasty retreat.
Fence rails were frequently used as tools in the aftermath of a battle, both to remove wounded troops from the field—a blanket placed over two rails served as an acceptable stretcher—and also to transport the bodies of the dead. Weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, decomposing bodies that could not otherwise be moved were slid into burial trenches on fence rails. At Cedar Mountain, Va., in August 1862, artillerymen noted “a single grave surrounded by a fence made of pickets taken from a fence a short distance away. It was marked ‘Captain, White Horse Battery.’ ”
At the close of the Battle of Antietam, each Union burial party along the Sunken Road counted off 12 panels of fence and took responsibility for the bodies along that section. The bodies were transported on fence rails to temporary burial trenches. In the weeks after the battle, visitors to Antietam reportedly came across dead soldiers “laid together on top of the ground, rails put around and dirt thrown over them….” Troops resorted to a similar expedient at Stones River, in Tennessee. Union topographical engineer David H. Strother commented that Confederate “dead I have always found lying behind stone fences, in forests, and in dense thickets. Ours are generally found in the open fields.” Union Brig. Gen. Isaac I. Stevens’ body was discovered “lying dead up on the broke fence” of a field in Chantilly, Va., in September 1862.
Ad hoc burial sites were often marked with a fence rail that had been smoothed at one end, with a brief epitaph or comment scrawled on it in charcoal. The broken end of the rail was then driven into the ground at the head of the grave.
The widespread availability of fence rails also meant that they became an impromptu substitute for everything from beds to battering rams. Clothes were dried over burning rails. Beds were made using parallel rails, with a carpet of moss for a mattress. A rail laid crossways could work as a pillow. Ulysses S. Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest moved their men across Western rivers on rafts of rails. The Union Signal Corps used fences as telegraph poles, stretching wire along them. After the war came to an end, in an opportune role reversal, rail-less Richmond farmers rebuilt their vanished fences by substituting salvaged Union telegraph wire for rails.
Topographical engineers could closely approximate distances for their maps by studying distant, familiar-sized objects—including fences. Muddy roads were “corduroyed” with rails taken from the fences that lined them. A group of Confederates at Dalton, Ga., even played baseball of sorts with “a section of some farmer’s fence” for a bat and a yarn-wrapped walnut for a ball.
Locked granaries and smokehouses presented no obstacle to Sherman’s “bummers.” They quickly recruited fence rails and used them to batter open the doors. Rails served as tent poles and planking for bridges. These rails were sharpened and jammed into the ground at an angle to serve as abatis. They were also piled into the “wash,” or ditch, beside a road, to facilitate the passage of heavy artillery.
Sometimes fence rails were even used as weapons—either in battle or as a means of disciplining troops. Soldiers hefted rails to knock enemy cavalry off their mounts or held them up as roadblocks, to stop a panic in their own ranks. When troops didn’t behave as their leaders hoped, they were sometimes straddled on fence rails, tied to fences or forced to carry rails on their shoulders for a specified period—eight hours, for example, for being absent without leave.
Fence references and terminology abounded on both sides of the conflict: the Railsplitter president; “Stonewall” Jackson; Edward “Fence-Rail” Johnson and Stonewall Jackson’s cousin, William “Mudwall” Jackson. Any especially tall man would likely be nicknamed “Fence-rail.” There was also a Rebel army saying that one general getting another general out of a scrape or a tight situation was “straightening their fence.” For example, “Let old Jubal straighten that fence!” Fences even turned up in wartime poetry. Illinois Private Albert E. Trumble wrote his sweetheart, “My pen is poor, my ink is pale, My love to you, As long as a rail.”
Most Southerners, however, found little to wax poetic about when it came to the war’s destruction. Two years after his campaigns through the South, Sherman recorded his impression of the region’s agricultural plight, describing it as “desolation written in broad characters across the whole face of their country.” The economic and social upheaval that engulfed the South was of course more than just a matter of destroyed fences. Confederate money and bonds were worthless. The transportation system was a shambles: railroads torn up, bridges collapsed, roads in disrepair. The labor force had been uprooted, with so many men killed, wounded or in some cases—when it came to slaves—newly emancipated. The region’s small industrial base lay in ruins. One observer described what he saw of the post-Civil War South as a “howling waste.”
It would take an entire generation for the region as a whole to recover. By 1870, production levels of the South’s cash crops, cotton, tobacco and sugar, had nearly returned to prewar levels. But in rural areas small farmers rebounded much more slowly from the war’s effects. The value of farms fell by more than 40 percent in the 1860s, and the value of livestock decreased by almost 30 percent.
The saving grace in the post- war recovery process was the fact that the land itself could not be destroyed— and the majority of the South’s farmland had not been substantively affected by the conflict. For example, the swath of destruction that Sherman’s march left across Georgia had touched only a small percentage of the state. In addition, new crops such as peaches and other fruits, peanuts and vegetables, which had no prewar commercial value, became profitable in the war’s aftermath.
For one defeated Rebel, a fence rail analogy came to epitomize the outcome of the entire war. Standing in a group of dejected prisoners of war, a Confederate soldier was recognized by a Union guard who had formerly been one of his slaves. The black soldier in Union blue offered this cheery greeting to his former master: “Hello, Massa; bottom rail on top dis time!”
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.