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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life on Campaign Xii

Updated on October 27, 2018
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I'm a Sr. Financial Analyst from Long Island, NY and am an American Civil War buff and Living Historian (Company H, 119th NY Volunteers).

When threatened with incoming fire, infantrymen naturally sought protection from it. Troops, either unable to continue their attack or with the need to better withstand an attack, took measures to interpose hostile projectiles that came their way.

Trenches in front of Kennesaw Mountain in GA
Trenches in front of Kennesaw Mountain in GA

Cover

If in wooded areas, called “woodlots”, troops took cover behind trees (upright or fallen ones). If in areas of very heavy undergrowth, troops lied down or knelt behind thickets. If near wooden fences, which were normally inadequate as protection, the troops took the rails from the posts, stacked the rails on top of each other, then knelt or lied behind. If in a road or rail bed, the troops huddled behind the earthen embankments. If nearby residences, troops lined up along stone walls or inside structures like houses, barns, or other buildings, and almost immediately turned them into “strongpoints”. Any undulations in the ground were also taken at advantage. Troops lied on hill or ridge crests, or hid on the reverse slopes, or took cover in swales. Any stone outcroppings soon found troops to utilize them as cover and augment them with other nearby stones and rocks.

Oftentimes, troops were not in a position where cover was immediately available to them. In such cases, to kneel or lie down in attempts to make themselves less conspicuous, or to offer less visible targets, was the only option. However, unless the troops were positioned in high vegetation, or otherwise shielded from view somewhat, these acts were not always adequate. Therefore, troops did what they could to get intervening structures between them and the enemy.

Sketch - troops engage in a firefight in a woodlot at the Antietam battlefield in MD
Sketch - troops engage in a firefight in a woodlot at the Antietam battlefield in MD
Living Historians fire from behind a wooden fence
Living Historians fire from behind a wooden fence
Stacked fence rails in the background were a minor improvement to this sunken road position held by rebel troops at the Antietam battlefield in MD
Stacked fence rails in the background were a minor improvement to this sunken road position held by rebel troops at the Antietam battlefield in MD
A stone wall at Fredericksburg, VA
A stone wall at Fredericksburg, VA

Hasty Fortifications

With their bayonets, cups, plates, nearby sticks, hats, and even bare hands, troops dug up their ground and piled up excavated earth in front of them, and augmented these piles with any sticks, logs, or rocks that were nearby. Even knapsacks, blanket rolls, broken wagons, carriages from cannon or, in times of extreme duress, bodies of animals or of friends or foe, were used to strengthen these ramshackle fieldworks.

While hasty, un-strengthened fortifications were generally insufficient to arrest the progress of hostile projectiles, especially those from artillery fire, to lie behind these fieldworks at least helped to make the troops less conspicuous targets. To a certain degree, they helped psychologically: they made the troops BELIEVE they were stronger and less vulnerable to enemy fire, which was great for morale.

If left in place for prolonged periods of time, troops would continue working to strengthen their fieldworks, often working on through the nights where darkness afforded them greater cover from incoming fire. Sometimes individuals would venture from their lines under this cover of darkness to gather other materials to augment the works or to find and confiscate more useful tools for fieldwork construction. Such tools, like shovels, pick-axes, hatchets, etc, would often be retained by their confiscators for more future work, while other troops lacking in such things often requested such items be sent to them from home at the earliest opportunity.

If Engineer units were dispatched to the area, or made their tools available, the troops would soon have, or make, even stronger works. Thus, field fortifications became more elaborate as well as prevalent, and would include constructions such as Trenches, Slashing, Gabions, Chevaux-de-frise, Abatis, Fraise, and Wire Entanglements.

Sketch - a soldier uses his tin plate to dig-in while under enemy fire
Sketch - a soldier uses his tin plate to dig-in while under enemy fire
Sketch - troops use bayonets, cups, plates, and bare hands to improvise earthworks at Old Cold Harbor, VA
Sketch - troops use bayonets, cups, plates, and bare hands to improvise earthworks at Old Cold Harbor, VA

Earthworks

A Trench (often called “Ditch”) was a long excavation dug into the earth, with loosened dirt piled onto the side closest to the enemy. If trees were nearby, often they were chopped down first, and the logs were stacked along the forward side of the proposed trench. When the troops began to dig the trench, the excavated earth was piled on top of the stacks of logs, which formed a stronger protective barrier than did earth alone. The resulting wood and earth wall was often referred-to as a “Breastwork”, since the height of the wall, and the depth of the trench behind it, offered cover breast-high to a standing infantryman. For even greater cover, logs were laid and secured on top of the earthen embankment, under which the troops scooped out enough of the earth to enable them to protrude their firearms. Other logs perpendicularly abutted these “Headlogs”, and were secured to the far side of the trench wall to prevent dislodgement. This forced the troops to duck underneath them if they needed to move within the trench, but complaints were few. These headlogs enabled almost complete cover to the troops, from head to foot, yet they were still able to effectively fire their weapons.

If these positions were to be occupied indefinitely, the trenches were eventually deepened so that men were able to walk erect without exposure to hostile fire. “Firing steps” were made on the trench wall that faced the enemy, which raised a man to a height where his firearm could be properly aimed and fired. These steps consisted of packed earth, logs or timber, or a combination of both timber and earth. Also, more planks or logs were stacked and secured against the sides of the trench as retaining walls to keep the trenches clear of collapsed earth.

To prevent the enemy’s ability to fire down the entire length of the entrenched line, angles in the trenches were dug every several yards. These angles were called “Traverses”.

To provide cover for troops to reach good positions from which to attack enemy lines, trenches called “Approaches” were dug, which thus enabled troops to move very close to the targeted objectives with minimal exposure to hostile fire. If available, logs and brush were laid over the top, which resulted in “Covered Approaches” that shielded, from enemy view, troops that moved to these new jumping-off positions.

Sketch - troops and engineers construct earthworks
Sketch - troops and engineers construct earthworks
Troops dig a trench outside Petersburg, VA
Troops dig a trench outside Petersburg, VA
Breastworks at New Hope Church, GA
Breastworks at New Hope Church, GA
A reconstructed trench with headlogs outside Petersburg, VA
A reconstructed trench with headlogs outside Petersburg, VA
Sketch - snipers use firing steps to aim over the trench walls. Note the retaining wall on the side of the trench
Sketch - snipers use firing steps to aim over the trench walls. Note the retaining wall on the side of the trench
A Traverse. Note that there is no clear line of sight down the length of the trench
A Traverse. Note that there is no clear line of sight down the length of the trench
An approach trench that led to an enemy stronghold
An approach trench that led to an enemy stronghold

Earthwork Support

“Gabions” were large wicker cylinders filled and packed with earth. These gabions could be moved into undefended areas and stacked in such a way as to make an almost instant fortification. If combined with existent fortifications, gabions reinforced trench walls or embankments for even stronger protection.

Sketch - Pennsylvania Volunteers construct gabions
Sketch - Pennsylvania Volunteers construct gabions
Colorized and posed photograph of Union sentries behind stacked gabions
Colorized and posed photograph of Union sentries behind stacked gabions

Obstructions

In addition to earthworks, which protected defending troops from hostile fire, obstructions were placed in front of the works to impede enemy attack.

“Slashing” was felled trees in the direction of the enemy and stumps left about three feet / one meter high. The branches and stumps from the trees made organized attacks by enemy lines of battle difficult, if not impossible. This barrier was used if defense lines were laid in areas where trees were somewhat abundant.

“Chevaux-de-frise” were logs with long, sharpened stakes inserted into them at close intervals, usually in an X or an Asterisk-pattern. These defenses were designed to especially impede cavalry. The sharpened stakes stabbed into any unfortunate horse, if not rider as well.

“Abatis” were rows of tree limbs laid close together, with the smaller branches often sharpened and/or intertwined. The ends of the limbs were pinned down to the ground. Attacking battle lines would be disrupted and disorganized in the attempt to traverse such heavy impediments.

“Fraises” were sharpened sticks, usually tree limbs, which were stuck into the earth at very close intervals, and the points reached up to chest-level. This was another effective barrier against cavalry.

Wire Entanglements also made an appearance in this War. Troops occasionally strung telegraph wire among tree stumps or branches in order to trip up attacking formations. This was a possible precursor to the barbed wire of the First World War.

Sketch - Slashing
Sketch - Slashing
Chevaux De Frise
Chevaux De Frise
Abatis in front of fortifications
Abatis in front of fortifications
Fraise
Fraise
Sketch - Wire Entanglements (wire strung between tree stumps) trip an enemy attack force
Sketch - Wire Entanglements (wire strung between tree stumps) trip an enemy attack force

Afterword

With such impeding and protective defensive structures, it was little wonder that, in the last year of the war, within the space of three days, an army could have rendered a position completely impregnable to assault.

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life On Campaign XIII.

Sketch - blankets and shelter halves are stretched across rifle pits to shade troops from the sun
Sketch - blankets and shelter halves are stretched across rifle pits to shade troops from the sun

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