Gabions – The Fashionable Earthwork

I’m not much of the field engineer type, but I do like to keep straight the terminology and techniques used in the Civil War.  Partly to be conversant in the subject, but also since the cannons I like to study were often placed within those fortifications.   One often seen component in the old photographs from the war is the “gabion.”

From the rather useful Dictionary of Civil War Fortifications, a gabion is, “… a rough cylindrical wicker basket open at both ends employed as revetment material to retain the soil of earthwork slopes.”  As to employment, gabions were often used to form walls either reinforcing existing earth, or if stacked properly completely replacing conventional earthwork walls.  As seen in the photo below, with a number of gabions, a defender could install a rather proper traverse within a fortification.

Yorktown Battery
Yorktown Battery

The gabions here are two layers high.  A fascine supports the top layer, which is crowned with sandbags and additional earth.

The great thing about the gabion, from a soldiers point of view, was maintenance.  Standard “mounds of earth” will do what any old pile of dirt will do – erode.  You might build a solid 8 foot wall, but come the next heavy rain, knock off a foot or two.  About the only way to arrest that erosion is with good old sod.  Now it’s hard enough to get a soldier to work a shovel in the first place, but landscaping?  Lets just say spreading Bermuda grass seed was not covered in Hardee’s or Casey’s.

But with a gabion, the erosion issue, while not completely resolved, is abated.   Should some of the dirt filling the bucket wash out, you just add more to the top.  And the gabion was as modular as anything could be in the 1860s.  Gabions “baskets” were often fabricated well behind the lines and forwarded to the point of need.   So your soldiers need not learn the complex task of weaving wicker, all they need know is how to shovel dirt.  And in the event the Army advances, well just dump out that dirt and your gabion is easily transported to the next point of need!  (Granted not exactly an often used option.)

One might cover a weakness in the existing fortification with a stand of gabions, as seen here at Fort Sumter.

Exterior Wall Fort Sumter - 1865
Exterior Wall Fort Sumter - 1865

Or the gabions might help brace up the interior walls, to form firing platforms or other structures.  Looking at the interior of Fort Sumter a couple of views illustrate this use:

Interior of Fort Sumpter
Interior of Fort Sumter

Note what appear to be bomb-proofs or other shelters formed into the wall of gabions.  The walkway and interior slope are braced by gabions.  Also note the cannon in the far center on the parapet.  One of these may be the same seen in the first Fort Sumter photo.   The second view of the fort interior, below, looks at the same wall, but from a different angle.

Another View of the Interior
Another View of the Interior

Yes, a lot of wicker work was done in Charleston during the war.

Anachronistic looking are they not?  Well the gabion has taken a new form these days.  In fact the gabion is often mentioned in news stories from war zones and natural disasters.  We know them by a trade name – HESCO barriers or bastions.

HESCO Barrier wall in Iraq
HESCO Barrier wall in Iraq

The company describes the updated gabion as having, “… a Galfan coated steel mesh framework, lined with non-woven polypropylene material, with integrated cells to provide internal structural integrity….”  Ok, in plain English, it is this thick fabric extended over a collapsible metal framework.  The HESCO barrier lays flat for transport and is easy to configure.  The really difficult part, as it was in 1863, is filling the baskets with dirt!  Thankfully modern power equipment aids in this regard.

Look at this photo from the company web site, and tell me you don’t see a similarity to the Civil War photos –

HESCOs on the Flight Line

HESCOs have uses beyond the military and other security minded users.  The modern day gabions serve well as flood control measures.  And other civil uses include erosion control, coastal stabilization, levee reinforcement, sound walls, and even decorative landscaping.

If it sounds like I’m selling HESCO barriers, well honestly, I don’t get a dime.  However, if I do speak fondly of those tan sand baskets, its because I spent a few years living under their protection.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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