Fortification Friday: Let’s apply this stuff in the field – Star Fort, Winchester, Virginia

Over the last few weeks in this Fortification Series, I’ve discussed Dennis Hart Mahan’s teachings about field fortifications specific to the vertical plane – or specifically the fortification profile.  As way of a refresher, the profile defined the heights and depths of the fortification to include the parapet, ditch, and glacis.  Those terms and components in mind, let us go to the “field” to look at a real field fortification constructed during the Civil War.   A handy example, for me at least, is Star Fort in Winchester, Virginia.

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The fort is, or should be, well known to students of the Eastern Theater.  It played a role in the Second and Third Winchesters.  Thankfully, in 2007 the site was set aside for preservation and interpretation.  And that interpretation ensures we know Mahan’s teachings were manifest in the layout of the fort:

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The only plan of the fort I’ve seen is from a newspaper map from the Civil War.  But that is sufficient to provide the general outline of the fort:

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We’ll get to the nature of these plans, looking at the fort on the horizontal plane, in later articles.  Certainly want to discuss the particulars of star forts, salients, and the like.  But for this installment, I’d like to focus on the fine points of the profile.  Working backwards on Mahan’s diagram, we find that Star Fort had no glacis.  Again, that component was optional.  As Star Fort was built as an artillery platform covering open ground around Winchester, a ring of rifle pits around the fort was sufficient. Though the rife pits didn’t perform the function to elevate the line off the parapet, those pits did function to provide a line of resistance some distance off the main ditch.

Star Fort does have a ditch and parapet.

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The trail around the fort strides just to the oustide of the ditch.  We might speculate as to the depth of the ditch, as today erosion has filled part of it.  But what is preserved provides some indication of the profile.  Standing on the crest of the counterscarp, one cannot look past the parapet:

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Imagine standing there with your musket, looking up at the muzzles of enemy muskets.  not a good spot to be in.  Trying to replicate the view of the defender at this point on the wall, my efforts were unsuccessful.  Standing at the edge of mowed grass, and thus off the parapet itself, I held the camera up at arms length to overlook.  Not a great view, but notice that we cannot see the ditch.

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Nope, only the ground in front of the crest of the counterscarp.   If you examine this view – or at least while I was standing on the ground that day – the geometry is still very apparent, even for 150 years of erosion.  The angle of the superior slope of the parapet ensured the defenders could cover the crest of the counterscarp without being exposed to attackers.

The view out from the parapet is better illustrated on the other side of the fort:

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Here the visitor looks past the parapet and beyond the tree line to see the houses.  Such demonstrates the ability of the fort to engage attacking targets within musket range.

The parapet’s profile is somewhat intact.  Remarkably for 150 years of wear:

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Anther point in the fort that demonstrates the geometry of the parapet is over to the south side of the earthwork.  Today there is a trail cut through the works at a returning angle.  I’m not versed well enough in the fort’s history to know if this was the sally port or just a modern cut.  But the view serves well for our purposes here.

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Notice to the left there is part of the fort’s wall.  The parapet has a saddle which appears to be a gun embrasure.  I was holding the camera at about 6 ½ feet above the ground.  And the location is at the crest of the counterscarp, or just outside the ditch.  The attacker at this point could not see over the parapet on the left.  In the center-right, where the wall is cut, we can see into the fort.  Compare those two lines.

Now from the inside looking out to where I stood:

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Again the camera is about 6 ½ feet above the ground level, but in this case what would be the banquette.  What is in view?  The ground where I stood to take the first picture at this point of the line.  Clearly Star Fort’s parapet was laid out with all the functional requirements espoused by Mahan.

Closing, let me once again mention the importance of preservation of sites like Star Fort.  This is a primary source for those studying the Civil War activity around Winchester.  We are lucky to have such a well preserved example to reference.

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