Fortification Friday: Some final notes from Wheeler

It’s Black Friday… so the only fortifications you wish to consider are those shopping carts arranged to block the other shoppers from your desired flat screen TV…. So I’ll keep this installment short.

Just a few more points to touch upon from Junius Wheeler’s post-war lessons on field fortifications.  Not so subtly, I’ve beaten the drum that the practice of fortification changed with experiences during the war.  And there were two more specifics that Wheeler mentioned.  First off, if we offer shelter for the troops and magazines for the ammunition, what about the guns?

Shelter for guns, etc. – Shelters are frequently provided for guns, implements, etc.

The thing to be sheltered, its dimensions, and its uses, will regulate the details of construction of the shelter.  The rules applicable for the shelter just described, apply equally to shelters of this class.

While brief, this passage stops short of specificity.  More importantly, Wheeler did not explain why one might place guns under shelter. Implements and other equipment, for sure.  But wouldn’t one want to keep the guns out in battery to fire at the enemy?  Well, maybe that depends on the situation.  Consider that a defender may wish to keep artillery in reserve to be employed as part of a counterattack.  Or perhaps the guns were only run out at certain times or under specific circumstances.  Recall that was the case with mountain howitzers at Fort Sumter (which were setup nightly as deterrence against boat landings).

Another reason to keep the guns under shelter was operations tempo.  Petersburg comes to mind here, and requires more than passing mention.  Recall that before the explosion of the mine, precipitating the Battle of the Crater, Federal artillery moved into positions across that sector of the line. In that case, the Federals spent many days constructing batteries.  But not all the guns were sitting in those batteries while all the other preparations were completed.  Where possible the guns were held off the lines under shelter, waiting for the time to commence the bombardment.  Now the massing, in time and space, of artillery for siege operations was not some new innovation from the Civil War.  That’s not why Wheeler offered a short passage. Rather, what we see is the practice of that massing had reach a level of complexity the instructor saw the need to mention the shelters… at least in brief.

Another note from wartime experience was in regard to construction materials.  We’ve seen Mahan mentioned wood (and derivations to include sticks woven into fascines and such) as the most important material, other than the earth itself, in construction of temporary works.  In the post war teachings, Wheeler maintained the importance of wood, but added more :

Materials used in the construction of shelters. – Timber has been considered to be the material used in the construction of the above shelters.  This material is so abundant in the United States that it can almost always be found in quantities near the work, and can be obtained quickly.  It will therefore be the material chiefly used in temporary fortifications.

No better material can be used for the traverse pieces of these shelters than railroad iron, if it can be obtained.  The form of the rails allows the pieces to be placed in juxtaposition without delay, and the strength of the iron makes the roof better able to resist the shocks of the projectiles, and makes the structure more durable in its character.

Certainly, we’ll get no argument, iron is stronger than wood.  Railroad iron, because of form, was most handy…. where obtainable, and not otherwise needed for its intended purpose.

But that brings up another aspect of these temporary, field fortifications and a transformation seen on the battlefield.  Prior to the Civil War, the instruction assumed armies in campaigns would march forth and depend upon trains of supply wagons to follow. That logistic tail could be ponderous and difficult, depending on the terrain.  In fact, some terrain would restrict or even prohibit campaigns.  Under such paradigm, a well placed salient fortification might be difficult for the enemy to get at without strenuous logistic effort.  Reach might exceed grasp.

Likewise, the defender might find supplying remote posts strenuous.  Although defenders could afford to conserve resources, perhaps only building limited works at remote points, logistics governed the size and strength of those works.

But the arrival of the “iron horse” changed campaigning.  Armies could receive supply in bulk, with in most cases less than a couple days wagon ride from a railhead.  By the end of the war, the campaigns followed, if not focused upon, the railroads.  And this meant an attacker was far more likely to arrive at that remote point in strength.  It also meant the defender could move mobile reserves.  Such justified more elaborate works those remote points.  Consider that in regard to placement of heavy Parrott rifles at Harpers Ferry.  Or Confederate intents to place 10-inch columbiads overlooking the Cumberland Gap.

Yes, I’m wandering far off from Wheeler’s lesson plan.  But circling back to a point.  The Civil War experience changed the way military professionals planned to fight the next war… even replacing, in part, Mahan’s textbooks.

( Citations from Junius B. Wheeler, The Elements of Field Fortifications, New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1882, pages 143-4.)


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