Bridging the Potomac: Diary of William W. Folwell, 50th New York Engineers – Part 1

As a historian, particularly one who’s day job is not history, one of the greatest gifts a friend can offer is a primary source previously not seen or consulted.  Any good historian is always looking for additional sources that may help with the unanswered questions, provide more detail and clarity, or at least offer corroboration for other sources.  History, in my view, is the process of accumulating parts of the story. A process that is never really complete, no matter how authoritative the perception might be.

Last year, John Hennessy shared just such a source in an email titled… as these are apt to be… “Have you seen this?”  The link was to a wartime letters of William Watts Folwell, who served as an engineer officer in the Army of the Potomac for most of the war.  The letters are part of the digital, online collection of University of Minnesota Library.  These appear to be letters home, but have been transcribed into a typewritten page.  Of course, my interest was immediately focused on Folwell’s entries from June 1863 and his accounts of the bridge-laying at Edwards Ferry.

Born in 1833 in Romulus, New York, Folwell attended Hobart College, graduating in 1857.  After a brief position teaching mathematics at the college, he was studying philology in Berlin at the outbreak of the Civil War.  In February 1862, Folwell mustered into the 50th New York Engineers as a first lieutenant in Company G.  He was promoted to Captain in December of that year, commanding Company I.  Then advanced to major in February 1865 (with rank from October 15, 1864).  Some sources indicate he was given a promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel before mustering out in June 1865.  After the war, Folwell briefly lived in Ohio before accepting the position of President, the first president as a matter of fact, of the University of Minnesota in 1869.  And that would be how Folwell’s diary ended up in the university’s collection.

william_watts_folwell

Specific to the Gettysburg Campaign and the movement through Loudoun County in June 1863, Folwell was in command of Company I, 50th New York Engineers.  And that unit was very busy laying bridges that brought the Army of the Potomac from Virginia to Maryland.  As such, I am going to enter his account into my collection of Edwards Ferry resources here on the blog.  Though there are interesting entries from earlier in June (and at other times in the war), for sake of scope, I will start with the entry for June 17, 1863.  At that time, Folwell was in Alexandria:

Bivouac 50th N.Y.V. Engrs., near Alexandria, Va., June 17, ’63, 7 A.M.

Major [Ira] Spaulding takes Cos. C, F and I and one pontoon train to Nolan’s [Noland’s] Ferry on the Upper Potomac.  We are going just at noon as the Steamer comes, and we expect her every moment.  We worked like beavers last night till 2 A.M., making up our train. We had to dismantle the rafts made up at Belle Plain, unload the wagons on those, and then reload the material for shipment by canal.  We take steamer to Georgetown, then enter the canal up which we tow our boats by teams if we can get them; if not, by hand.

Last evening, Capt. Woodward and his wife rode down to camp from their hotel. Bain [Lieutenant Mahlon Bainbridge Folwell, brother]  and I called on them in the evening.  Saw Mrs. Ben. Woodward, also.  Ate sundry and drivers ice-cream and straw-berries, and drank soda waters.

We are both well, barring a slight head-ache Bain has.

I can’t tell you any War news. Don’t know any.  Hooker is probably moving w. between here and the Bull Run Mountain, while Lee goes up the valley.  I wish you could see your husband at this present.  He wears a dirty hat, do. coat, do. vest, do. trousers in the left knee of which is an immense hole through which his drawers display themselves conspicuously. My baggage is over in Maryland somewheres.  When I shall see it, I can’t tell. I have nothing with me but one rubber blanket, one woolen do., one shelter tent, and my sword.

I must try to find an envelope for this before it is too late.  Direct to me as usual.

One detail I must track down is the referenced Captain Woodward.  The meeting with Woodward and his wife seems a pleasant respite from an otherwise hot and dusty campaign.

This account plugs in well with the movements described in the Official Records by way of dispatches.  The bridges had last been used at Aquia Creek.  And at the time of writing, staff officers in the Army of the Potomac were anticipating the need for a bridge over the Potomac at some point near Leesburg. The day before (June 16), Brigadier-General G.K. Warren detailed some of the crossing points on the river between Hancock and Leesburg. Captain Charles Turnbull, of the US Engineer Battalion, had one set of pontoons at Georgetown and was ordered to move up the canal to the Monocacy River on June 17.

On the same day Folwell wrote his letter, Colonel William Pettes, commanding the 50th New York Engineers, received orders from Brigadier-General Henry W. Benham, commander of the Engineer Brigade, to

… detail Major Spaulding, with 200 men from your regiment, to proceed per steamer Rockland to Georgetown, to join the trains which started under Captain Turnbull. The steamer will be at the railroad wharf as soon as possible.  Your men will take four days’ rations with them. The boats, after getting into the canal, will be pushed forward as fast as possible to Noland’s Ferry, where the bridge is ordered to be laid before noon of the 18th.  Teams, if possible, will be procured from Washington, to haul the boats along the canal….

We see, generally, the details of the letter match those of the order.  However, “as soon as possible” was interpreted to allow for ice cream, strawberries, and soda water.

I’ve always found it odd that none of the dispatches or orders issued at this phase of the campaign specify the purpose of the bridges to be laid.  Just a few days after this, on June 19, a clear suggestion came from Major-General Henry Slocum to place a bridge to provide a supply link back to Washington.  And the location for that bridge was Edwards Ferry, where eventually most of the army would cross into Maryland.

But if we walk back to June 17, there is a question as to why the Army of the Potomac wanted a bridge at Noland’s Ferry.  That site is almost fourteen miles upstream from Edwards Ferry, and beyond even White’s Ford.  In my opinion, the most important reason to place a bridge at Noland’s Ferry on the date specified on the orders would be to support movement from Harpers Ferry to Loudoun… emphasis on FROM Harpers Ferry.  As things stood that day, Major-General Joseph Hooker was maneuvering the Army of the Potomac as if to meet the Army of Northern Virginia in the vicinity of the Bull Run Mountains. He had given no indication about movements across the Potomac. But he had asked about the availability of the Harpers Ferry garrison.  Mine is conjecture based on what we surmise of the situation.  But that does open room for logical extensions into the “what if” world.

My plan is to continue transcribing these letters as time permits, with commentary to provide context within the detailed blog posts about the crossing.  It should be “entered into evidence.”

(Citations from William Watts Fowell, Civil War Diary, unpublished, transcription retrieved from University of Minnesota Library, pages 404-5 (pages 410-11 of scanned copy); OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, page 179.)

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Fortification Friday: Loopholes and Vents for the blockhouse

Last week, we discussed the layout and arrangements for the blockhouse, when used as part of a keep in the interior of a fortification.  An important requirement, if the keep was to function as intended, was the ability of the defenders to fire out of the blockhouse.  Just as with building the banquette, embrasures, and other arrangements on the parapet, such arrangements within the blockhouse necessitated attention to details. And those details come in the form of loopholes and vents, as Mahan would write:

The loop-holes are three feet apart; their interior dimensions are twelve inches in height; and eight inches in width for sides twelve inches thick; and twelve inches square for sides two feet thick. The width on the exterior, for the same thicknesses, will be two-and-a-half and four inches.  The height of the loop-hole on the exterior will depend on the points being defended; it should admit of the musket being fired under an elevation and depression. The height of the loop-hole above the exterior ground is six feet.

The visual you should have in mind is that of an aperture which is small on the exterior but larger for the interior.  This would allow the defender to train the musket across a wide arc, as well as providing for elevation and declination.  I don’t like mixing field fortifications with permanent fortifications, but in this case the application is along the same lines.  So consider the loop-holes here at Fort Pulaski, to the right of an embrasure:

Ft Pulaski 3 Aug 11 1346

In this case, there was need for the muskets to cover two zones.  So we see two loopholes incorporated as a pair.  Note the placement of stone slab above and below to strengthen the loophole structurally. Something not needed within the wooden blockhouse – simple cut outs within the timbers usually sufficed.

But the major difference between the blockhouse and brick fortification’s loopholes is the height.  Mahan specified only twelve inches for the blockhouse in a field fortification.  Those at Fort Pulaski are two feet or so.

Another aspect to keep in mind is the depth of the wall.  As the wall became thicker, the loophole’s lateral dimensions, particularly interior, increased.  Geometry at play here, as the musket would need more clearance on the interior as depth increased.

Mahan did not directly discuss interior arrangements for the artillery’s embrasures.  Partly, I think, as such an allocation would have pulled valuable cannons off the fort’s primary defensive line to that of the secondary or even tertiary defenses. But, we can deduce such arrangements would match those described for embrasures through the parapet.  In short, a larger loophole… which is what we see to the left of the photo above.

All this is good thinking.  But we also have to keep in mind the by-product of firing any weapon.  In order to push the projectile out of the barrel, firing of the powder creates gasses. That foul air is not an issue out in the open or on the parapet.  But in the enclosed space of the blockhouse, there is need to expel the gasses:

Vents for the escape of the smoke are made over each loop-hole, between the cap-sill and the top pieces.

Moving to another location in Fort Pulaski, we see a vent above one of the other embrasures:

Ft Pulaski 3 Aug 11 1388

See the weathering on the paint?

Mahan does not provide much information on constructing vents for the blockhouse. These could be vents between the ceiling and wall. Or vents incorporated in the wall itself.  To maintain integrity of the structure, in terms of defense, those vents were best created using an interior angle.  That would allow gasses to vent.  But water… or things the enemy might want to push inside… would be restricted.

From there, Mahan gave brief descriptions of the camp bed (which we noted served as the banquette inside the blockhouse), racks, and other storage arrangements.  But with that he left the interior arrangements.  Instead he turned to an external details.  We’ll look at those next week.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, page 64.)

Summary Statement, 2nd Quarter, 1863 – 3rd Regiment, US Regulars

The wartime service of the 3rd US Artillery was, in my opinion, “cushy”.  Several batteries remained on the west coast.  No doubt a vital assignment, ensuring the gold of California remained secure (and that’s not said with any sarcasm).  But since so much of the regiment served as garrison artillery, that left little to report in the Ordnance Returns. Thus a lot of white space for the 2nd quarter of 1863:

0168_1_Snip_3rdUS

We find only four batteries reported having field artillery tubes on hand!

  • Battery A – At Albuquerque, New Mexico with two 12-pdr field howitzers and two 3-inch Ordnance Rifles.  Same as the previous quarter.  And, updating my own notes here, Lieutenant John B. Shinn was in command of this battery (brevetted to captain for his service on the initial campaigns in New Mexico).
  • Battery B – Given the annotation “Infy. Stores.”  The battery remained at Fort Point, San Francisco, California.
  • Battery C – No location given, but with six 3-inch Ordnance Rifles.  Part of the Second Brigade of the Horse Artillery, Army of the Potomac.  Lieutenant William D. Fuller was in command.  The battery was not on the field at Gettysburg (and thus often left off some order of battle listings) but was with the Second Brigade, Second Division, Cavalry Corps at Westminster, Maryland.
  • Battery D – At Alcatraz Island, California with the annotation “Infy. Stores.”  Captain William A. Winder, of the 3rd US Artillery, commanded the garrison of Alcatraz at this time of the war.  Under his command were Batteries D, H, and I (which we will mention below).
  • Battery E – No return. Serving in the Department of the South, posted to Folly Island, South Carolina at the end of June.  Lieutenant  John R. Myrick was in command.
  • Battery F – At Warrenton Junction, Virginia with six 12-pdr Napoleons. The location is certainly in error for the June 30th date, but accurate for August when the report was received in Washington.  This battery, combined with Battery K (below), was assigned to the 1st US Regular Brigade, Artillery Reserve, Army of the Potomac, under Lieutenant John G. Turnbull.  So the location was somewhere between Frederick, Maryland and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
  • Battery G – Fort Turnbull, Connecticut  but without any assigned cannon. The battery had been disbanded the previous fall and was being reorganized with new recruits.  Eventually, Lieutenant Herbert F. Guthrie would command, but I am not certain as to the date of his assignment.
  • Battery H – “Infy. Stores” with location as Alcatraz Island, California.
  • Battery I – Also “Infy. Stores” and at Alcatraz Island.
  • Battery K – Annotated as “with Battery F”.  See that battery’s notes above.
  • Battery L – At Columbus, Kentucky with six 10-pdr Parrotts. Combined with Battery M, below.  Captain John Edwards in command.  The battery was assigned to First Division, Ninth Corps.  At the start of the spring was posted to Kentucky.  In early June, the battery moved with its parent division to reinforce Vicksburg.  And after the fall of Vicksburg the battery was part of the pursuit to Jackson, Mississippi.  So a well-traveled battery.
  • Battery M – “With Battery L” at Columbus.  — At Lexington, Kentucky with six 10-pdr Parrotts.
  • Lieutenant – “Stores in Charge.”  This line tallied various implements and supplies, apparently assigned to a lieutenant of the regiment, but with no location indicated.

So the service details out of the way, we turn to the ammunition reported on hand, starting with smoothbore ammunition:

0170_1_Snip_3rdUS

Two lines to consider, but not without some notes:

  • Battery A: 148 shot, 112 case, and 216 canister for 6-pdr field guns; 170 shell, 240 case, and 88 canister for 12-pdr field howitzers; and 24 shells for 12-pdr field guns.
  • Battery F & K: 360 shot, 96 shell, 198 case, and 104 canister for 12-pdr Napoleon.

Battery F’s quantities, though with a rather high number of solid shot, are within reason.  But Battery A, out there in New Mexico, held on to ammunition for a pair of 6-pdrs that were no longer on hand.  I’m not going to say the 12-pdr shells there in Albuquerque were for Napoleons or the old 12-pdr heavy field guns.  Regardless, their listing here raises an unresolved question.

Moving to rifled projectiles, we have to consider Hotchkiss types first:

0170_2_Snip_3rdUS

Two batteries up again:

  • Battery A: 96 canister, 144 percussion shell, 110 fuse shell, and 288 bullet shell for 3-inch rifles.
  • Battery C: 30 canister and 50 fuse shell for 3-inch rifles.

We can trim the next page to focus only on the Parrott columns:

0171_1A_Snip_3rdUS

That much traveled battery out at Vicksburg:

  • Batteries L & M: 618 shell, 435 case, and 265 canister for 10-pdr Parrotts.

And we have but one entry to consider for Schenkl:

0171_2_Snip_3rdUS

  • Battery C: 18 shells for 3-inch rifles.

That last entry fills up, somewhat, the allocation for Battery C.  But one expect to see more.  The report arrived in Washington in November, 1863.

We move last to the small arms:

0171_3_Snip_3rdUS

Hopefully those numbers are legible.  The original lacked clarity in the column lines. And overall the sheet’s quality diminishes towards the bottom of the page.  Here’s what I transcribe:

  • Battery A: Thirteen carbines, eighty-six Army revolvers, seventy-six Navy revolvers, and eighty-seven horse artillery sabers.
  • Battery C: One carbine, twenty-six Navy revolvers, thirty-five cavalry sabers, and 172 horse artillery sabers.
  • Battery F & K: Thirteen Navy revolvers and forty-five horse artillery sabers.
  • Battery G: Eighty-six horse artillery sabers.
  • Battery L & M: Fifteen Army revolvers and forty-five horse artillery sabers.

I can understand Battery A, out in the far west and given many non-artillery duties, would need carbines, pistols, and sabers.  But Battery C?  That’s a lot of sabers… even for a data entry error!

Petersburg as “Lee’s Keep”- in the grand strategic sense

Another great weekend at Longwood University for the Civil War Seminar (hosted by the university and the Appomattox NHP).  For those who could not attend, CSPAN was on site recording for the morning talks. I’m not sure when those will be rebroadcast, so “consult your local listings.”

Unfortunately, the CSPAN crew did not record the two afternoon sessions.  I say unfortunately because those two blocks were the most thought provoking… at least from my chair.  The “lost” sessions were Dr. Richard J. Sommers with “Enduring Lessons in Leadership from the Siege of Petersburg” and William C. Davis on “Lincoln and Davis as Commanders in Chief.”  I tried to work in as many of the soundbytes and highlights as possible by way of Twitter.  But that cannot replace the full impact of the delivery.  Which… is why I always encourage folks to attend these events in person!

One point from Sommers’ talk that I grabbed and considered on the ride home came from this talking point:

This is not, for those who have studied the 1864 campaigns with any depth, a new interpretation.  However, there were some fine points that Sommers’ introduced that caused me to associate some other details.  And that gave me a new perspective from which to “square” the grand strategic view in my head.  Consider a few of the ancillary points Sommers’ raised:

  • Petersburg was not a traditional siege.  No advancing parallels or batteries of reduction.  Rather Grant attempted to poke, prod, and flank Lee out of the fortifications.  So the actions more closely resembled open field battle than siege warfare. Again, nothing that most readers would say is “new” in the mix.  We know this already.
  • Lee didn’t opt to stay in Petersburg-Richmond due to sound military strategy, but rather because he was “told” to do so.  And, again, nothing new here.  Just throw it in the pot for now to mix with the other parts.
  • The siege of Petersburg prolonged the life of the Army of Northern Virginia by nine months.  Thus an “army in being” was preserved even if at the lower echelons the experience wasted the units.
  • And toward that point, it is said that Lee knew the war was lost as soon as his army took to the trenches… but in justification it is said that Lee didn’t have any alternatives.
  • Alternatives?  Well, Lee was to some degree just following orders.  But we cannot simply commit Lee to that fate saying he was just a good soldier following orders. Lee did have some influence on Confederate national policy and objectives, to be sure.  And we must assess that Lee was in agreement with many of those national polices and agree with the objectives, even if that meant hardship for … and eventual destruction of… his army.
  • However… it was not until near the very end of the war that Lee was granted full control of the Confederate armies (plural) so as to fully enact those national policies and objectives.

So… circle back to a map I ran during the sesquicentennial:

Lees_ConfederacyLateMarch1865

As stated in the original post, the rose colored area was a rough depiction of Lee’s reach – that area in which Lee could expect to influence directly.  As we know, there were many more Confederate troops under arms elsewhere across the South. But Lee had no way of directing them within a timely, responsive manner.  So he could not wield whatever power lay outside that reach.

We might back the time-line up to November 1864 and contemplate what reach the  Confederate “national command authority” (in other words, Davis and his counsel) had in the days prior to Sherman’s march out of Atlanta…. better still, what the Confederates held as of the day after Lincoln’s reelection, which I would submit would be a more important strategic turning point for several reasons.  At that time the rose colored swath of the map would extend to include South Carolina, most of Georgia,  Alabama, and parts of Mississippi and Tennessee, not to mention a larger portion of North Carolina.  A larger area, with larger commitments.

And let’s back that time-line even further back to the summer of 1864.  Such would open the swath of reach to include Atlanta, before its fall, and some important portions of Virginia… namely the Shenandoah Valley and approaches to Richmond.

So… at that time, nine months or so before the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, what was the “plan” as established by the Confederate national command authority?  Well… in a nutshell… the objective was to survive, with the most likely alternative to be taking advantage of war-weariness of the North.  And with that as the strategic plan, the most important resources left to the Confederacy was not territory or cities, but rather having armies in the field.  Yes, armies in the field to fight more campaigns and keep the Federals at bay a little longer.  But more importantly, armies that were a bargaining chip or leverage, with which some considerations might be exacted from those in Washington.

In order for the “bargaining chip” strategy to work for the Confederacy, several things had to work in their favor.  Obviously, the armies had to remain “in being.”  Armies on campaign have a tendency, given combat and attrition, to lose some of that “being.”  Though there were some forays, notably Jubal Early’s run on Washington or Sterling Price’s raid into Missouri, mostly these served the point – the armies in being had to be reckoned with, while disrupting and delaying ongoing Federal operations.

 

That leads to another factor that had to work in the Confederate’s favor.  They needed some pause or delay in Federal operations. The longer the armies in being remained, the more value those assets had within any peace talks.  And as mentioned above, Early’s and Price’s operations certainly caused delays as Federal forces were reallocated to deal with threats.

But there were other ways to bring the Federals to a pause.  Consider what we have discussed recently about fortifications, specifically the notion of a “keep” within the works.  Yes, the keep was the last line of defense within the fort, but it was not a place where the defender went to die when making that last stand.  Rather it was a place from which the defender could force the attacker to pause.  And within that pause, the defender might use the leverage of a “garrison in being” to exact some compensation, hopefully an armistice with honor.

Now translate that to the strategic level.  Maybe we might say General Joseph E. Johnston was transforming Atlanta into a “keep” of sorts.  Some might argue that Johnston fought a series of actions moving from “keep” to “keep” on the way to Atlanta.  But, of course, we know that Johnston’s replacement opted for a more aggressive option which might be called, from a strategic level, a sortie against the attacker.  Heck, we might even carry that notion forward to consider General John B. Hood’s Tennessee Campaign one grand sortie in that light.

Circling back to Virginia, the analogy to the “keep” fits better when applied to Petersburg. With crossing of the James River and initial thrust at Petersburg, Grant had place Federal boots on Richmond’s parapets, strategically speaking.  And at that point, the trenches that ran from Petersburg to Richmond became, at the strategic level, a “keep” from which Lee hoped to exact a pause.  And that was a nine month long pause.

The flip side of that successful “keep” at Petersburg was the corresponding failure to enact a similar pause elsewhere on the map.  All efforts to delay Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas came to naught.  Savannah, nor Charleston, nor Columbia were effectively transformed into keeps.  Indeed, we might say heavy rains did more to slow Sherman than anything the Confederates attempted by arms.

All this said… I submit one way to view the last nine months of the Confederacy is one of keeping, or not keeping, keeps.  Conversely, we might view the Federal operations in that same span of time as one of occupying outer works and turning keeps.  All of which served to slice and reduce that rose colored area in which the “armies in being” of the Confederacy might be wielded.

Fortification Friday: Square, rectangle, or even a cross – blockhouse forms

Last week, we introduced the blockhouse as an interior structure, perhaps better classified as a facility, within a field fortification.  Allow me to stress again, the context of Mahan’s writings in “Field Fortifications” about blockhouses was scoped to discuss the use of those sort of structures in conjunction with larger works.  It was not to say blockhouses would always be used as such, nor to dismiss other sorts of employment of that fortification type. This particular Mahan lesson (of which there were many, across several manuals, as we must recall) was focused on building a “keep” so the defenders might “keep” something valuable… their lives in the event all was lost.

Having discussed the concept and general layout of the blockhouse, Mahan turned to particulars:

With regard to the details of the construction, the timber for the sides should be twelve inches thick, to resist an attack of musketry, and to resist field-pieces, two feet, in which case the sides are formed of two thicknesses of twelve-inch timber. If the timber is placed upright, each piece should be let into a mortise in the cap-sill; and every fourth piece of the top, at least, should be notched on the cap-sill, to prevent the sides from spreading out.

This would form, in essence, the walls of the blockhouse.  Notice the prescribed thickness, in regard to the expected threat – be that musketry or artillery.  I would add that with the introduction of rifled artillery, the two foot thickness was insufficient.  But there begins a point of diminishing return. How much more timber should one add to the blockhouse, thus subtracting usable interior space, in order to defend against an Ordnance or Parrott rifle?  Ah… a question best addressed when we consider the post-war manuals!  So let’s hold that thought.

I do wish Mahan had included a good illustration of the proposed arrangement of timbers. And I’ve not located any other contemporary illustration to serve.  But the general idea is apparent… perhaps for generations who suffered the splinters from Lincoln Logs, if not so much for those of more recent times and their Lego bricks.  We will revisit the arrangement of timbers in the walls for the post-war manuals.

Moving forward, we need to consider the layout of those walls and how best to arrange the blockhouse in order to meet requirements:

The plan of the block-house must conform to its object generally; it may be square or rectangular.  If flank defenses are required, its play may be that of a cross. The interior height should not be less than nine feet, to allow ample room for loading the musket; this height will require that the timber of the sides shall be twelve feet long, in order to firmly set in the earth.  Sometimes a ground sill is placed under the uprights, but this is seldom necessary.  The width may be only twelve feet in some cases, but it is better to allow twenty feet; this will admit of a camp bed of boards on each side, six-and-a-half feet wide, and free space of seven feet….

So the layout, as seen from above, could be the square form familiar to us from the playsets of yore.  Or could be extended or expanded to use other layouts as tactical needs demanded.  The layout tended to employ right angles, however.  We look back at Figure 44, which is somewhat a cross, in plan:

PlateVIFig44

Notice how the dimensions are governed somewhat by the need to provide space for handling muskets.  Form will follow function.  The most important quality of the blockhouse, as a keep, is to allow the garrison to create a pause in the action, should the parapet be lost.

But “camp bed”?  Yes, that implies a place to sleep. But it was also a defensive arrangement.  “The camp bed serves also as a banquette; it is placed four feet three inches below the loop-hole, and has a slight slope of about eight inches inwards.”  Notice how the interior arrangement is to provide, in terms of wall to wall floor space, for a 6 ½ foot wide camp bed on each side with open space for seven feet between.

Now everything thus far has implied the garrison would only have muskets in the blockhouse.  Let us make arrangements, then, for artillery:

If cannon is to be used for the defense, the width must be at least twenty-four feet; this will allow eighteen feet for the service of the gun, which is generally ample, and six feet for a defense of musketry on the opposite side.  A greater width than twenty-four feet cannot well be allowed, because the bearing would be too great between the sides for twelve inch timber; and even for a width of sixteen feet it would be well to support the top pieces, by placing a girder under them on the shores.

Basically, bigger guns require more space.  So we adjust the arrangements.  But there is a physical limit as to how much more space is allocated.  If a really large blockhouse were built, it would require substantial structural reinforcement.  Better to stick with a single cannon per side, if used at all.

Since these arrangements place emphasis on affording space to handle weapons, be that musket or cannon, we need to discuss the loopholes in detail.  We’ll turn to that in the next installment.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, pages 63-4.)

Hansbrough’s Ridge winter encampment site WILL be preserved!

Last week, Fredericksburg’s Free Lance-Star ran an article by Clint Schemmer, and concurrently run on their website, detailing efforts to preserve a Civil War site on Hansborough’s Ridge, in Culpeper County:

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Civil War Trust and others are working to save Hansbrough’s Ridge, a commanding rampart near Stevensburg that sheltered a big part of the Army of the Potomac in the bitter-cold winter of 1863-64. The site is a Virginia Historic Landmark.

The VOF board voted Thursday to give the trust a $250,000 grant toward preserving the 174-acre site, contingent on a conservation easement being placed on it. The property, which stretches from State Route 3 north almost to Cole’s Hill, includes incredibly well-preserved remnants of soldiers’ camps, field hospitals, defensive trenches and a signal station.

In addition to the VOF grant, a pledge from the American Battlefield Protection Program and the seller leave the Civil War Trust and other preservationists within a short reach of closing this deal.  Clint’s article states around $50,000 would be needed to reach the sale price.

Hansbrough’s Ridge is one of those “lesser known” and “off the beaten path” sites where one can actually SEE history in situ.  Specific to its “battlefield” status, significant action played out across Hansbrough’s Ridge during the battle of Brandy Station.   Later in the same year of the war, the ridge became the winter home for portions of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps.  From late December, 1863 through the first days of May, 1864, soldiers lived on the Hansbrough’s Ridge.  When they broke camp there, they marched southeast towards the Rapidan River and the infamous Wilderness of Central Virginia.  Those steps down Hansbrough’s Ridge were the first of the Overland Campaign.

What makes Hansborough’s Ridge so remarkable is, in part due to remoteness from populated sections of the county and also in part due to geology of the ridge, the campsite was left unchanged for decades.  As the article notes:

Virginia historians say they know of only one surviving place from the war’s Eastern Theater that is somewhat comparable. It’s the 41-acre Stafford County Civil War Park, which holds three earthen forts and the remains of winter huts that Union troops built to warm themselves in the winter of 1862–63, a transformative time that many called their army’s “Valley Forge.”

Similarly, the following winter was important to resting and refitting soldiers of the Army of the Potomac who had been fighting for two years, and to drilling new recruits.

“Pristine” is a word often overused, in my opinion, in regard to Civil War sites.  There are precious few sites that are, by definition, pristine.  I can say that Hansbrough’s Ridge is absolutely the closest I’ve seen to pristine in my forty years of visiting Civil War sites.  In my visits, I’ve seen hut sites … not rock piles that were hut sites… but the actual hut sites with the walls as clearly defined as the day the soldiers left.  Some of these localities were captured in wartime photographs, offering vital context to what we see on the ground today.

I’m hesitant to post a lot of photos of the site, pending closure and firm security of the site from trespassing.  But allow me to offer one:

HR WE Site 037

We know, based on accounts of the soldiers who stayed on Hansbrough’s Ridge, were those bricks likely came from.  But that’s just the “thread” to follow here.  It will bring us to the larger story of how those soldiers lived; what they experienced; and most importantly, why they spent a cold, lonely winter on a ridgetop in Virginia.

That story is not just one of artifacts or rock-piles, but the context of their presence.  There are other reminders – in place, mind you – that speak of the haste as the soldiers broke camp that spring.  All of which is why this is an important site to preserve.  This site needs to be studied – properly and professionally – not looted by those who would “relic hunt” thus removing context from the artifacts.  You see, it is the RIDGE itself, and not some solitary button or dropped musket ball, that will tell this story.  The whole RIDGE.

And with a broader vision, we consider the efforts to preserve Hansbrough’s Ridge in light of efforts to create a state park for Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain Battlefields.  I can see a time when visitors can contemplate both battlefield and encampment while touring Culpeper’s Civil War sites.

Fortification Friday: Blockhouses as Safety Redoubts in the Fort

When I say “blockhouse” many of you might be thinking about favorite childhood playsets:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Certainly suitable for the defense of the bedroom in the face of the elite Confederate Plastic Brigade, or perhaps the indigenous Plastikawi tribe.  But… something that could not hold against the Green Army Men armed with bazookas and flamethrowers.

Kidding aside, the playset fort is pattered after real structures from American history.  The blockhouse was not unique to America, as it was a form brought over by Europeans.  However, the blockhouse became the preferred fortification on the North American continent from colonial times right up to the 20th century.  Blockhouses work well in situations where the enemy is unlikely to possess anything larger than light artillery.  The interior of the blockhouse was easily adapted into living quarters.  Conversely, living quarters (houses) might be easily adapted into a blockhouse.  Those, and other qualities, made that form of fortification popular on the frontier.

The popular image of a blockhouse is something made of wood.  But stone, or even adobe, might be used instead.  Since wood was in abundance on the early American frontier, we tend to see a lot of structures like this one:

Ft King George 3 Aug 11 1273

This is recreation of Fort King George, Darien, Georgia (a place with many, many layers of history).  In this particular case, the blockhouse served several roles – a high observation platform over the marsh, a platform for covering fire to protect approaches to the fort, and, in the event the works were overwhelmed, a final defense for the fort’s garrison.

It is that last function that Mahan had in mind when considering interior arrangements for field fortifications.  Blockhouses were a structure that could be used for what he called “safety redoubts”:

Safety Redoubt.  In enclosed works a place of retreat, into which the troops may retire in safety after a vigorous defense of the main work, will remove the fears of the garrison for the consequences of a successful attack of the enemy, and will inspire them with confidence to hold out to the last moment.

This interior work, which may be very properly be termed the keep, can only be applied to works of large interior capacity.  It may be formed of earth, or consist simply of a space enclosed by a defensive stoccade, or palisading.  In either case it should be about four feet higher than the main work, to prevent the enemy from obtaining a plunging fire in it from the parapet of the main work.

Let us pause here before going to Mahan’s formal introduction of the blockhouse.  This “hold out to the last” is a notion steeped in 19th century presumptions about how a siege would play out.  A garrison “holding out” would force the enemy to make a direct attack on the parapet… in other words, to get up close, personal, and… well… very violent with the defender.  And in that violent melee, the defender was not exactly in a position to call a “time out”.

The safety redoubt, or keep, was a place to retreat and, more importantly, force a pause in the action.  And from the keep, within that pause, the defender might negotiate a cessation of the fight, with honor.  Thus we see how that might allay fears of “consequences” for the garrison.

That in mind, Mahan offered his preference for the keep:

The best arrangement for the keep is the construction termed the block-house. This work is made of heavy timber, either squared on two sides or four; the pieces which form the sides of the block-house are either laid horizontally, and halved together at the ends, like an ordinary log-house, or else they are placed vertically, side by side, and connected at the top by a cap-sill. The sides are arranged with loop-hole defenses; and the top is formed by laying heavy logs, side by side, of the same thickness as those used for the sides, and covering them with earth to the depth of three feet.

Mahan offered this figure as an example of a blockhouse:

PlateVIFig43

This perspective is looking at the blockhouse along with a cross section of adjacent works and structures.  Rather busy.  This section is along the line a-b from Figure 44:

PlateVIFig44

The combined caption reads:

Figs. 43,44. Shows the plan and section of a block-house of upright timber.  The plan is made to exhibit a portion of the top complete; the timber covering the top; the arrangement of the cap pieces; a plan of the loop-holes; and a plan of the camp-bed. Fig. 43 exhibits, in a like manner, a cross section of the block-house and ditch; with interior and exterior elevation.

We will go into the particulars for construction in later posts.  What is important to identify here is the functional nature of this blockhouse.  Just as with the colonial-era Fort King George, we see a blockhouse adjacent to a ditch and other defensive structures.  One might say the blockhouse filled up the fort’s interior.

For an attacker, this presents a serious tactical problem.  One might defeat the defender on the parapet.  But the parapet would be a dangerous place to make a living with the blockhouse overlooking all. So you see where a “pause” would be in order.

Keep in mind, within this discussion of keeps, Mahan was not stating or suggesting that blockhouses only be constructed within and in conjunction with elaborate field works.  Rather that he offered that a blockhouse was a structure that served well as a keep inside a larger set of works.  We see that usage applied by his students during the Civil War.  Looking back again to Fortress Rosecrans:

FortressRosecrans

We see Redoubts Schofield, Brannan, T.J. Wood, and Johnson within the interior.  One wartime report described the arrangement as, “… strong against attack, being defended by large keeps, which deliver their fire upon every part of the interior.”  I would further add that most of the lunettes on the perimeter of this vast fortress included blockhouses.  So there were multiple “keeps” within a depth of the defense.  Keep in mind the scale of this fortress.  The safety redoubts, named above, were armed with 30-pdr Parrotts and 8-inch siege howitzers.  The Confederates would need to bring a large amount of iron in order to suppress the fort’s garrison.

But the size of this work was perhaps its weak point.  After the Army of the Cumberland moved further south, through the summer of 1863, there the need to keep this fortification in order was taxing, in terms of manpower. An 1865 report suggested all be reduced to simple blockhouses covering the bridge and depots.

That circles back to the point about blockhouse usage.  As said before, Mahan was not suggesting the only place to use a blockhouse was as a fort’s keep. But as his text was focused on field fortifications, the focus was on that function.  We will see blockhouses enter the conversation in regard to detached defenses in particular.  Furthermore, the post-war instructions would place more emphasis on the detached, singular blockhouse.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, pages 62-3; OR, Series I, Volume XLIX, Part 2, Serial 104, page 502.)