Fortification Friday: Mahan’s American Blockhouse

One of the themes I’ve worked in this series of posts is a comparison between pre-war and post-war manuals. In small ways, the comparison points to the influence of wartime experience in the practice of military science… at least in the American army.  Another such example is the use of blockhouses.  Pre-war, Mahan discussed blockhouses in relation to field fortifications as a safety redoubt or keep.  That was not, of course, to say such was the exclusive use of blockhouses.  But Mahan simply offered less thought about the use of stand-alone blockhouses. Rather the emphasis was upon structures which would be used in conjunction with standard, conventional field fortifications to meet the traditional needs of an army on campaign. Again, this is not to say Mahan didn’t agree with stand alone blockhouses, but rather that in instructions to his students he put all the emphasis on blockhouses used as keeps within field fortifications.  So this is a “how they were taught” consideration instead of a “this is the only way they would use it” declaration. Keep that fine point in mind.

On the other hand, the American military experience, drawn out even more so by the Civil War, included the need for fortifications guarding rear areas.  In particular, protection of railroad lines, bridges, and other such infrastructure was rather important. And, as we know from ample examples from official records, photographs, and other sources, the blockhouse became the preferred fortification for that need.  And Mahan identified that in his post-war writings, declaring an American-ism in such employment:

American Block-House. In the more recent block-houses erected in our service for the protection of bridges, railroad stations, etc, the sides and roof … are constructed with a double thickness of logs eighteen inches in diameter, hewn to a face of eight inches where they are in contact.  The inner logs are placed upright, the outward horizontal. A space is left in the outward casing sufficient for the fire from the loop-holes made through the inner. The horizontal logs above the loop-holes are held up by short uprights, mortised into them and into those just below. The ceiling is covered with earth, as shown in the section, three feet thick at the ridge and sloping towards the eaves to about six or nine inches, where it is confined by a pole plate. The earth is protected from the weather by a board roofing.  Tin or sheet iron ventilators are made through the roofing and ceiling, and a brick flue to receive the pipe of the stove used in cold weather.

The loop-holes are nearly of the same form and dimensions of those already given.

Mahan gave us two sets of illustrations supporting this passage.  The first demonstrated the blockhouse particulars mentioned above:


We see a double layer of timbers – the inner most placed vertical and the outer laid horizontally. In both cases, the logs are flattened on the sides in contact to close up any gaps.

Also notice the provisions for loopholes.  The dimensions remained the same, generally. But instead of simply carving out loopholes, Mahan suggested a more elaborate arrangement.  I’d describe this as a set of small columns between a gap in the outer, horizontal timbers.  Traditional loophole cuts are made in the vertical timbers of the interior. So there is still the double row of protection and the minimum opening required for the musket barrel.

I say a picture is worth a thousand words:


This is a blockhouse protecting the railroad between Nashville and Chattanooga in Tennessee.

Continuing, Mahan offered more elaborate plans for these blockhouses:

Some of these structures are built in the form of a cross, consisting of a square central chamber, twenty-four feet on a side, and of four wings of the same form and dimensions when the block-house is for cannon. An embrasure is pierced in each of the three sides of each wing to serve a single gun.  The cheeks of the embrasures are faced with logs, and the mouth is secured by a musket-proof shutter with a loop-hole in it.  The embrasures are below the level of the loop-hole, allowing these to be used whenever necessary.

Though not exclusively for the employment of artillery, the implication is that guns required more space within the fort and thus more elaborate arrangements were needed.  The addition of shutters is noteworthy and speaks to the need for crew protection in the era of muzzle-loading artillery.

But where you have artillery, you must also have a magazine:

Arrangements for magazines and store-rooms are made under the floor of the block-house in the most secure parts.

Ah… OK… answers that question.

And what about the entrance:

The entrance to the block-house may be either through a postern, the bottom of which is on the level of that of the ditch, a ramp leading from this level outwards, a door properly secured, and steps, forming the inner communications; or it may be arranged as shown in Fig. 51, 52, with a plank thrown across the ditch on the same level as the natural ground, the entrance to the door being masked by a double stoccade, leaving the same passage-way as that of the doorway.  Loop-holes in the door and sides of the building sweep this passage.

And here’s the referenced figures:


Also note in this set of figures, and that above, the berm built up against the blockhouse.  As discussed earlier, this improved the defensive quality of the work, particularly against artillery.  Furthermore it prevented the enemy from hiding under the loopholes.  We don’t see that in the wartime photo above.  I’m of a mind we are seeing a blockhouse in the final stages of construction, rather than some flaw in the engineer’s design.  Other wartime photos show earth banked up against the blockhouse:


This is another Tennessee blockhouse.  Wonderful details to consider – the loopholes and the entrance stand out nicely.  And consider the figure offered by Mahan (post-war) to illustrate the two story blockhouse:


Can you find a better match? That’s great stuff!

Another illustration Mahan provided in the post-war manual detailed arrangements for the loopholes.  So while he “said” such was “already given,” teaching after the war he saw need to elaborate.  We’ll look at that next.

(Citation from Mahan, An Elementary Course of Military Engineering: Part 1: Field Fortifications, Military Mining, and Siege Operations, New York: John Wiley & Son, 1870, page 62-3.)


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