Last week, we discussed Mahan’s American blockhouse and how that form of fortification became important during the Civil War. During the war, the blockhouse became a common feature along railroads, roads, rivers, and other key points in the rear areas. I don’t think this reflected a “brand new” use of the blockhouse fortifications, but rather one of greater significance as result of the needs of the war.
Pre-war thinking on such matters focused on a conflict against European powers, in a “War of 1812” scenario. As such, the rear areas would be somewhat secure behind the Atlantic Ocean (with Mexico and the British in Canada assessed as more defensively oriented). Only on the frontier would there be great need for blockhouses to secure supply and communication lines. But the American Civil War upset that line of thinking. With extended lines across half the continent, the armies could not expect to guard every quarter. This gave an opening for leaders with names like Stuart, Forrest, Wheeler, Mosby, and Morgan. Yes, those glorious raiders riding about disrupting Yankee operations…
I would offer the Confederate raider threat reached its peak during the Atlanta Campaign. Not to downplay other sectors, but the spring-summer of 1864 was somewhat a “point of no return” in many regards. As a counter to the raiders, Major-General William T. Sherman directed the fortification of numerous posts along his supply and communication lines. One of those we saw last week:
And as I pointed out last week, the blockhouse in the photo compares well to the figures offered by Mahan in his post-war manual:
Assuming Mahan’s figures are indeed close matches, we can project all sorts of details not visible in the photo – such as internal arrangements. And thinking of those, we have the other half of Mahan’s illustrations to consider:
Now we might say a picture is worth a thousand words. If so, I’d offer these detailed figures are worth a couple thousand more. Figures 4, 5, and 6 give us a measure of the loop-holes on the lower story. Figures 7 and 8 provide the same for the upper story. One might dismiss the details as simply “common sense.” But my counter would be that “common sense” is usually derived from experience. And in this case, the manual attempts to impart some experience onto inexperienced cadets… who definitely needed sage advice based on wartime experience. Besides, as I like to say on such matters, “it goes to show us how THEY did it.”
The caption provided for this page of figures further solidifies the linkage to wartime experiences:
Figs 1, 2, 3, etc., represent the chief details of the two-story block-houses that have been adopted for the defense of railroad stations, bridges, etc., along the line of communications of General Sherman’s Army. From experiments made upon them, the lower story, with its double row of heavy logs from three and a half to four feet in thickness, is regarded of sufficient strength to resist the field artillery usually taken with cavalry on their raids.
And that was the goal – a “keep” for an outpost garrison that would afford protection against the raider’s weapons.
Now some will point out that Forrest and Wheeler captured their fair share of blockhouses while out raiding. I would offer that in most cases those captures involved a pause of action under a flag of truce. Words like “… to prevent further effusion of blood” were mentioned. So we might contend the blockhouse did indeed serve the “keep” function even if the garrison were captured.
(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 65.)