Author Archives: Craig Swain

Culpeper Battlefields Park update – gaining acceptance, momentum

Since the start of July, several articles and editorials have appeared in area newspapers in regard to the Culpeper Civil War Battlefield Park proposal.  All voices are positive in regard to the initiative.  The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star ran an editorial on July 15 which concluded:

At a time when the nation is reassessing how to view and understand the Civil War and its symbols, the stories of sacrifice of American lives cannot be forgotten. Opening historic sites to the public at Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain is the right thing to do.

Just this weekend, the Culpeper Star-Exponent quoted Civil War Trust Policy and Communications Director, Jim Campi:

“If you have a state battlefield park here in the center of Virginia, it would be like Sailor’s Creek on steroids,” Campi said, referring to the battlefield state park in Prince Edward County. “Culpeper really is the epicenter of the Civil War; so much happened here. Even when they weren’t fighting here, they were marching across Culpeper County… all the encampments and the battles. You really can’t tell the story of the Civil War without the story of what happened in Culpeper.”

These are strong statements indicative of the support the idea has received even with the public discussion at an early stage.  For those of us who have carried, for many years, this idea for a Brandy Station and Ceder Mountain park these articles are music to our ears.  Earlier when blogging about having public discussions about a park, I had low expectations.  But the response has exceeded those by yards if not miles.  Furthermore, though I’ve been quiet about this on the blogging side, I find myself every day engaged on the “Culpeper Front” in ways large and small.

When this park comes to be (and I don’t think it is an “if” at this point, but a “when”), we will once again see how public interpretation – specifically markers – have helped build interest, awareness, and support.  Much as the comparison made to Resaca back in May.  (And I would point out the release of the Brandy Station Battle App is a further advancement along that same avenue of approach but in a digital instead of physical format).

Indeed, the Culpeper Battlefields Park, when it comes to fruition, will inherit a wealth of interpretive exhibits, most of which were written by experts on the battle and produced by the professional Virginia Civil War Trails and Civil War Trust teams.  The current interpretive system (including the soon to be in place interpretation on Fleetwood Hill) will cover nearly every need the park might want.  Well, save perhaps a few subjects – such as the USCT crossing at Kelly’s Ford at the start of the Overland Campaign and the passage of Sherman’s troops at the end of the war.  It is a fine system that any park manager would boast of on the first day of operation.

One physical element currently missing, of course, is a formal visitor center.  There are some who have mentioned the use of the Graffiti House as a new park visitor center. That would be a mistake, in my opinion. The house is not in condition to support the foot traffic that will come into the park. It would need extensive, expensive structural work. Nor is it the  place that visitors need to begin their visit (being on the wrong side of the tracks, literally). Furthermore, the real treasure of the Graffiti House is the surviving markings from the war which deserve preservation.  Needed improvements to make a visitor center would detract from that preservation. Unless something akin to what was done for Blenheim in Fairfax – a visitor center  separate from the historic structure – is completed, the graffiti would be at risk.

And such a separate visitor center would essentially mean the Graffiti House would be an exhibit and not the visitor center proper.  At that point, why place a visitor center in a place where visitors will need to traverse a busy highway in order to see what most are looking for? There are many places which could better serve as a temporary visitor center, assuming the state would prefer, as done at other battlefield parks, to build a purpose build visitor center with museum at some point in the future.  Besides, we are getting way ahead of ourselves in planning where to park the buses.

One last point I’d make, which has been voiced in the articles to date is with the operations and maintenance of the proposed park.  As the Culpeper Star-Exponent article this week mentioned, “To expedite the proposal, the [Civil War Trust] is willing to continue to manage the properties for several years after the land transfer, enabling the state to focus its energies and resources on launching the park…”

Some have alluded to the cost of running a new park as a negative in the park effort.  Indeed the Virginia State Park system, as with many across the country, is at best “just” funded in terms of operations budget.  The gracious offer by the Trust will allow some time for the state to work out the particulars to ensure the park is properly staffed and supported.

Although there are a lot of details in the air and a lot of issues to be worked out, the notion of a Culpeper Battlefields Park has gained acceptance and picking up momentum.  The reality of such a park is not far away!

“Forty Rounds of ammunition ought to be enough” – Whittaker on “random fire” and ammunition waste

Last Monday I brought up Alonzo Gray’s discussion of ammunition expenditure by Civil War cavalry.  Gray came to the conclusion that eighty rounds per trooper was sufficient when going into action.  He noted the means of resupply… and difficulty at times of that resupply.  Point being that “80 rounds worth” might be a measure of the time a cavalry formation could maintain a line.

One of the sources Gray cited offered a different count and a very different viewpoint into the discussion.  Frederick Whittaker spent his Civil War a member of the 6th New York Cavalry, going from private to Lieutenant.  And with that came a different perspective from the regimental commanders cited elsewhere in Gray’s discussion. Whittaker wrote Volunteer Cavalry: The Lessons of the Decade in 1871.  While a discussion of cavalry tactics and operations, it drew largely upon personal experiences instead of military manuals.

We can discuss Whittaker in detail on another day.  But for the moment, let us consider his thoughts on ammunition:

But there was one lesson which might have been learned in the war, which yet was not. Neither side seemed to give it a thought; and it was reserved for the sober philosophic German to teach it to us in 1870. This lesson, the most valuable of all, is how to save your ammunition.

General von Moltke, to whose genius the brilliant results of the campaigns of Sadowa and Sedan are owing, is the first man in high place who has had the wisdom to profit by experience in this matter.

The saving of ammunition, if every fully carried out in modern warfare, will be found to be the greatest revolution since Leopold of Dessau introduced the iron ramrod.

The fault of wasting it is the crying sin of modern armies. It is the commonest thing in the world to see officers on the line of battle encouraging their men to waste ammunition.  “Fire away, boys!” “Give ’em hell!” “That’s it!” “Give it to ’em!” is the shout of almost every excited man on the skirmish line; and the officers, having no rifles, do nothing but yell to the men to fire faster.

What is the consequence? Ninety-nine bullets out of a hundred fired in action are fired at random.  A dismounted man goes on the line with twenty rounds in his box, and perhaps forty or sixty more crammed in his pockets. The line fights for an hour and a half; and at the end of that time the cry arises, “Fall back!” “We are out of ammunition!”

Whittaker’s observation is not unique in the annals of military professional writing.  The issue of random fires was the ill from which S.L.A. Marshall formed his premise for Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command.  Set aside for the moment many subsequent professionals who found fault with Marshall’s data, the premise had at least a kernel of truth.  So Whittaker’s complaint carries some weight here.  However, let us be clear that Whittaker and Marshall were set in somewhat different directions to solve this randomness problem.

Whittaker went on to chide the “West Pointers” who would stand behind the line with a saber to lead the men.  He preferred that the officers take up a carbine and share a spot in the line with the men.  Why?  “An officer taking a carbine, and carrying only a few rounds of ammunition, will better realize the necessity of saving it.”

If a prize were offered to the man who should maintain his post on the skirmish line, and bring out by the end of the campaign the largest average number of cartridges in each battle, I am fully convinced that the regiment adopting such a system would kill more enemies and be twice as much dreaded as under the random system.

Sort of counter-intuitive that the unit which shoots the least would inflict the most casualties.  So we might have to reserve judgement there.

If every general officer in our service would enjoin upon his brigadiers to enforce the saving of ammunition upon their different regiments, the gain in efficiency would be enormous.  The moral effect of an army which reserves its fire till sure of its aim is something wonderful, whether in attack of defense; and the corresponding weakness of an enemy which begins to fire at long ranges is equally marked.

If regiments drawing the smallest quantity of ammunition, and still holding their position, were praised in general orders, the emulation would be, we are convinced, productive of unmixed good.  Forty rounds of ammunition ought to be enough for any cavalry skirmisher, if he fights from daylight till dusk; and a regiment announcing itself “out of ammunition” in the thick of a fight ought to be severely censured in brigade, division, and corps orders, even while ammunition was supplied.

That’s fine, but on what experience is this based?  Whittaker continued….

I write from practical experience. I lay on the skirmish line at Cold Harbor in June, 1864, when infantry and cavalry attacked us for several hours.  I knew well that, during all that time, I could not get rid of more than twenty shots, aimed at anything certain.  Bullets were flying about, but they were fired at random. A knot of cool hands lay on the ground near me, each by his little pile of rails; and a shot about once a minute, with a long steady aim at the puffs of the enemy’s smoke, was all we could managed conscientiously.  At the same time a terrible firing was going on at our right, as if a corps of infantry were engaged; and then, the first thing we knew, men were falling back there “out of ammunition.”

Again and again, have I seen the same thing – men reserving their fire, coming to the rescue of the squanderers, to be reproached by those squanderers for having “done nothing, while we were fighting superior numbers.” A beaten man always has an excuse.

But these “out-of-ammunition” fellows have often got better men into grave peril, by falling back, and thus leaving a gap for the enemy to occupy.  I have seen the whole of a brigade forced into a retreat, and the loss of many prisoners, from the failure of a single regiment in this manner.  It was at [Trevilian Station], near Gordonsville, Virginia, we fighting on foot, and before we were aware of it, a force of the enemy was in our rear, and firing into the led horses.  Only the approach of darkness saved many of us, myself in the number, from capture, and I lost my horse and had to foot it until I captured another.

Not that Whittaker carried a grudge against those “out-of-ammunition” fellows, mind you.   Whittaker certainly had a different measure of how long forty rounds would last for those on the battle line.

What would you say to that assessment?

(Citations from Frederick Whittaker, Volunteer Cavalry: The Lessons of the Decade, New York: printed for the author, 1871, pages 19-22.)

Fortification Friday: Know your banquettes and slopes

Over the last couple of posts in this series, I’ve discussed parapets and their function.  Now let us turn to the parts of a parapet and look at those in detail.  As a refresher, this is Mahan’s profile of the parapet (highlighted line):

Parapet

Mahan defined this profile as the lines between points A-B-C-D-E-F.   It’s important to note that each individual line (defined between the points) also defines a separate component of the parapet.

Between points A and B is the Banquette Slope:

Parapet_Banquette_Slope

Specifically, point A is the Foot of the Banquette Slope and B is the Crest of the Banquette Slope.

Wait… what is a Banquette?  Mahan described the Banquette as:

The banquette is a small terrace on which the soldier stands to deliver his fire ; the top of it is denominated the tread, and the inclined plane by which it is ascended the slope.

So this explains lines A-B and B-C.  The latter being the Tread of the Banquette, and including point C, the Foot of the Interior Slope:

Parapet_Banquette_Thread

From a functional standpoint, the Banquette had to be wide enough to allow a rank or ranks of soldiers to stand in formation and work their musket.  The measure would be different depending on the number of ranks that the defender planned to use.  One rank might get by with two feet of width.  Two ranks required four feet.  So something on the order of 4 ½ to 5 feet would be preferred to allow ease of movement.  The Banquette was also given a slight slope to the interior to allow for drainage.

The Slope of the Banquette (A-B) was structured as the hypotenuse of a right triangle.  The slope would be a compromise providing support for the Tread while offering the lowest slope for the troops to climb.

One other functional requirement to consider about the Banquette is its height above the tere-plein (natural surface level), or interior, and the height of the parapet.  The troops had to be able to stand on the Banquette and shoot with most of their body protected by the other parts of the Parapet.  This governed the overall height of the Parapet somewhat, given average height of soldiers and such.

Moving further down the profile of the Parapet, we come to the Slope portion of the Parapet.  By adding point D, the Interior Crest, we have line C-D, known as the Interior Slope:

Parapet_Interior_Slope

As with the height of the Tread, this line’s length was governed by the need to allow soldiers to fire over the Parapet.  A sharp incline of this line allowed the troops space to move while keeping the mass close to their bodies.  But not being the most efficient structural support angle, that incline required careful maintenance.

Line D-E, with E being the Exterior Crest, is called the Superior Slope:

Parapet_Superior_Slope

The Superior Slope declined outward (towards point E).  This allowed soldiers to depress their weapons to engage targets directly in front of the works.  This also ensure any fires hitting the front of the fort would glance upward and away from the defenders (hopefully).  The angle of the Superior Slope was also a compromise.  Too shallow and the Parapet might be excessive and perhaps not allow enough declination for the muskets.  Too deep and the Parapet’s strength is compromised.

Continuing the same convention, the Exterior Slope is line E-F, where point F is the Foot of the Exterior Slope:

Parapet_Exterior_Slope

This portion of the Parapet had the important mission of stopping projectiles.  The preferred angle was 45º, or the natural slope at which loose dirt will pile.  Structurally, that was the best support angle for the Parapet.  Furthermore, when under fire, any dirt thrown up from the Exterior Slope would naturally fall back to that angle… one would expect.

The Exterior Slope completed the profile of the Parapet.  But there is one other part to consider, although it is not part of the defined parapet – line F-G:

Parapet_Berm

Point G is the crest of the Scarp, part of the Ditch.  Mahan called this the Berm.  The Berm connected the Parapet to the Ditch.

I have a problem with the choice of words here.  In modern context, berm is often a raised mound, almost a Parapet itself.  We spoke of “crossing the berm” in the Gulf Wars as noting a passage through defensive works thrown up in the desert.  Likewise, berms are tall, lengthy mounds built between roads and subdivisions to block noise.  And let’s not forget berms put up in front of raising flood waters.  So you see, a “berm” means some other shape to most modern readers.

But for Mahan, the Berm was a construct that allowed the weight of the Parapet to stand on something other than the back edge of the ditch (the Scarp, which we will discuss later).  Frankly, he wrote:

The berm is a defect in field works, because it yields the enemy a foot-hold to breathe a moment before attempting to ascend the exterior slope. It is useful in the construction of the work for the workmen to stand on; and it throws the weight of the parapet back from the scarp, which might be crushed out by this pressure. In firm soils, the berm may be only from eighteen inches to two feet wide; in other cases, as in marshy soils, it may require a width of six feet. In all cases, it should be six feet below the exterior crest, to prevent the enemy, should he form on it, from firing on the troops on the banquette.

Thus the Berm was a necessary evil.  It was a risk that need mitigation during construction.

These terms become very important when considering the engineering involved to build a fort.  Each component had a function. Those functions determined the measures of the line.  Engineers, being engineers, would compute those measures based on formulas provided by Mahan and others.  In short, the troops didn’t just throw this sort of thing up randomly:

They ENGINEERED it.  And that engineering involved careful study of the task using some of those terms presented above.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, pages 1-3, 22.)