Category Archives: Preservation

Fortification Friday: Let’s apply this stuff in the field – Star Fort, Winchester, Virginia

Over the last few weeks in this Fortification Series, I’ve discussed Dennis Hart Mahan’s teachings about field fortifications specific to the vertical plane – or specifically the fortification profile.  As way of a refresher, the profile defined the heights and depths of the fortification to include the parapet, ditch, and glacis.  Those terms and components in mind, let us go to the “field” to look at a real field fortification constructed during the Civil War.   A handy example, for me at least, is Star Fort in Winchester, Virginia.


The fort is, or should be, well known to students of the Eastern Theater.  It played a role in the Second and Third Winchesters.  Thankfully, in 2007 the site was set aside for preservation and interpretation.  And that interpretation ensures we know Mahan’s teachings were manifest in the layout of the fort:


The only plan of the fort I’ve seen is from a newspaper map from the Civil War.  But that is sufficient to provide the general outline of the fort:


We’ll get to the nature of these plans, looking at the fort on the horizontal plane, in later articles.  Certainly want to discuss the particulars of star forts, salients, and the like.  But for this installment, I’d like to focus on the fine points of the profile.  Working backwards on Mahan’s diagram, we find that Star Fort had no glacis.  Again, that component was optional.  As Star Fort was built as an artillery platform covering open ground around Winchester, a ring of rifle pits around the fort was sufficient. Though the rife pits didn’t perform the function to elevate the line off the parapet, those pits did function to provide a line of resistance some distance off the main ditch.

Star Fort does have a ditch and parapet.


The trail around the fort strides just to the oustide of the ditch.  We might speculate as to the depth of the ditch, as today erosion has filled part of it.  But what is preserved provides some indication of the profile.  Standing on the crest of the counterscarp, one cannot look past the parapet:


Imagine standing there with your musket, looking up at the muzzles of enemy muskets.  not a good spot to be in.  Trying to replicate the view of the defender at this point on the wall, my efforts were unsuccessful.  Standing at the edge of mowed grass, and thus off the parapet itself, I held the camera up at arms length to overlook.  Not a great view, but notice that we cannot see the ditch.


Nope, only the ground in front of the crest of the counterscarp.   If you examine this view – or at least while I was standing on the ground that day – the geometry is still very apparent, even for 150 years of erosion.  The angle of the superior slope of the parapet ensured the defenders could cover the crest of the counterscarp without being exposed to attackers.

The view out from the parapet is better illustrated on the other side of the fort:


Here the visitor looks past the parapet and beyond the tree line to see the houses.  Such demonstrates the ability of the fort to engage attacking targets within musket range.

The parapet’s profile is somewhat intact.  Remarkably for 150 years of wear:


Anther point in the fort that demonstrates the geometry of the parapet is over to the south side of the earthwork.  Today there is a trail cut through the works at a returning angle.  I’m not versed well enough in the fort’s history to know if this was the sally port or just a modern cut.  But the view serves well for our purposes here.


Notice to the left there is part of the fort’s wall.  The parapet has a saddle which appears to be a gun embrasure.  I was holding the camera at about 6 ½ feet above the ground.  And the location is at the crest of the counterscarp, or just outside the ditch.  The attacker at this point could not see over the parapet on the left.  In the center-right, where the wall is cut, we can see into the fort.  Compare those two lines.

Now from the inside looking out to where I stood:


Again the camera is about 6 ½ feet above the ground level, but in this case what would be the banquette.  What is in view?  The ground where I stood to take the first picture at this point of the line.  Clearly Star Fort’s parapet was laid out with all the functional requirements espoused by Mahan.

Closing, let me once again mention the importance of preservation of sites like Star Fort.  This is a primary source for those studying the Civil War activity around Winchester.  We are lucky to have such a well preserved example to reference.

Battlefield Preservation is not just a Civil War thing: Princeton location under threat

Let me take a break from Civil War topics here and shift back “four score and seven years” further back in time and 150 miles east (from Gettysburg).

The place is Princeton, New Jersey.  General George Washington lead the Continental Army to victory there on January 3, 1777.  A victory for the Americans, it was a key point in the Revolutionary War.  Not familiar with the battle?  Let me direct you to the Campaign 1776 site for more details about the battle of Princeton.

Why I bring it up? Well, Princeton is in the news this summer.  On September 16, the Princeton Battlefield State Park officially grows by 4.6 acres, putting some important ground within the park boundary.   Campaign 1776 helped facilitate this preservation project, in conjunction with the Princeton Battlefield Society and others.  An early victory, if you will, in that worthy campaign.  The article goes on to state, “The Princeton Battlefield Society plans to use National Park Service grants to conduct an archaeological investigation in cooperation with and supervision by the state Park Service.”  So not only is this just adding more ground that you and I can walk over, this is ground that will be examined – properly examined – to help tease out more details on events that took place 238 some odd years ago.  In other words, the preserved resources will further our understanding of history.

Not to downplay that positive note, but there are still portions of the battlefield at Princeton that are not preserved, can be preserved, and in need of attention.  Another portion of the battlefield which has been in the news this summer is eyed for development.  The Institute for Advanced Study owns property adjacent to the state park and has plans to build a set of townhouses.  The ground is not simply near the battlefield, but actually the location of some significant fighting.  Indeed, 663 artifacts, 10 of which related to the action, were collected on the 7 acre tract. In July, the courts upheld a temporary injunction requested by the Princeton Battlefield Society to halt development.  There was another hearing on September 3.  But I have not seen any details on that.

This is a similar story line we hear in regard to Civil War sites.  And in part why I am bringing this up is to demonstrate that preservationists are not narrowly focused on one era or period or genre.  In that regard, we can take lessons from one effort to apply to others.  At Princeton, the battlefield society has ably and rightly called out the presence of artifacts intact on the field.  Quoting Kip Cherry, Vice-President of the society:

“What were the troop movements? How did the battle progress? The Battle of Princeton was a critical turning point, so it is an important battle to understand.”

Now some will say as a counter to this that we have written accounts, maps, books, and over two centuries of study to help us understand the battle.  Why do we need the land and those artifacts?  Well I would respond that we simply don’t know what we don’t know.  And what we do know is not enough.

Now history tells us that on January 3, 1777, Washington’s command was an underdog. Chances of Washington winning a campaign, much less the rebellion, carried long odds.  Yet, here we are.  The story of what happened at Princeton, and earlier at Trenton, that winter are classical cases where a military commander turned the odds around.  How those odds got turned around is the heart of the Princeton story.  And precious details to that lay in the ground and with the land itself.  Plotting where artifacts lay will in some cases shape the understanding of the battle lines – affirming what has already been written or introducing new data that might change those notions.  Detailed study of the lay of the land offers insight into factors that faced the soldiers on that cold winter day.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – battlefield land is a primary resource. That’s why I champion preservation of battlefields from any era.

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!