Fortification Friday: Abattis and Slashings, let us get a clear VIEW these OBSTACLES

Last Friday we considered Abattis (Mahan’s spelling, which I’ll honor in this discussion) and how those obstacles were placed to enhance the defense.  We also considered descriptions offered by Colonel Junius Brutus Wheeler in his 1882 edition of the West Point curriculum on field fortifications.  The material used to construct an abattis was, of course, felled trees.  But we also should considered there were many applications for felled trees beyond just abattis.  This week, let’s look at another section of Wheeler’s instruction:

Slashing. – In compliance with the principle that all houses, trees, brushwood, etc. within range of the work, which could be used as a shelter and a place of concealment by the enemy’s sharpshooters, should be removed, it is essential that the trees within six hundred yards of the work should be cut down.

So we have “slashing” as a verb here… meaning to clear the field of fire and/or field of view. But note that Wheeler does not describe the process of slashing as one designed specifically to create an obstacle.  Thus we have some semantics in play:

As it is not practical to remove immediately the trees from the spot, it is custom to cut them down so that they shall form, while laying on the ground, and obstacle which may be used in the defense of the work.

Trees cut down so as to fall in all directions, form what is known as a slashing.  It is better, where the trees are intended to be used as an obstacle, that they be cut so as to fall towards the enemy; and, in the case of the smaller trees, which might be moved by a few men, the trunks should not be cut entirely through, but only enough to allow the trees to fall.

A thick and well arranged slashing forms an excellent obstruction to an enemy’s free movements. It has the serious defect of being easily burned when dry.

Wheeler offered Figure 72 for this method:


There’s a play of words here, which I will stress.  Slashing, as a verb, was the act of felling the trees for the purpose of improving the field of fire/view from a fortification. The defender may leave those felled trees in place was to create a slashing, used as a noun, that could – stress could – be utilized as an obstacle.

For what it is worth, Mahan did not mention slashings as an obstacle.  But circle back to his discussion of an abattis.  He did offer the defender might “…fell the trees so that their branches will interlace, cutting the trunk in such a way that the tree will hang to the stump by a portion uncut.”  That sounds like, though no figures were offered to illustrate, like Wheeler’s slashing.  However, we must keep in frame Mahan’s definition of the abattis included these instructions, “The smaller branches are chopped off, and the ends, pointed and interlaced with some care, are presented towards the enemy.”  Such implies deliberate preparation of the trees, be those simply felled and left in place… or those moved to a necessary location to create an obstacle.  Wheeler’s description of slashing does not include instructions to clear off smaller branches or leave ends pointed.  And there in lay one difference between an abattis and a slashing (where used as a noun).

Another difference, as we saw above, was the intent of the work.  A commander, if he was using the book definition, would order a slashing (verb) to clear trees at an undesirable location.  He might then order the felled trees left in place, to save labor, which would create a slashing (noun), which simply leave the ground cluttered but not necessarily obstructed.  However, he might order the felled trees arranged to obstruct enemy movements, which Wheeler still called a slashing (noun).  And the commander might order more work to transform those felled trees into what Mahan considered a form of abattis.  You see, by the book the words were used for specific intents.

Oh, but that only applies where the commander knew what the words meant and actually used the words in accordance with the teachings.  How often does that happen?  Well, for the Civil War, perhaps often enough.  First, consider a quote from Major-General John Peck, describing work to be done at Washington, North Carolina, in August 1863 (emphasis mine):

At Washington I examined the old and new lines, both of which are well arranged. The second or interior line has many advantages over the exterior, especially in its command and the requiring of a lesser force for its defense. Some guns should be added, and some slashing done for the better protection of the artillerists against riflemen.

Peck used slashing as a verb here specifically to indicate he recommended moving the tree line back in order to afford a better field of view.  Later, in March 1864, Peck used slashing as a noun when describing works at another point in North Carolina (again, my emphasis here):

The slashing between Fort Jack and the river adds materially to your strength by enabling your flank works to cover that side of the river.

There is no mention of how that slashing might obstruct the Confederates.  The importance of the referenced slashing was to allow the defenders to see the ground and fire upon it.

Later in the war, we see more references to field works and thus slashing (be that as a noun or verb) comes into play more often.  One might say that 1864 was a “golden age” for slashing.  Major-General Quincy Gillmore reported, during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, on May 21, 1864:

As the woods are now being cut in the ravine on my right, I would recommend not to build the parapet for the 30-pounders until we ascertain the best position for it. The slashing may open out our view considerably.

Slashing, as a noun, to describe an area of felled trees which would be done specifically to clear the view… and allow 30-pdr Parrotts to do what they do so well.  So understanding the difference between a slashing and an abattis provides us some insight into the commander’s intent.

But we find other references where slashings was done with a mind to obstruct. Maybe not the primary purpose, but at least with some intent to obstruct.  Colonel Ario Pardee, in the later stages of the Atlanta Campaign, reported the activity of the 147th Pennsylvania:

Each regiment this day and the days following until the 2d of September were engaged in fortifying their positions and slashing the timber in their front, so as to make the position held by the troops as nearly inaccessible as possible.

Pardee’s intent, apparently, was to create a clear area filled with obstacles in front of his works, thus to make his position “nearly inaccessible as possible.”  Really good obstacles!

I should point out that Peck and Gillmore benefited from a military education.  And Pardee, as best I can tell, learned the trade in the field.  So we should consider that while casting interpretations.  But before we start drawing distinctions here, there’s Brigadier-General John Geary, not a West Pointer but somewhat versed in military affairs, whose writing indicates he knew the difference, describing the activity of his command after the fall of Atlanta:

Our corps, being left to hold Atlanta, we commenced the construction of an inner line of forts and rifle-pits, our camp still remaining near the old outer line, which we had strengthened and improved by slashing and abatis.

Sure, he didn’t like Mahan’s double “t”, but he reported two different types of constructions  – slashings and abattis.  Similarly, Colonel (later Brigadier-General) John Hartranft, with a background in civil engineering but not military engineering, related the activity of his command in July 1864, during the “Fifth Epoch” of the Overland Campaign:

Continued slashing and building abatis until the evening of the 23d, when I was relieved by part of the Tenth Corps.

Here we have two verbs – slashing and building – which indicate the command considered those distinct activities performed during the period.  So knowing the difference between slashings and abattis is important when interpreting a unit’s reported activity.

Though you might be saying that it is a trivial matter to worry if the soldiers cut the trees, then moved them… or just left them hanging from the stumps.  A fair criticism, I concede. Knowing a commander’s intent and the unit’s activity are nice to know, though not always vital in context. But consider the report of Major-General Winfield S. Hancock describing the Confederate positions encountered at Spotsylvania:

 The enemy held a strong line of intrenchments about one-half mile in front of and parallel to the works we had stormed on the 12th. His position was concealed by the forest and protected by heavy slashing and abatis.

Hancock was describing what he was up against.  Those words paint a picture for us, 150 years later, to understand what those Confederate works looked like.  And we have a West Point trained officer, who studied Mahan’s text, clearly indicating there were two sort of obstacles in place that used felled trees.  Thus, by weighing the subtle difference between the two terms, we have a sharper view of just what those obstacles were.  Not only allowing us to share Hancock’s view, but also to consider the level of effort undertaken by the Confederates to construct those defenses.

Now this is not to say everyone who ever used the terms slashing or abattis were employing Mahan’s or Wheeler’s definition of those terms. But it is to say that we should weigh the context of the use of those terms when we encounter them.  As someone famous is reported to have said… a noun is the name of a thing.  It is important, more often than not, that we identify the right thing.

(Citations from Junius B. Wheeler, The Elements of Field Fortifications, New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1882, pages 177-8; OR, Series I, Volume XXIX, Part 2, Serial 49, page 81; Volume XXXIII, Serial 60, page 768;  Volume XXXVI, Part 1, Serial 67, page 338; Volume XXXVI, Part 3, Serial 69, page 69; Volume XXXVIII, Part 2, Serial 73, page 159; .Volume XXXIX, Part 1, Serial 77, pag 668; Volume XL, Part 1, Serial 80, page 578.)


Sherman’s March, May 1-5, 1865: Leaving North Carolina and entering Virginia on the way to Washington

At the end of last month, I offered a summary of the orders issued by Major-General William T. Sherman upon the final-final surrender agreement with General Joseph E. Johnston.  Considering the “Great March,” as the veterans called it, in phases, this was the last phase of the movement of the Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia.  Their transit across the northern part of North Carolina and through Virginia to Washington was far less of a tactical movement, and more so an administrative march.  No need for skirmishers.  Foraging was prohibited.  But the march was still a military affair with the daily rhythm of an army on the move.

And move they did.  Let me “steal” a section of the Plate CXVI from the Official Records Atlas:


One of these days I might trace the march in a day-by-day format, looking to the various places the troops marched.  But for now allow me to to wave the hand over the map, and say they moved up from Raleigh in the typical formation seen since Atlanta – Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps on the left, Seventeenth and Fifteenth Corps on the right.  Absent, of course, was the cavalry which was left behind with Major-General John Schofield.

Even though the march was unopposed, the Federals still had to survey and repair roads.  And where needed, the engineers had to lay pontoon bridges to cross rivers.  Brigadier-General Orlando Poe estimated some 3,000 feet of pontoons were laid to support the movement from Raleigh to Washington.  That figure, though similar in magnitude to the amount laid in the Atlanta and Savannah Campaigns, was over a greater distance.   After all, the Confederates were no longer burning bridges behind them to slow the Federal march.  Likewise, Poe recorded only 20 miles of corduroy laid to facilitate this last march.  In summary, Poe wrote, “Of course there was no especial merit in anything done by the engineers during this march any more than there would be during any other march in a time of profound peace.”

More concerned with the bridges was Major-General John Geary, commanding Second Division, Twentieth Corps.  On April 30, Geary encountered issues crossing the Neuse River, “on a rickety bridge at falls of Neuse Paper Mills.”  Geary complained, “The bridge, which had been repaired by the division preceding me, broke down before all my trains had crossed.  The remaining wagons forded the river below, and reached camp during the night….”  Although Geary found “an excellent bridge” over Cedar Creek the next day, he had to cross the Tar River on a pontoon bridge, finding the original washed away.  On May 3, Geary’s division would cross the Roanoke River at Taylor’s Ferry on a set of pontoon bridges measuring 385 yards.  Thus about 1,000 feet of Poe’s estimated 3,000 feet of bridging allowed Geary’s division to pass that barrier.

Once over the Roanoke River, the Armies approached Petersburg:


This line of march brought them close to many familiar place names associated with the long siege of that city and the Appomattox Campaign of a month earlier.  The Fourteenth Corps approached Nottoway Court-house; the Twentieth Corps reached Blacks and Whites Station; the Army of the Tennessee passed through Dinwiddie and used the Boyton Plank Road.  Some elements of the Fifteenth Corps reached Reams’ Station.

Now the urgency of the war was past so marches were supposed to be “easy”… as if any fifteen mile march with pack and provisions would be “easy.”  But there was still the urge to “get there first” and turn the march into a race against other formations.  Corps commanders had to govern the march to prevent this.  On the evening of May 5, Major-General Frank Blair, from Spain’s Plantation,  issued instructions for the next day’s march:

The command will move forward to-morrow at daylight in the same order as to-day. If the day is clear and hot the command will halt at 11 a.m., and starting again at 2 p.m. Will march until sundown.

Look a bit behind the words here.  Sure, Blair is prescribing a break (that refreshes) in the middle of the day.  But more important are the times prescribed here.  Only a month earlier, a similar movement order would have given a specific time of day.  For the military planner, “daylight” is ambiguous.  It would be like saying “Oh, sometime once you get up.”  Normally, field orders were issued with the reliance on synchronized watches from the corps down to the regimental level.  Given tables issued from the Naval Observatory, the staff could accurately determine sunrise, sunset, and other times based on astrological observations.  In short, there was a “standard” time that commanders used as a reference in their orders. It was not the “atomic clock” stuff we have today, but was within tolerances and effective.

However, that evening Blair was not concerned with the exact time to start the march or even end the march of May 6.  He was concerned about ensuring his troops had a three hour rest period during the day.  And I would expect somewhere a junior staff officer had the task of riding the line of march between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. that day to determine who, if any, were violating the commander’s order. A far bit removed from the days of struggling through the swamps of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  Priorities changed, you might say.

As the Armies neared Richmond, a question was in the air.  Would Sherman’s men be allowed to march through Richmond?  I’ll look to that in the next installment.

Also…. Let me also mention, looking further down the route of march, that Noel Harrison, at Mysteries and Conundrums, has an excellent post up touching upon the passage of Sherman’s Armies through Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg.  Good read!

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 175 and 700-1; Part II, Serial 100, page 403.)

Sherman’s March, March 20, 1865: “I cannot see why he remains” – Second day at Bentonville

The first day in the battle of Bentonville had gone the Confederate’s way.  Knocking the Federal Left Wing on its heels, General Joseph E. Johnston’s attack came up short of eliminating that force… well short.  But Johnston launched his March 19, 1865 attack at long odds knowing a lot of luck was needed.  At the close of the day, he still held the upper hand and could maneuver away.  But instead he stayed put.  No just for the 20th, but the 21st as well.  Johnston would mention the need to “cover the removal of our wounded” in a report to General Robert E. Lee on the 21st.   While that justification holds partly, unstated were more likely reasons – forcing Major-General William T. Sherman to concentrate and hoping that Sherman would attempt “Kennessaw” outside Bentonville.

Sherman was indeed concentrating his armies, but he was decidedly against another “Kennessaw.”  With two divisions each from the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps, along with the battering from the 19th fresh in his memory, the last thing on Major-General Henry Slocum’s mind was an offensive.  He had the Left Wing entrench along a line centered on the Morris Farm.  Slocum would be ready in case Johnston renewed the attack on the 20th, but would hope for timely arrival of reinforcements.


As detailed in the second post yesterday, in the late afternoon of March 19, Sherman issued a series of orders directly to subordinates to converge in support of Slocum’s Left Wing.  Already moving at the early hours on the 20th were Major-General William B. Hazen’s Division from Fifteenth Corps, to report to Slocum without delay.  Marching through the night, Hazen made twenty miles distance from his afternoon camp to report to Slocum at dawn on the 20th.   After a brief rest, the troops moved up on the right of Fourteenth Corps.

Also moving in the early morning hours, Major-Generals John Geary and Abaslom Baird left one brigade each to mind the trains of the Left Wing and pushed the remainder of their respective divisions to Bentonville. Geary marched eight miles and arrived at 4:30 a.m.  Baird didn’t get orders to move until 5 a.m. that morning, but pressed his two brigades to link up by mid-morning.  While Geary’s men would be in reserve the rest of the battle, Baird’s division would be heavily engaged on March 20th.

But it was the Right Wing that Sherman most wanted at Bentonville.  Preliminary movement started as ordered at 4 a.m. with the divisions on the move an hour later.  The Fifteenth Corps, under Major-General John Logan, lead the wing.  Logan arranged his march with Major-General Charles Woods’ division (minus a brigade under Brigadier-General William Woods, escorting the Corps’ trains), followed by those of Major-Generals John Corse and John Smith.  Following the Fifteenth Corps was the Seventeenth Corps.  This force moved with only ordnance wagons and ambulances, leaving the rest of the trains in a temporary depot in the vicinity of Falling Creek.

To prevent any Confederate force from reaching the Right Wing’s rear, Logan had Colonel Clark Wever’s brigade (from Smith’s division), supported by a section of artillery, to attack Cox’s Bridge.  Wever’s objective was not to capture the bridge, but to ensure it was destroyed.  Opposing Wever was a brigade of North Carolinians under Colonel John N. Whitford.  Smith later reported:

After a sharp skirmish for one hour our men penetrated the swamps and thickets, and, obtained a good position, succeeded in driving the enemy to the other side of the river. The enemy used artillery freely, having four guns in position, completely covering the bridge and narrow road leading to it.  Our guns could not be used with effect, as we could not get a position in range for them.  At 7:45 a.m. we had possession of the bridge and completed its destruction, which had already been commenced by the enemy, who fired it as they retired to the opposite bank.

Everyone was happy with Cox’s Bridge destroyed.

Logan turned the rest of Woods’ division west along the road to Bentonville.  Within a few miles, the Federals ran into cavalry from Butler’s Division, that day under the command of Brigadier-General Evander M. Law.  While Law worked to delay the march, they lacked the strength to stop the Fifteenth Corps.  At 9:50 a.m., Law reported to Johnston, “The enemy’s infantry and artillery is advancing rapidly from the direction of Cox’s Bridge.  He is now about two miles from Flower’s House.”  Law suggested infantry might check the Federal advance.

The mechanics behind Law’s observation lay in the tactics applied by the Fifteenth Corps that morning.  Right Wing commander Major-General Oliver O. Howard directed Logan to use only skirmishers to push the cavalry. So the Federal fight with Law was one of constant flanking, repositioning, and flanking. This had the effect of eliminating any delays while regiments and brigades formed on line.  But to pull it off, Logan had to recognize when his skirmishers met the main Confederate line, and then quickly deploy his infantry in battle line.  Otherwise, he invited one of those dreaded “feed his command into battle piecemeal” actions.   Nothing better than having an “ace” to play in a difficult situation.  Logan’s ace in this case was Second Brigade of Woods’ Division, under Colonel Robert F. Catterson.

Among the seven regiments, small though they were, that made up Catterson’s command all but one carried repeaters – either Spencer or Henry rifles.  This firepower allowed Catterson’s skirmishers to overwhelm an enemy force with a flurry of fire.  The advantages and disadvantages of repeating arms was on full display that morning.  Though able to drive Law’s cavalrymen, some of the Federals burned through ammunition quickly, as Catterson noted in his report:

Six companies of the Ninety-seventh Indiana were thrown forward as skirmishers, rapidly driving the enemy about three miles, when it was relieved by the Sixth Iowa, which drove the enemy briskly to within about three miles of Bentonville, where he made a determined stand. The ammunition of the Sixth Iowa having become exhausted it was relieved by the Forty-sixth Ohio. During its deployment the enemy was discovered turning the left of my skirmishers, having already gained their rear. The One hundredth Indiana was hurried forward to check this move, and they accomplished their work with dispatch and marked gallantry. During this time the Forty-sixth Ohio moved forward on double-quick, driving the enemy from his strong barricade of rails in splendid style. I immediately moved the brigade forward to the position thus gained, and fortified it, at the same time advancing my skirmishers half a mile, when it was halted, and in this position I awaited further orders.

Catterson’s brigade cleared a path through to the Flowers House.  And behind them the Fifteenth Corps deployed.  In response to Law’s report, Johnston moved Major-General Robert Hoke’s Division back from in front of the Fourteenth Corps to face east against the Right Wing.  This move prompted some of the Fourteenth Corps to push forward towards Hoke’s old position.  And at the same time Hazen’s Division moved forward on their right.  Late afternoon, Hazen came in contact with the left of Woods’ division.  At that point the Federals had one solid front – south of and east of Johnston’s.  You Easterners, with a mind to Gettysburg, will notice some irony here.  Howard arrived on March 20 to relieve Slocum.

With some pressure released as Hoke’s Division repositioned, Slocum moved forward to regain some of the ground contested on the 19th. With that, Baird’s Division ended up in the fields around the Cole Farm. And just as happened the day before, that became a “hot spot” under Confederate artillery fire.  Elsewhere, Kilpatrick felt out for the Confederate flank and portions of the Twentieth Corps gained the ground lost on the Federal left flank the day before.  Presence of Federal skirmishers forced Johnston to refuse his right.

By sunset, Johnston had retracted his position to face Federals on three sides, forming a salient.  The only way out of that salient was a lone bridge across Mill Creek.  A risky, dangerous position to hold.  Good military sense called for Johnston to withdraw in the night.  That’s what Sherman expected.  Writing to Slocum that evening, Sherman expressed:

Johnston hoped to overcome your wing before I could come to your relief. Having failed in that, I cannot see why he remains and still think he will avail himself of night to get back to Smithfield.  I would rather avoid a general battle if possible, but if he insists on it, we must accommodate him.

Sherman called for Slocum to clear a good road to the east, which would allow him to set his line with the Right Wing. Sherman wanted his back to the Weldon Railroad and Goldsboro.

Major-General Alfred Terry’s column made good progress that day, reaching a point just south of Falling Creek.  Sherman probably could not have planned this any better.  Not only were Terry’s men in position to cover the Right Wing’s trains, they were within range of Cox’s Bridge.  Sherman ordered Terry to proceed there to meet Slocum’s pontoon train and effect a crossing.

At Kinston, the much delayed advance of the Twenty-Third Corps began that morning also.  Schofield headquartered at Rockford that evening, about half the distance to Goldsboro.  Sherman did not expect any opposition at that point.  After describing the situation at Bentonville, Sherman laid a contingency plan for Schofield, “if you hear nothing to the contrary, join a part of your forces with General Terry’s and come to me wherever I may be.”

At day’s end on the 20th, Johnston and Sherman occupied lines of solid earthworks opposing each other in a manner seen the previous spring at points in Northern Georgia.  For Johnston, this was a gamble of sorts.  A roll of the dice with the decision to stay one more day.  Sherman did not indulge the temptation to strike.  He was happy to give Johnston the “golden bridge” escape.  Sherman’s focus was on resupplying his command for the next leg of the campaign.  However, that view was not shared by all of Sherman’s subordinates.  And that difference lead to more action the following day and a large “might have been” to play out at Bentonville.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 259, 321 and 1055; Part II, Serial 99, pages 919, 922, and 1443.)