Thursday, November 8, 2007

Hess: "Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign"

[ Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign by Earl J. Hess. (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) Hardcover, 25 maps, photos, drawings, notes, appendix, bibliography. Page total/main: 331/253 ISBN:978-0-8078-3154-0 $39.95]
Trench Warfare Under Grant & Lee is the middle volume of Earl Hess' planned trilogy examining the evolution and role of field fortifications in the Civil War's eastern theater. The first book [UNC Press(2005) reviewed here] covered the period 1861-1864, and introduced the interpretive themes1 at the heart of the author's analysis. This second volume, a structurally and thematically seamless continuation of Hess' research, studies the critical 1864 Overland Campaign (to include the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Bermuda Hundred, North Anna, and Cold Harbor).

Hess begins with an overview of the engineer officers and units employed by either side during the Overland Campaign. Lee placed Maj. Gen. Martin L. Smith2 in the position of chief engineer, and the Confederates assigned a single battalion, the 1st Confederate Engineers, to the Army of Northern Virginia. On the Union side, Brig. Gen. James C. Duane served as chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac during the campaign. The author's brief service biographies of engineer officers serving under Duane, men like James Morton, Francis Fahrquar, Nathaniel Michler, and Ira Spaulding, introduce readers to these important, yet little celebrated, figures. Those familiar with the Official Military Atlas will undoubtedly recognize Michler, whose artistic cartography graces many of its plates. Hess makes an excellent sidepoint of the danger of relying on these engineer maps in isolation. The placement of even major topographical features often varied widely between maps covering the same area3.

While helpful, prior familiarity with the literature of the Overland Campaign is not required for the reader to grasp the essential point of this study, which basically provides an operational and grand tactical examination of the campaign in the specific context of the expanding role of field fortifications. Pursuant to this aim, the planning and deployment of engineering assets are given special attention in the narrative. Although Hess relies heavily, both descriptively and analytically, upon Gordon Rhea's multi-volume military history of the campaign for background information, the central ideas of Trench Warfare are drawn from the author's mass of original research and personal surveys of the earthwork remains on the various battlefields.

Detailed cartography is an essential element of a study of this type, and the effort put forth by author and publisher in this regard is first rate. Maps trace existing earthworks, and note salient features such as gun emplacements, traverses, ditches, rifle pits, communicating trenches, and bombproofs. Relevant battlefield topography, such as ravines, are also duly noted. Many of these drawings are placed within a lengthy appendix that also discusses field fortification design and construction. My only quibble is with the lack of a distance scale and more thorough orientation aids for those readers that would like to visit the sites.

While detailed tactical discussions are beyond the scope of the series, Hess makes note of the unique problems associated with attacking fortified positions. Simply passing over friendly trenches would often disrupt formations. Linear formations fractured while passing through obstructions and lacked the ability to exploit breakthroughs, while the alternative use of columns of regiments, brigades, or divisions led to the dilemma of where to place the supports. Units in close support often only added to the confusion (and casualty lists) as these formations quickly intermixed with the lead regiments. Supports placed far to the rear also experienced difficulty in exploiting gains as enemy reserves would reach the front before these friendly supports could be brought forward. Grant is faulted for the constant operational maneuvering of exhausted units in order to find a weak spot in Confederate defenses, and also for the lack of proper reconnaissance before launching assaults. Entire corps (especially II Corps) were ground down, their offensive effectiveness severely crippled by frightening levels of attrition in experienced officers and men. Of course, time spent by Union forces on rest, reorganization, and intelligence gathering only allowed Lee a window he would use to fortify his lines into a state of near impregnability. These problems would never be adequately solved.

Trench Warfare Under Grant & Lee is another well researched, astutely analyzed, and richly illustrated study by Earl Hess. It concludes with the siege-like quality of the overall situation at the front in the aftermath of the failed June 3 assault at Cold Harbor. The extensive network of fortifications constructed during this short period and the first tentative attempts at regular siege approaches were a harbinger of the type of warfare that would be conducted at Petersburg. Unfortunately, for that discussion, we must patiently await the third and final installment of this landmark, scholarly series.
1 -
As outlined in volume 1, and excerpted from my earlier review: Hess rightly contends that the inclination to construct field fortifications existed in one form or another throughout the entire war. It was a question of degree. He also argues that the progression of trench warfare was intimately tied to commanders’s evolving conceptions of offensive and defensive action. An early war commander planning a tactical offensive generally would not consider entrenching his force as that would indicate a static posture. Similarly, an undecided leader often viewed entrenchments as limiting his tactical options. It is also asserted that the increased killing range of the rifle had far less to do with the average infantryman’s desire to dig in than did the increasingly constant nature of close contact between opposing armies in the second half of the conflict. The author also demonstrates that the nature of the war’s increasing reliance on earthworks was not linear but rather was characterized by fits and starts interspersed with periods of actual regression, where the preceding campaign’s lessons seem to have been forgotten. Perhaps uniquely among historians, Hess places the watershed moment of this evolution of trench warfare in the east at Chancellorsville.

2 - Smith, a division commander at Vicksburg, was a highly experienced officer in the construction of defensive earthworks. While not particularly well-known today, he served Lee exceptionally well during the Overland Campaign.

3 - For example, there is the tendency for no two depictions of a particular road network to agree; even major thoroughfares can be missing or drawn miles apart. Engineers often had to reconnoiter under fire, impairing their ability to construct accurate topographic maps. This reviewer suggests that interested readers examine the maps in the
O.R. Atlas depicting Richmond and Corinth to get a clear idea of the enormity of the contrast between various efforts.


  1. Drew,

    After the third volume of this outstanding series is completed, Dr. Hess plans a Western Theater project as well.

    Mike Peters

  2. Drew,

    Great and thorough review. Wasn't sure if you knew, but you can catch a recent interview w/ Dr. Hess regarding the book at the Abraham Lincoln bookshop's website at under the "Archives" section

    Best Regards,

    Jim Schmidt

  3. Jim,
    Yes, I watched the video yesterday at lunch. Hopefully, Gerry at CWTR will invite him to his show.

  4. Wow, Hess has really staked out his own corner of the Civil War bookshelf. This looks like another of those studies that makes you pause and wonder why no one has done it in such detail before the 21st century.

    Great review -- very meaty, and useful.



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