Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hess: "IN THE TRENCHES AT PETERSBURG: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat"

[ In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat by Earl J. Hess (University of North Carolina Press, 2009). Hardcover, 27 maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 306/424. ISBN:9780807832820 $45]

In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat is the third and concluding volume of historian Earl J. Hess's series examining the evolution of field works in the Civil War's eastern theater [links to reviews of Volumes One and Two]. The broadest of the three works in terms of geographic extent and time period spanned, Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War covered battlefield engineering for both sides across the entire eastern theater from 1861-1864. Its release was followed two years later by that of Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee, a similarly structured examination of the Overland Campaign. The present volume takes an in-depth look at the war's final evolution of field fortifications and countermeasures, and explores the central role they played in the various Union offensives (and Confederate countermoves) conducted during the ten month Petersburg Campaign.

The Petersburg Campaign was by far the longest of the war, and historians have found it useful to manage its discussion by breaking it up into a series of numbered offensives. Given that, it should come as no surprise that the number, and what actions should be included within each, remains a controversial subject among experts. Hess settled on nine offensives, his succinct chapter length summaries of which are excellent. The book operates successfully on two levels, as an in-depth study of fieldworks and a comprehensive narrative summary of the campaign.

Any serious examination of field fortifications requires the inclusion of complex drawings and maps. Similar in detail and style to that of the previous two volumes, the extensive cartography in In the Trenches of Petersburg traces the full extent of either side's earthwork defenses, at a general operational scale and at a more detailed tactical level. These networks stretched for miles both above and below the James River. The drawings feature gun emplacements, traverses, ditches, rifle pits, communicating trenches, bombproofs, galleries, mines, countermines, and various obstructions (e.g. mines, slashings, abatis, chaveaux-de-frise). The locations of relevant elements of battlefield topography, such as ravines, streams, roads, and lakes, are also duly noted in the maps. A drawback is the inconsistent inclusion of a distance scale, a hold over from the previous volumes.

Other supplementary material abounds. A large number of period photographs of various works augment the technical text descriptions. A lengthy appendix, replete with maps and photos, goes into even greater detail about key military points (e.g. forts and salients) located along the Richmond to Petersburg lines.

What life was like in the trenches is another major focus of Hess's writing. Spread throughout are subsections dealing with issues of immediate personal importance to the men, such as habitation, sanitation, supply, morale, mental and physical stress, and desertion. Specific aspects of the trench combat experience, like raids, mining operations, picketing, sharpshooting, and bombardment, are discussed.

One of the best features of the series as a whole is Hess's highlighting of the critical roles of talented engineering officers and specialized engineer units. Operating largely under the radar during the first years of the war, the duties performed by individuals like U.S. army officers Nathaniel Michler and Peter Michie, and Martin L. Smith for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had a practical impact in the field far out of proportion to rank and credit given.

The scale of Hess's research effort is impressive. Having mined over two hundred manuscript collections located all around the country, he also consulted a vast number of newspapers, books, articles, dissertations, archaeological field reports, maps, and guides.

In the Trenches at Petersburg
is a fitting conclusion to a groundbreaking Civil War trilogy documenting and analyzing the construction and use of field fortifications during the eastern campaigns. These essential reference books are highly recommended additions to the shelves of academic and personal libraries.

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Other recent CWBA reviews of UNC Press titles:
* The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
* Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign
* Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
* Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign
* Plain Folk’s Fight: The Civil War & Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia
* Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
* Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864

1 comment:

  1. As I mentioned on Brett's blog, despite a few errors Hess' work on Petersburg is some of the strongest and most important writing in the American military history field in some time. I found his passages on life in the trenches to be especially valuable.


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