Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Booknotes: Sand, Science, and the Civil War

New Arrival:
Sand, Science, and the Civil War: Sedimentary Geology and Combat by Scott Hippensteel (UGA Press, 2023).

With his first two Civil War books well off the beaten path, one a unique take on mythmaking and the other a broad examination of the impact of various rock formations on campaigns and battles, Scott Hippensteel has emerged as one of the more interesting new authors in the field. He takes on another fresh topic in his latest book Sand, Science, and the Civil War: Sedimentary Geology and Combat, which argues that "(s)edimentary geology influenced everything from the nature of the landscape (flat vs. rolling terrain) to the effectiveness of the weapons (a single grain of sand can render a rifle musket as useless as a club)."

Complementing and greatly expanding upon his earlier work in Rocks and Rifles that explored the battlefield impact of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rock formations, Hippensteel's new study "investigates the role of sedimentary geology on the campaigns and battles of the Civil War on multiple scales, with a special emphasis on the fighting along the coastlines."

More from the description: "At the start of the Civil War the massive brick citadels guarding key coastal harbors and shipyards were thought to be invincible to artillery attack. The Union bombardment of Savannah’s key defensive fortification, Fort Pulaski, demonstrated the vulnerability of this type of fortress to the new rifled artillery available to the Union; Fort Pulaski surrendered within a day. When the Union later tried to capture the temporary sand fortifications of Battery Wagner (protecting Charleston) and Fort Fisher (protecting Wilmington) they employed similar tactics but with disastrous results. The value of sand in defensive positions vastly minimized the Federal advantage in artillery, making these coastal strongpoints especially costly to capture."

While the book's geographical focus is centered on Virginia's coastal plain and Carolinas coastal fortifications, Mississippi River Valley geology is also explored (particularly in the context of the Vicksburg Campaign). In addition to extensive coverage of sedimentary geology's association with fortifications, other topics such as logistics, transportation, even soldier morale enter into the discussion. The volume strongly promotes geology as a useful tool for studying Civil War history.

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