Archive for March, 2014

A fanciful depiction of the assault on Kennesaw Mountain

Hand in hand with the rifled musket, I think one of the most misunderstood tactical features of the Civil War is field fortification. The conventional wisdom is that if you put infantry behind a stone wall or an earthen embankment, they could hold off all comers so long as their ammunition held out or they were flanked. There is a nugget of truth to that, but like so many bits of conventional wisdom, the full reality is much more complicated.

The Three Features Of Field Fortification
As a rule, any complete system of fortification includes three things: protection for the defender; cleared fields of fire; and obstacles to slow or confine enemy movements. Where the conventional wisdom always goes wrong is that it focuses on the first part, takes the second part for granted, and ignores the vital, third part.

A finished system of “abatized” Civil War earthworks might look as follows. The troops would build up a dirt embankment by digging out ditches both behind and in front of said embankment. If time and timber permitted, that dirt embankment would be reinforced with logs and topped with head logs. The result was a wood-reinforced dirt wall maybe three or four feet high, but it would be higher for the defending troops standing in the ditch behind it. Head logs lining the top offered additional protection for the troops as they fired on attackers.

The ditch in front of the embankment would be the final obstacle, designed to make it harder for assaulting troops to scramble over the top. That ditch may or may not have had sharpened stakes. To create further obstacles and clear the field of fire, trees would be felled in front of the embankment with the tops facing out. If time permitted the branches of those trees would be whittled down into stakes, clearing off foliage at the same time. These became improvised abatis.

Like barbed wire in World War One, abatis weren’t intended to stop an attack. Instead, they slowed the enemy advance, keeping them under fire longer. Sometimes they also funneled the attack into “kill zones,” where more fire could be concentrated.

Overlooking Obstacles
I think the role of obstacles is so often overlooked because of the two classic examples of stone wall defense, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. In both cases, the attackers had to cross well over a thousand yards of open ground to reach the enemy. With such a long approach, there was little need for obstacles to keep the attackers under fire longer. At Fredericksburg, the Confederates had the additional advantage of being outside the range of Federal artillery.

Yet there was an obstacle facing Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg: the fence along the Emmitsburg Road. Although it was an organic feature of the battlefield, it had the same effect as laying abatis: delay, disorganize, and funnel the enemy. The importance of this key feature has only really come into focus in some historical studies in the last two decades.

Conversely, how partial the value of just a protective wall is can be seen in the many Civil War examples of combat in wooded terrain. Many times a defender would build up a barricade of stones and logs, but they were only somewhat better protected than the attacker, who had plenty of ready cover. Furthermore, a clear field of fire and no obstacles meant an attacker could come very close without suffering much damage. Most examples of this kind of combat saw the combatants cling on to each other at close range, blazing away with musketry and suffering slow but heavy, cumulative casualties until someone ran out of ammunition or men or darkness fell.

Fortification In Fiction
One of the underlying messages in the way I wrote the Battle of Lawrenceburg has to do with this tactical lesson. Union troops turned Coon Creek into a proper field fortress: a log barricade set behind a ravine filled with improvised abatis, with a clear field of fire of up to a few hundred yards. The Confederate attack there predictably failed.

A quick status update: Mother Earth, Bloody Ground went to the proofreader today. That is the next-to-last major step before going to press.

“Uncle Billy”

Seeing as how the 150th anniversary of the Meridian Campaign came about, I thought I was blog on the real campaign, as well as the small ways in which it changed in Stonewall Goes West. Ever since I became acquainted with the details of Sherman’s February and March foray into eastern Mississippi, I saw it as the prototype for his style of generalship. In some ways, it is more instructive as to how Sherman’s mind worked than the Atlanta Campaign.

The Campaign
The intent of the Meridian Campaign was to break up Confederate rail communications in eastern Mississippi. In this way, Sherman hoped to make it much harder for the Confederates to make large scale forays against the Mississippi River line and its garrisons, which would in turn allow him to reduce the size of those garrisons and reinforce efforts elsewhere.

Sherman’s main force consisted of four divisions organized into two corps, plus some cavalry for scouting. This would march out from Vicksburg. A secondary column of more than 7,000 cavalry under William Sooy Smith was supposed to head out of Memphis, with the intent of confusing the Confederates as to Sherman’s intentions; to spread the destruction done; and to reinforce the main effort upon reaching Meridian. George H. Thomas was given the job of demonstrating in front of Joe Johnston in Georgia, to prevent the Army of Tennessee from dispatching reinforcements to Leonidas Polk and his Army of Mississippi. Finally, the U.S. Navy demonstrated in front of Mobile.

All of this activity was buttressed by false stories planted by Sherman in Northern newspapers. Sherman, who despised reporters, was happy to use them to feed misleading information to the enemy, and his plan worked. Sherman’s main target was Meridian, and he never seriously expected to penetrate any farther into the Southern heartland than Demopolis, Alabama. Southern leaders, however, thought his real aim was at least Selma, and that perhaps he intended to go as far as Mobile and take it on the landward side!

In his own way, Sherman was very concerned that the enemy never understood exactly what he was about. His practice of “putting the enemy on the horns of a dilemma” by threatening multiple points while intending to strike at only one, thereby dispersing their forces, was a hallmark of the March to the Sea.

“Bishop” Polk

The same principle was applied on a much larger, theater-wide scale for the Meridian Campaign. In terms of strategy, Sherman’s campaign was brilliant. With the exception of Nathan Bedford Forrest defeating Smith at the Battle of Okolona, the Army of Mississippi didn’t interfere and Sherman pretty much got his way without a fight, just as he had always intended.

Changes In SGW
The main change for the Meridian Campaign was due to Stonewall Jackson being the theater commander for the Confederate “center,” as well as field commander for the Army of Tennessee. Unlike Joe Johnston, Jackson was a man of decisive action, and he was far less concerned with being outnumbered. He also had responsibility for what happened in Mississippi and Alabama.

Consequently, he dispatched Cheatham’s Division to Polk as soon as he heard Sherman had left Vicksburg, and fended off Thomas’s probing with the remainder of the army. He expected Polk, reinforced to 16,000 infantry, to be able to stop Sherman. With the Bishop in charge that didn’t happen. Sherman had his way in my story much as he did in history, with Jackson’s prompt response coming to nothing.