When no one was actively shooting at them, Civil War soldiers despised the hard physical labor required to construct fieldworks. As one officer of the 2nd Michigan Infantry recalled, “Soldiers would rather march all day than shovel for an hour.” Another Union soldier, Sergeant George Tipping of the 155th New York, wrote to his wife from Petersburg, Va., in September 1864: “We now handle the spade and shovel in place of the musket. There are 3,000 of us [who] go out every day to build forts and rifle pits. Twenty men would do more work in one day than the whole 3,000 men.” Another Yank, James Ford, grumbled about building fieldworks at Pipe Creek, Md., during the Gettysburg campaign. “Well we tried what you call soldiering for two days. I think that I should like it very well nothing very bad about it only that spades come trump pretty often.”
Enemy bullets, however, were a terrific motivator of men, as related by a bluecoat named Van Dyke in the aftermath of skirmishing along the Rapidan River in November 1863: “It is hard to get the men to dig for 10 minutes when we are not at the front. But when the shot and shell begin to fly, they dig like woodchucks, even though they do not carry spades. [I]n a short time they are safe behind strong works.”
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Regardless of their dislike for constructing fieldworks, soldiers certainly preferred fighting behind them, as New Yorker Richard T. Van Wyck noted of his regiment’s works on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg. “Our position there was of a most favorable kind,” Van Wyck wrote. “We were little exposed and did terrible execution upon the Rebs.” And a member of the Union 2nd Corps recalled after the Battle of the Wilderness: “The rapid fire of the foe had but slight effect on our line, behind its bullet proof cover, over the top of which we, with deliberate aim, hurled into [the Confederate] regiments an incessant and most deadly fire.”
Civil War fieldworks were actually trench systems, and were much more complex than a mere trench made by excavating material and tossing it out in front of the trench. Fieldwork systems included cleared fields of fire, obstructions, and barricades, and outer works in front of the breastwork proper, together with gun positions, redoubts, covered ways, and other protective features on the defenders’ side of the line.
When built under fire, the initial line of fieldworks was often selected by regimental field and line officers, and construction was supervised directly by them. It was not uncommon for engineer officers to later adjust portions of the line to better positions. Non-engineer officers also sited works at isolated posts. The majority of fieldworks were constructed by rank-and-file enlisted men wielding a variety of specially designed and improvised hand tools. A small number of men in each company might be designated as pioneers, temporarily assigned to fatigue duties such as fieldworks construction and road work. Pioneers were not permanent units, and men were selected for such details because they were good ax-men or possessed other construction-related skills.
Some common—but not the only—features of a Civil War fieldworks system included rifle pits, abatises, chevaux-de-frise, ditches, embankments, parapets, breastworks, tren-ches, revetments, head logs, traverses, sally ports, redans, lunettes, and redoubts. Rifle pits varied in size, from what might be called a foxhole to complete fieldworks. Most were advanced fieldworks meant for pickets, usually hundreds of yards in front of the main line.
Fieldworks at Gettysburg, Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill
To be sure, 1863 was a pivotal year for fieldworks in the eastern theater of the war. Federal troops constructed many slight to moderate works during the Chancellorsville campaign that May, and moderate works were built on Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top, and along Cemetery Ride at Gettysburg. By November of 1863, fairly extensive fieldworks were constructed during the Kelly’s Ford, Rappahannock Station and, Mine Run campaigns. In the spring of 1864, the Battle of the Wilderness saw extensive construction of moderate works, and following the Battle of Spotsylvania that May, the opposing armies of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee perfected the art of fieldworks during the 10-month siege of Petersburg.
When the opposing lines were in close proximity to one another, particularly in 1864-65, sniper fire made life in the trenches miserable. As one Confederate related at Cold Harbor in June 1864: “Sharpshooters [of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery] were so vigilant and expert at their business that a head could hardly show itself above our earthwork without getting a ball through it. A hat put on a ramrod and raised a little would be perforated in a jiffy.”
Fieldworks were defended with everything their occupants possessed. Officers would order the men massed in the works to fire when the enemy was well within range—typically at less than 300 yards. Musketry at that range was murderous, particularly later in the war. After an opening volley, most of the firing was at will, as fast as each defender could load and fire. If the enemy was able to reach the works and the defenders stood their ground, close-in combat took place with bayonets, clubbed muskets, and even fists. Because traverses were a common component of fieldworks, breakthroughs were often contained to a fairly small area.
Troops ordered to attack a fortified enemy line usually experienced strong feelings of trepidation—this was true both for “fresh fish” as well as veterans. A member of the 1st Minnesota wrote of the regiment’s dread the night before it was to assault the Confederate fieldworks at Mine Run in November 1863. “We could plainly see the line of earthworks on the crest of the gentle slope rising before us,” noted William Lochran. “We could hear the incessant sound of entrenching tools in the enemy’s works. We knew that it was expected that we should charge those works, and earnestly wished that the order would come to do so in the darkness, before they were made stronger and reinforced.”
Often, it appeared to the attackers that the enemy works were deserted—not a man could be seen in them as the assaulting force approached. But as soon as the enemy skirmishers disappeared back into their own lines, hundreds of flashes from enemy muskets became visible, followed by puffs of smoke and whizzing bullets. Troops attacking stoutly defended earthworks were often unable to reach them at all, and were pinned down in no-man’s-land until they were able to withdraw. Troops pinned down sought cover by any means possible, placing their knapsacks or blanket rolls in front of them, hiding behind cover—including dead bodies—and digging shallow rifle pits. If the assaulting columns were able to penetrate the enemy position, the resulting fighting was typically brutal and bloody. In the end, attacking Civil War fieldworks was almost always an extremely costly enterprise.