The Axe, the Pick, the Shovel, and the Battle of Gettysburg

Civil War

The Axe, the Pick, the Shovel, and the Battle of Gettysburg

Around the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, the axe, the pick and the shovel began to figure heavily in the way in which the Civil War was fought.

Around the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, the axe, the pick and the shovel began to figure heavily in the way in which the Civil War was fought.

by Joseph E. Lowry

During the Civil War, both the North and the South utilized existing technology such as the telegraph and the railroad to further their ongoing war efforts. However, by the third year of the fighting, three pieces of very old technology still figured heavily in the way in which the war was fought, particularly in the eastern theater. These were the axe, the pick, and the shovel. Around the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, experienced soldiers on both sides had realized that it was sheer lunacy to stand or charge in mass formations in the face of rifled muskets that could kill effectively at a range of 900 yards.

It took the armies two years of brutal bloodletting to learn this rather elementary lesson, during which time hidebound officers on both sides stubbornly continued to follow the Napoleonic tactic of trying to overwhelm the enemy with sheer masses of troops. Field fortifications were largely eschewed—“Toujours l’audace” was still the catchphrase of the day. The rare times when ground cover was used to mask or shelter troops were more a matter of taking advantage of the natural landscape—the railroad cut at Second Manassas, the sunken lane at the Battle of Antietam, the stone wall at Fredericksburg—than any preplanned military decision.

Lessons Learned at Gettysburg

All this began to change on the first day at the Battle of Gettysburg, when Brig. Gen. John Buford’s outnumbered Union cavalrymen built breastworks of fence posts and rocks to delay the attack of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s much larger Confederate division. The efficacy of building such protective cover paid even greater dividends on the second day of the battle, when Brig. Gen. George S. Greene had his New York regiments construct breastworks on the summit of Culp’s Hill. Prior to assaulting the hill later that afternoon, Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s men could clearly hear the ringing of axes as Greene’s men chopped down trees to strengthen their position. The immense benefit of those works was proven when the Union forces easily repulsed Ewell’s attack.

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More Breastworks and Field Fortifications

Heading into the spring of 1864, both sides knew that the killing would only increase, and the men in the ranks had learned by instinct and experience that their chances for survival improved dramatically if they could find cover—any cover—from enemy bullets. When newly appointed Union commander-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant renewed the fighting in Virginia by marching into the Wilderness on May 4, 1864, breastworks and field fortifications began to spring up every time the troops halted. Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s official reports on the fighting make numerous references to the construction of breastworks as soon as the troops had settled into a line. “My division commanders had been directed to erect breast-works immediately upon going into position,” Hancock observed. “A substantial line of breast-works was constructed of earth and logs the length of my line of battle. I directed my division commanders to entrench their lines, to slash timber in their front.” The one time a general—Confederate Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell “Little Powell” Hill—allowed his troops to rest rather than erect breastworks, they subsequently were routed by the enemy.

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