In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat by Earl J. Hess

Hess, Earl J. In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina
Press, 2009.

Earl J. Hess has created a masterful trilogy on trench warfare during the Civil War. The first book in the series Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 covers such eastern campaign battles as Big Bethel and the Peninsula to Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Charleston, and Mine Run. His second book Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat covers the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and Bermuda Hundred. The final installment under review is In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat. This book focuses on the strategic and tactical operations in Virginia during the last ten months of the Civil War, which the author explains that field fortifications controlled military planning.

Not only was Petersburg the longest battle of the Civil War, lasting from June 9, 1864, to March 25, 1865, Hess considers it the most complex as well. General Robert E. Lee gambled the fate of his Army of Northern Virginia on the outcome of this campaign. Hess unequivocally believes that field fortifications played a pivotal role in the operations of both armies at Petersburg. (p. xiii) The author trusts that because the reliance of earthworks at Petersburg was so great that writing this third book was a necessity considering that at the end of the campaign trenches stretched some thirty-five miles crossing two rivers, two rail lines, and several major roads. Hess wants this study to focus on field fortifications because they played such a crucial role. The focus Hess has throughout his series is that trenches were not used because of improved accuracy and range of the rifle musket but was more to do with a refusal of Ulysses S. Grant to surrender the operational initiative to the Confederate opponent. (p. xv) In other words, Grant wanted to stick to the Confederate’s like glue and to be that close to the enemy one has to dig in.

Having grown up in Missouri, Earl J. Hess completed his B.A. and M.A. degrees in History at Southeast Missouri State University. He went on to complete his Ph.D. in American Studies with a concentration in History from Purdue University. He has taught at several institutions including the University of Georgia, Texas Tech University, and the University of Arkansas. He has taught at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee since 1989. Dr. Hess has published almost twenty books, numerous journal articles and has reviewed more than a hundred books for academic history journals. Hess is widely recognized as a leading scholar on Civil War history. A few of Hess’s most recent works are The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth, the Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West, and Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign. In reference to the author’s fortifications trilogy, Civil War History writes that “The result of Hess’s indefatigable research in a wide range of sources and his imaginative field study of extant battlefields….even more, innovative and important than his previous outstanding studies…should give Earl J. Hess his rightful place among the best Civil War historians of our time.”

Hess has created a clear analysis of the battles by successfully supporting his findings with an incredible amount of written and physical evidence. For this book, he consulted a large selection of sources on Petersburg, published and unpublished personal accounts, official reports, unit histories, secondary works, archaeological reports, tour guides, and historical photographs. (p. xv) His largest and best source of knowledge came from the remnants of earthworks at Petersburg. The amount of detail Hess manages to pack in, for instance, troop density per square mile of footage could be taken as way too much minutia by some readers, but here, the author needs these facts to help the reader understand how trench warfare works.

Hess divides this book into eighteen well-organized chapters. The author considers his work a roadmap to help make sense of the campaign around Petersburg. He has divided the operations into nine Union offensives, two cavalry or infantry raids to tear up rail lines into the city, and three Confederate offensives. (p. xvii) Earl Hess, in his preface, summarizes each of these offensives from the first Union offensive from June 15-18, 1864 through to the final Union offensive on April 2, 1865. It was costly fighting as the Ninth Corps attacked along Jerusalem Plank Road and the Sixth Corps achieved a ‘decisive breakthrough’ that collapsed “Confederate defensive arrangements west of the city while the Confederates tried to hold on desperately to Fort Gregg.” (p. xx) The Second Corps engaged in a battle at Sutherland Station and that night Lee evacuated both Petersburg and Richmond.

Interestingly, after the author highlights the individual battles, and before he moves on to the real focus of fortifications, he admits that his timeline and that of other historians like Sommers and John Horn differ from his own. Sommers considers the Confederate attack north of the James as the First Battle of the Darbytown Road on October 7 and the Union strike on October 13 as the Second Battle. (p. xx) Hess also claims that John Horn’s research agrees with Sommers’s but only because he used the author’s outline in his study of Petersburg. Hess reveals that he prefers to divide this into two offensives. From March 29 to April 1 culminating in the battle of Five Forks designed to outflank the Confederate line and from April 2, which focused on Lee’s front. (p. xx)

Federal soldiers by 1864 were beyond tired of attacking the Confederates who were hunkered down behind defensive earthworks. At one point several units under Hancock’s command in the Second Corps refused orders to attack prepared works. Hess states that this demonstrated that some Union soldiers in the Army of the Potomac neared the end of their endurance. (p. 33) It also shows clearly that both sides understood how effective trench warfare was at this point. Charles S. Wainwright’s diaries are considered a very fine primary source. Some of the battles he fought were Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and the Siege at Petersburg. His own words show a frayed patience toward attacking entrenchments. Wainwright begins one entry with describing an attack as “a fiasco of the worse kind” and that attacking entrenchments with a general advance line “has been tried so often now and with such fearful losses that even the stupidest private now knows that it cannot succeed…” Wainwright finishes his entry with “The very sight of a bank of fresh earth now brings them to a dead halt.” (p. 35)

The rest of Hess’s chapters detail the battles from both sides of the two armies and their fortifications against one another. The author’s detail of a soldier’s life in the trenches is very well done. He describes how the earthworks were constructed and includes invaluable drawings and photographs. The reader will find his inclusion of what the soldiers ate, drank, and even what the soldiers used for sanitation are important and broadens an understanding of what the soldiers were forced to endure. The appendices included are a welcome addition and include a plethora of material about what the thirty-five miles of trenches did to the Virginia landscape and how things stand today. Appendix one is quite moving. Hess deftly illustrates how an abandoned trench would have appeared. He uses primary quotes to describe when Meade and Lyman explored the trenches on Cemetery Ridge just a few hours after Lee’s surrender. Lyman’s words, better than anything an author could create, show clearly the heavy hearts of the men who fought there. “How changed these entrenchments? Not a soul was there, and the few abandoned tents and cannon gave an additional air of solitude. Upon these parapets, whence the rifle-men have shot at each other, for nine long months, in heat and cold, by day and by night, you might now stand with impunity and overlook miles of deserted breastworks…” (p. 288) Hess includes so many historic bonuses, owning this book would be well worth it for the appendices alone. For example, in the 1920s local landowners who were preparing for two Pennsylvania monuments to be erected, discovered deep under the ground at Petersburg “galleries of the Confederate countermine complex at Jerusalem Plank Road.” (p. 293) The owner of the property, David A. Lyon, immediately set about developing for tourism.

The only complaint one might find with In the Trenches at Petersburg might come early in the book with the barrage of data from all the various units and commanders from both sides. It is at times a convoluted spider web of minutia, not necessarily due to the author’s writing skill. That being said, this final installment of the fortifications trilogy is masterfully done. The author more than proves that field fortifications played an extremely important role in determining the outcome of not only Petersburg but the Civil War.

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