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CVBT History Wire, Field Fortifications on Central Virginia's Battlefields - Part I

Updated: Feb 12

Fredericksburg's famous Sunken Road and Stonewall (Library of Congress) 


Field Fortifications - Introduction

Few things help modern battlefield visitors better understand the positions of troops than seeing surviving field fortifications. They provide the viewer with an instant tangible landscape feature to recognize where troops were, regardless of how temporary that may have been. Whether utilizing pre-war constructed landscape features, such as the famous Stonewall at the base of Willis Hill and Marye’s Heights and the railroad embankment at Slaughter Pen Farm, or formally built earthworks specifically intended to serve as a military position, like those at Chancellorsville, field fortifications provided protection and a troop anchor.


In modern military terms, field fortifications potentially served as a “force multiplier.” Period manuals, like Dennis Hart Mahan’s A Treatise on Field Fortification (first published in 1836), explained that a force fighting behind fortifications greatly increased its chances of defending a position against an offensive force. Put another way, to successfully assault a fortified position, the attackers usually needed significantly more soldiers than the defenders. The odds of a successful defense could potentially increase even more if the defenders incorporated field artillery and added obstructions like abatis in front of their lines to slow the assault's momentum.

Confederate earthworks on Willis Hill (Library of Congress)

While there was in many cases a tendency toward using field fortifications more frequently as the Civil War progressed, and as the belligerents’ strategies evolved, the armies had incorporated them from the beginning of the war, and they were used on numerous battlefields of earlier conflicts like the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. To be clear, field fortifications were not an American Civil War invention, but their significance to strategy, tactics, and to the soldiers who fought behind and attacked them should not be overlooked.


In this CVBT History Wire, we will take a cursory look at some of the field fortifications used by the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia on the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields and hear from some soldiers who wrote about them. In the sequel edition next month, we will discuss field works at Mine Run, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania battlefields.


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The Battle of Fredericksburg

"The Washington Artillery on Marye's [Willis] Hill firing upon the Union columns

forming for the assault"

(Battles and Leaders of the Civil War

In a traditional version of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the pause caused by the delay in receiving pontoon boats by the Army of the Potomac to bridge the Rappahannock River, allowed the Army of Northern Virginia time to dig in. That is partially true, but most of the early Confederate digging involved building works to protect its artillery, not the infantry. Instead, the majority of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s foot soldiers used what advantages the existing landscape afforded them to defend their position, only making minor improvements before the battle.


According to Lt. William Owen, who served in the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, some of his unit’s digging came as late as December 11, 1862. Lt. Owen remembered that one battery, who moved to the east side of the Telegraph Road, and not finding the army engineers’ works “to their liking, went to work with pick and shovel throwing the dirt a little higher and fashioning embrasures to fire through.” Despite the engineers’ complaints, the artillerists stated, “We have to fight here, not you; we will arrange them to suit ourselves.” Maj. Gen. James Longstreet endorsed the cannoneers’ claim to do it their way.

"Attack on Fredericksburg" (Library of Congress) 

Note that both attacking Federal soldiers and defending Confederates are using any coverage available.  

As the Army of the Potomac began crossing the Rappahannock River on December 11, Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s men used buildings, fences, cellars, and walls as improvised fortifications to slow their enemy’s progress through the city. In other locations, the stubborn defenders constructed street barricades to fire behind before falling back to the main Confederate line at the base of Marye’s Heights.

Although an order was not issued to the Confederate infantry to dig in along the base of the ridges west of Fredericksburg, some soldiers took the initiative to do so in the center. A Mississippi soldier in McLaws’s Division wrote that they cut some timber to make breastworks, and even erected some abatis as obstacles. He explained, “There was no orders to do this—it was a suggestion of our own.”

At places along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad both Union and Confederate soldiers

used the embankments along the tracks for protection. (Photo: Tim Talbott)

On the south end of the battlefield, a swampy area that the Confederates left undefended and the lack of earthworks probably helped some of Maj. Gen. George Meade’s division briefly break through Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s line. However, during the battle, the Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Potomac Railroad embankments served as an impromptu fortification line at times for both Confederate defenders and Federal attackers. Meade noted in his report of the battle that his First Brigade “advanced several hundred yards over cleared ground, driving the enemy’s skirmishers before them . . . to the railroad, where they were strongly posted in ditches and behind temporary defenses.” Col. John M. Brockenbrough, 40th Virginia Infantry, explained similarly in his report: “Firing one volley into their left flank and charging them with a yell, they fled precipitately to the shelter of the railroad cut. Here they rallied and made a short stand, but being joined by a Georgia brigade (Lawton’s I believe), we . . . drove them from the railroad.”


Even following the battle, the railroad’s embankments continued to serve as an effective Confederate position, as Maj. Eugene Blackford, 5th Alabama Infantry, noted in a post-battle letter to his father. “Our line extended along the railroad which ran along the edge of the woods for two miles, and was raised about 4 feet from the general level of the ground, thus affording fine protection for our men,” Blackford penned.

"Cobb's and Kershaw's troops behind the Stone Wall"

(Battles and Leaders of the Civil War)

Further north along the Confederate line at the Sunken Road’s Stonewall, some of Brig. Gen. Thomas R. R. Cobb’s men dug away at the road to create additional depth and thus provide extra coverage. Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw described the Sunken Road and Stonewall: “The road is about 25 feet wide, and is faced by a stone wall about 4 feet high on the city side. The road having been cut out of the side of the hill, in many places . . . is not visible above the surface of the ground.” The wide road allowed a large number of defenders, who in places were as many as four deep. Confederates in the front ranks fired while those behind them loaded rifles and passed them forward.


Combining the fortified infantry in the Sunken Road with the firepower of the entrenched Confederate artillery on Marye’s Heights and Willis Hill behind them caused Federal soldiers to quickly observe the disadvantage they were facing. Capt. George Washington Whitman, 51st New York, wrote to his mother following the battle: “You see we had to advance over a level plane and their batteries being on high ground and them being behind breastworks we had no chance at them, while they could take as deliberate aim as a fellow would at a chicken . . . they threw percussion shells into our ranks, that would drop at our feet and explode killing and wounding Three or four every pop.”


To protect themselves, Federal soldiers used whatever cover they could find. Houses, outbuildings, fences, scattered boards, swales in the terrain, and even dead comrades provided potential shields. Capt. John Ames, 11th U.S. Infantry, remembered that “A slight barrier was afterward formed at this point by a disposal of the dead bodies in front, so that the dead actually sheltered the living.”

This military map shows some of the Confederate fortifications along the Rappahannock River from near Hamilton's Crossing to Port Royal. (Library of Congress)

According to Confederate Maj. Heros von Borcke, during the night of December 13, in anticipation of more Federal attacks the next day, Lee’s army strengthened potential weak spots in their line with earthworks. Maj. von Borcke claimed that on the morning of December 14, Lee himself told the Prussian: “My army is as much stronger for their new intrenchments as if I had received reinforcements of 20,000 men.”

Part of the Confederate earthwork line south of Howison Hill on the Fredericksburg battlefield. (Photo: Tim Talbott)

No new Federal attacks followed, but in the days, weeks, and months following the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Army of Northern Virginia dug in on the field of battle as never before. By April 1863, a significant line of earthworks ran for about 30 miles, basically paralleling the Rappahannock River from north of Fredericksburg south to Port Royal. Maj. Alexander S. Pendleton of Gen. Jackson’s staff noted exaggeratingly at that time that, “The world has never seen such a fortified position.”


Some of those works created following the Battle of Fredericksburg would see fighting again just a few months later.


The Battle of Chancellorsville

"Gen. Hooker's Headquarters at the Chancellorsville House." Sketch by Edwin Forbes (Library of Congress)

Note the fortification line in the foreground just southeast of the Chancellorsville crossroads.

After the defeat at Fredericksburg, and then the disastrous "Mud March," President Lincoln turned over leadership of the Army of the Potomac to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. The new commander went to work instituting several measures to reinvigorate the army. Hooker also devised a plan to flank Lee out of his strong Fredericksburg defenses. In late April 1863, Hooker moved most of the army up the Rappahannock, leaving the First and Sixth Corps across the river from Fredericksburg. The other corps moved across the upriver fords and eventually concentrated at Chancellorsville. Despite the success of Hookers’ flanking movement, and initially grasping the initiative in the campaign, some of Hooker’s troops received orders to build field fortifications soon after they arrived at Chancellorsville. 


One of the soldiers involved in this work on April 30 was Corp. Rice C. Bull of the 123rd New York Infantry (Twelfth Corps). Bull remembered: “A line was laid out by our Engineers and we were ordered to fortify our position. Axes and shovels were furnished and we were soon hard at work.” After cutting trees, which they “gathered and placed lengthwise,” they “then dug a trench behind, with the dirt thrown over the logs.” Bull explained that “The trench was over two feet deep . . . and with the embankment the total depth was five feet. These works were quite strong and would protect the men against attack, for an ordinary projectile could not go through the embankment.” In addition, Bull and his comrades created abatis (obstacles) in front of their works.

Col. Adolphus Buschbeck's Eleventh Crops brigade established a shallow fortification line near Dowdall's Tavern (Melizi Chancellor House) in an effort to slow the Confederate flank attack on the evening of May 2, 1863.

(Library of Congress) 

For the Confederates, field fortifications proved particularly important in the campaign, both near Chancellorsville and to the east at Fredericksburg. These force multipliers allowed Gen. Lee to better defend threatened areas with fewer soldiers, which then gave Lee the confidence to let Gen. Jackson utilize such a large force for his famous flank attack on May 2. After Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson received orders from Lee on April 29 to “Set all your spades to work as vigorously as possible,” Anderson and Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws dug in near Chancellorsville, while Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s men spread across the formidable works at Fredericksburg to oppose Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s force.


While some Federal officers’ reports indicate that a few “rifle-pits” were constructed on the Eleventh Corps front during the night of May 1, it appears that most faced south rather than west, the ultimate direction of Jackson’s attack. However, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard noted in his report that during the May 2 fight “Colonel Buschbeck’s brigade was faced about, and, lying on the other side of the rifle-pit embankment, held on with praiseworthy firmness.” This west-facing line of field fortifications near Dowdall’s Tavern (the Melzi Chancellor House) was apparently started on the morning of May 2 but was incomplete by the time of Jackson’s assault. The shallow defensive line drew retreating Federal soldiers like a magnet, but its relatively short length allowed Confederates to overlap both flanks, ultimately making the position untenable.   


"Federal entrenchments across the Plank Road about one mile west of Chancellorsville" (Library of Congress)

During the night of May 2, Federal soldiers worked deep into the night strengthening their field fortifications near the Chancellor House. Particularly busy were men of the Third and Twelfth Corps who expected to face continued Confederate assaults the following day from the west. Lt. John Woodbury, 1st NY Artillery explained that on the evening of May 2, “We . . . threw up earthworks by digging down 1½ feet and placing the earth in front of the pieces. For want of proper tools, consumed the whole night.” The 7th Ohio and 28th Pennsylvania “were engaged in throwing up intrenchments in front of the batteries and barricading the [Orange Turnpike],” according to Col. Charles Candy’s brigade report. Candy's other regiments worked “strengthening the intrenchments in their fronts,” the colonel noted.  


Morning brought hell. In his attack on the north side of the Orange Turnpike, Brig. Gen. William Pender’s brigade soon became aware “that the enemy were posted behind a breastwork of logs and brush. This we carried without hesitating. Beyond the breastworks the resistance again became very obstinate, as if we had come in contact with a fresh line [of earthworks]. . . .” The dense foliage obscured the view of the attackers. After taking the second line, Pender noted “resistance became so great from their infantry force, and the terrible fire from artillery” that they had to fall back and rally at a previous line of captured works.


Other Confederate attackers ran into similar situations. Brig. James Lane’s North Carolinians, Brig. Gen. Samuel McGowan’s South Carolinians, and Brig. Gen. Elijah Paxton’s Virginia “Stonewall” Brigade captured and used Federal works to launch more attacks, all while taking heavy casualties. Ted Barclay, 4th Virginia Infantry, wrote to his sister following the battle that they “took position behind the front line of the enemy’s breastworks, from which they had just before been driven. As soon as we were in line, our guns primed and bayonets fixed . . . we went over the breastworks with a yell which was answered by a shower of leaden hail.”


Col. Francis Marion Parker, 30th North Carolina, wrote to his wife after the battle: “I have never seen so great slaughter, as I saw on the field of sunday [May 3]. At the breastworks the enemy would be lying on one side, and our men on the other; some dead, some dying, others badly wounded.” Unfortunately, the campaign was far from over.

The Stonewall and Sunken Road became a battleground again on May 3, 1863, when Federal

soldiers from the Sixth Corps assaulted and captured the position. (Library of Congress)

Meanwhile, confronting Fredericksburg's works, Sedgwick’s force encountered fewer defenders than were present on December 13, 1862. Still, a difficult fight ensued. Pvt. Alvin Dibble, 33rd New York, remembered: “Into the tempest of shot and shell we went, our dead and wounded falling in heaps. . . The 7th Maine of our Brigade carried the ‘Stonewall’—we, more to the left drove the afrightened rebels from their rifle pits at the point of the bayonet, up the crest . . . and Maryes Heights was ours.” Also fighting at Fredericksburg on May 3, Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 20th Massachusetts, wrote home sarcastically about the formidable entrenched Confederate artillery that wounded him. Holmes penned, “Pleasant to see a d’d gun brought up to an earthwork deliberately brought to bear on you—to notice that your Co[mpany] is exactly in range. . . .”  

Soldiers fought desperately around Salem Church on May 3, 1863. (Photo: Tim Talbott)

Pushing on westward after capturing Marye’s Heights, Sedgwick’s men encountered more Confederates at Salem Church. Utilizing a combination of natural and man-made fortifications—including the crest of the ridge, woods, some former earthworks created the previous winter by Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s men, a rutted roadbed, hedgerows, and the church building itself—the defending brigades of Alabamians and Georgians, commanded respectively by Brig. Gen. Cadmus Marcellus Wilcox and Brig. Gen. Paul Semmes, put up a stiff resistance. Sgt. William Remmel, 121st New York, wrote home that “we were unable to get at them on account of their strong works, while they could fire upon us in open field.”


Remembering the battle years later in a letter to his former enemy, John C. Featherston, a captain in the 9th Alabama, noted that the Salem Church building served as a fortification for both sides: “So hotly was the ground contested that at one time during the fight your men were at one end of the church and our men at the other. We had literally converted the House of God into a charnel house and had pushed aside the Book of Life and were using the instruments of death. We had four sharpshooters in the pulpit firing through the window in its rear. . . .” 

"Breastwork on the right of Gen. Hooker's position, troops behind the works cooking

coffee. . . " Sketch by Edwin Forbes (Library of Congress)

This sketch was made near the intersection of Bullock Road and Ely Ford Road and was the Army of the Potomac's fallback position after withdrawing from near the Chancellor House on May 3, 1863. One account claims that "logs, knapsacks, dead horses, limber-chests, and whatever came to hand" were incorporated to strengthen these works. Note the earthwork line running across the center of the sketch and the artillery pieces arrayed on the left along the roadway.

As the Army of the Potomac fell back toward the Rappahannock River, more encounters with field fortifications occurred before the Federals made it across and into Stafford County.


A couple of Confederate accounts provide testimony about meeting the Federal works. Capt. Shepherd Pryor, 12th Georgia Infantry, wrote to his wife about skirmish fighting on May 4: “wee moved our line of battle closer up; consequently wee had to entrench in great haist. After we had been at work a fiew minutes the sharp shooters commenced fireing. I assure you it wasent long before we had breast works to fight behind.” Similarly, John Bone, a sharpshooter in the 30th North Carolina, remembered that “After locating their [position], we fell back to our former line and had grape-shot and canister shells thrown among them, but they made it so very hot for us that we retreated. . . . We found the enemy so well fortified that they were not attacked by the line of battle.”  


Although formidable in their own right, the field fortifications that the soldiers in blue and gray encountered at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were merely a foreshadowing of those they would build, fight behind, and attack at Mine Run, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. 


Sources and Suggested Reading 

Paddy Griffith. Battle Tactics of the Civil War. Yale University Press, 1989.


Edward Hagerman. The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command. Indiana University Press, 1988.


Earl J. Hess. Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness. University of North Carolina Press, 2015.


Earl J. Hess. Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864. University of North Carolina Press, 2005. 


D. H. Mahan. A Treatise on Field Fortification. John Wiley, 1856.


Parting Shots

Col. Charles Candy (Library of Congress)

"During the night, [I] received orders to fell the timber in front for the purpose of forming an abatis, which was improved on afterward by the men building a breastwork, and throwing up the dirt with bayonets, swords, tin plates, and many using nothing but their hands, completing an intrenchment which resisted repeated attacks of the enemy in front." 


Col. Charles Candy, 66th Ohio Infantry, commanding a brigade in Maj. Gen. John Geary's Division, Twelfth Corps, describing the night of April 30, 1863.

Twelfth Corps field fortifications on the Chancellorsville battlefield. (Photo: Tim Talbott)


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