Civil War Fortification Study Group

2008 Annual Meeting, April 16 – 20, 2008

Touring Fortifications in West Tennessee, North Mississippi, and Eastern Arkansas

Part One

During the day and early evening of Wednesday, 16 April, the trench nerds gathered at the Comfort Inn in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Olive Branch is a non-descript suburb of Memphis without a single historic resource that we could discover but it was nonetheless centrally located for our operations. There were abundant opportunities for foraging in nearby fast-food establishments, assuming that we weren’t on the road until closing time. Dr. Phil was the last to check in. He had flown into Nashville and spent the day studying Fort Negley and other surviving Nashville defenses.

 

17 April. We left the hotel for Fort Pillow State Historic Park at 7:30 am. It was a two hour drive for coachmen first class Charlie Spearman and Tom Parson. The rest of us kept up an infernal chatter. Tennessee state park ranger, Greg Taylor, met us at the visitor center. He guided us around an interesting museum. We noted that the infamous 1864 “massacre” at Pillow was mentioned in the interpretation but not well explained. Politics and Civil War in the South can be touchy if brought into too close contact. The Mississippi River at this point has now receded a half mile to the west, so don’t look for a paddle wheeler anywhere nearby.

 

Fort Pillow State Historic Park preserves several layers of Civil War earthworks history. The first set of Confederate fortifications constructed in 1861 was too extended for the size of the garrison and was abandoned. The second line, designed by Confederate engineer John B. Villepique (1830-1862), was built in early 1862. It was one-third as long and required one fifth of the digging as the first line. After occupying the site, the Federals constructed their own shorter inner line. The Union fort attacked by Forrest in 1864 was reconstructed a few years back without input from fortifications experts. The embrasures, as constructed, would serve more as doorways into the fort than as openings for cannon fire.

 

The true joy of the tour was heading off into the woods to view the 1861 and 1862 lines. By pocket pedometer, we hiked 6.4 miles in the next four hours. After some discussion, it was determined that the outer line at Fort Pillow was likely the longest, most intact segment of an early war cremaillere (indented) line, a configuration right out of the prewar engineering manuals, that still exists in the United States. (McDuffie provides a brief description at http://civilwarfortifications.com/dictionary/xgc-010.html. The extent of the line was severely over-built (relief 13-20 feet, ditch 15-25 feet wide). The workers threw up enough dirt to deflect heavy naval guns, never mind that the hypothetical gunboats would be steaming through pine forests to get at them. Of course, most of this early war stuff was dug by slave labor gangs, so the engineers and soldiers, themselves, cared little for the amount of labor involved. That would all change as the war went on, there were shortages of labor, and the soldiers had to dig many of the earthworks for themselves.

 

Here is Mahan’s classic depiction of a cremaillere (top, Field Fortifications 1861, Plate 7) compared to Ft. Pillow line (bottom). You can see the similarities, even down to the pseudo- “priest cap” on the right that seems added as an affectation. (Hey! Every cremaillere line needed a priest, even if he were sadly misshapen.)

 


 


 

Before leaving the 1861 Pillow line, one other observation: the engineer/designer of the 1861 line went to great pains to keep the parapet level, as though he were building a railroad cut/fill. This required a tremendous amount of extra digging, and the group hypothesized that he had been a railroad engineer in his prewar life. Fort Pillow, as envisioned by this man, was meant to be a permanent fortress (an “enduring base,” if you will) for an army of 10,000 men and 40-50 guns, a force that never materialized.

 

Villepique arrived after the fall of forts Henry and Donelson and injected a dose of realism into the Pillow garrison. Mons. V. was not averse to allowing the parapet to flow up and down slope with the terrain, thus saving unnecessary labor. His ditches averaged 12-15 feet in width; his relief 8-10 feet—much more reasonable when facing infantry. Artillery was spaced irregularly to fire into the ravines, always the weak point of a line, rather than following a mathematical formula that placed guns every 200 yards or so along the line, needed or not.

 

Some members of the group became so engrossed in Fort Pillow’s outer-works (some might say, facetiously, lost in the woods) that we didn’t finish at the site until near 4 pm. These stragglers threw off our always meticulous timetable. But, you know what? No one seemed to mind. Fort Pillow was special.

 

18 April. We left for Arkansas at 7:30 a.m. and over the next hour and a half became intimately acquainted with the terrain of the Mississippi Delta. Dropping down off the Chickasaw Bluff (the natural levee of the river), one enters the flood plain, a very flat world of cut-off river segments, marshy ox-bows, cypress swamps, rice, wheat, and soybean fields, scattered farm sites, and CASINOS!! Yes, the casinos, hotels, and related developments are taking over the east bank of the Mississippi from the state line south. The strip is billed as a retirement destination. A new six-lane interstate is under construction to take visitors from the Memphis airport directly to the casinos without having to mess with messy Memphis at all.

 

We rolled across the Mississippi River Bridge with the 18-wheelers into Arkansas about 9:00 a.m. and met up with local historian John Darnell and state archeologist Tony Feaster at the Helena visitor center just as the impending thunderstorm dropped its load on the region. We huddled under shelter for an hour and soaked up the hospitality of the tourism ladies.

 

Helena, Arkansas, in July 1864 was an important upriver logistics base that supported Ulysses Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. In a belated attempt to relieve pressure on that beleaguered town, CS general Theophilus Holmes with almost 8,000 men attacked the US fortifications there manned by 4,000 and suffered 20 percent casualties.  The battle of Helena, July 4, 1863, was one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the Trans-Mississippi. Also, it was one of the more futile battles. Vicksburg’s garrison was surrendering even as Holmes’ soldiers attacked Helena.

 

Batteries A, B, C, and D with connecting works crowned the hills west of the town in a semi-circle from north to south. Only Batteries A and D survive. Battery D (above) on the south edge of town was said by accounts to have four guns, but there is room for only two. The relief is hefty—near 18 feet. The left gun platform has two embrasures; the right gun is in a modified embrasure/barbette configuration. The left check is standard, while the parapet has been lowered to the right of the work, so that the gun could swivel to the right to create crossing fire with the other batteries. The attacking Confederates captured two lines of rifle pits in front of this battery but were unable to pry the Yankees out of their fortification. That may be because there was nowhere for the Yanks to retreat. Behind them and on their right flank was a sheer sixty-foot drop-off.

 

The Confederate breakthrough occurred at Batteries B and C but it gained them little. Directly behind these hills, protecting the supply depots, sat bastioned Fort Curtis, which bristled with artillery, and behind that gunboats steamed on the Mississippi River. Confederate heroism was doomed to failure. There is a historic marker for Fort Curtis.  You can drive up Cemetery Hill to see the site of Battery C, get a tremendous view of Helena and the Mississippi, and meet the friendly neighbor dog that likes to accompany tour groups.

Battery A on the north edge of town, also resisted capture. It was defended by four field guns. The site (near the corner of Beech and Adams Streets) is in decent condition. A rifle trench/covered way leads from the burned out house up the steep slope to the crest where dwells the battery. The relief is a modest 8-10 feet. Behind the parapet is a shelf that served as a barbette gun platform on the left flank. A single embrasured gun and platform are visible on the right.

 

 

 

 

 


To be continued