CWFSG Puzzled by Evidence in North Georgia in 2003
David W. Lowe
In eleven years of site visits, the Civil War Fortifications Study Group has accepted the doctrine of entrenching on the military crest to the point that it is ingrained. The advantages are obvious. More firepower can be delivered over longer range to break up an attack. Eliminating defilade in front of the firing line prevents the attacker from finding sheltered ground in which to regroup and renew an assault. Vauban and Mahan elevated the elimination of defilade into a science. We have witnessed that both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia subscribed to this doctrine in nearly every position in Virginia, even early in the war. The Bloody Angle was an exception, and this is documented as a mistake caused by night entrenching. Even here the engineers expressed concern and positioned artillery to compensate for the defilade in front of the works. Lee’s “Final Line” at Spotsylvania is a masterpiece of military crest. Federal entrenching in the Atlanta Campaign conformed to the doctrine.
During our field visit to North Georgia in 2003, we observed on the part of the Army of Tennessee an almost studied disregard of the military crest for positioning field fortifications. Most of the infantry lines that we walked seemed indifferent to the concept. Some portions of a line would be well sited, while fifty yards farther the field of fire might narrow to 20-30 yards. A portion of the right flank of the Confederate line at Pickett’s Mill had a field of fire of five yards! Artillery pieces consistently were sited for long-range fire rather than for anti-personnel defense. Where in military doctrine is the injunction to restrict the field of fire? Why did the Confederate Army of Tennessee ignore the military crest?
There seems little question that this negligence weakened their defenses. Stronger fortifications can always be held with fewer troops per mile, and wasn’t this Joe Johnston’s tactical challenge—to hold longer lines with fewer men? Why had headquarters not uniformly imposed a seemingly common-sense doctrine on the army? Or did headquarters impose by orders or implication a doctrine motivated by something other than basic principles of military engineering? Did the troops lack direction and discipline? Were they not learning from combat experience? Had the ranks developed their own counter doctrine that prescribed fortifying somewhere other than the military crest? Should we simply blame indifference on too few engineers, uneducated overseers, and apathetic labor gangs and, thereby, absolve army command for failing to correct the situation after months of continuous entrenching? Johnston’s engineers failed him. Where were they, and what were they thinking? We have a puzzle.
The engineers of the Army of Tennessee earned a reputation for poor siting of defenses on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Missionary Ridge was explained as the result of haste. Bragg did not order his troops to dig in until Grant’s troops moved over to the offense and captured Orchard Knob on November 23, 1863. This begs the question. Why was Bragg content to hold a shallow rifle trench at the base of the ridge (itself a bad idea) and leave the army unentrenched after occupying the high ground for six weeks? This suggests overconfidence in the natural strength of the position, reliance on “found” defenses, or blatant disregard of the combat value of field fortifications. When at long last it dawned on someone that entrenchments might be useful, there were too few engineers to make their presence felt. What had they been doing for six weeks? Guns were sited for long-range fire into Chattanooga and could not be depressed to fire upon attacking Federals. Sections of the defenses were constructed on the actual crest of the ridge, rather than on the military crest, forcing soldiers to climb out of their works to defend them! Worthless! The result was predictable.
CWFSG observed a similar array of problems on this field visit, so perhaps we are confronting a systemic failure of the Army of Tennessee and its leadership. Did engineers actually lay out these faulty lines? Did field officers select the lines and order their men to fortify upon receiving orders? Did the soldiers stake out their own lines? Whatever the answer, it suggests little appreciation among officers or men for the power of coordinated rifle-musketry to break up an assault at longer ranges. Engineers or officers who laid out defenses with a limited field of fire could and should be considered incompetent. Soldiers who laid out such a line with their lives at stake were inexperienced, misdirected, or else harbored ulterior motives.
We might propose that slave labor gangs dug all of the poorly sited earthworks, if we did not have examples (Gilgal Church, for one) where Confederate soldiers dug faulty earthworks of their own. During the 1864 Atlanta campaign, Joe Johnston relied heavily on slave labor gangs to prepare successive positions in rear of the army. These labor gangs were marched into position and ordered to dig. Unless specifically directed, overseers were likely indifferent to the military crest, as they did not hang around to see the works “tested” by combat. Accounts exist of soldiers moving into prepared positions and working to correct defects. There were indeed too few qualified engineers to guide and direct the work. Some of the positions prepared along the Kennesaw lines seemed to derive from an earlier period of the war as though taken wholesale from an instructional manual. Perhaps an engineer showed an overseer a blueprint or a built example and told him to construct something similar at such and such a place. Perhaps, the engineer never returned to inspect the end result; he had already been dispatched to the rear to begin the next defensive line. Engineers operating continually in the rear of the army could not evaluate the combat results of their efforts and would be prone to repeat the same mistakes.
Is it possible that enough slaves were at work to dig so many miles of faulty entrenchments in North Georgia? Documentation for the campaign is scanty, but labor gangs likely did not exceed 1,500-2,000 slaves at any time. Bill Scaife stated that 2,000 slaves were impressed to work on the Chattahoochee River line, and this is closer in to the more populated Atlanta area. It is probable that the labor gangs worked first and primarily on the strong points of the line, building batteries. In several instances, we observed batteries that seemed extensively “over-built,” possible evidence of overseers not really knowing when enough was enough. Were the labor gangs sufficient to corduroy roads, complete the batteries, then go to work on miles of rifle trenches? Or, when soldiers filed into position, was it their task to connect the batteries? Did the soldiers assume that the “engineers” or “officers” knew best and begin to dig on the same elevation as a faulty prepared position? If so, they had not learned their combat lessons or else lacked the initiative to buck a broken system. No experienced unit in the Army of Northern Virginia (so far as CWFSG has observed) would fail to recognize the military crest or hesitate to seize it and dig in by instinct by this point in the war. A glaring difference between the armies is that Lee’s infantrymen, like Federal soldiers, moved all their own earth. But if we lay blame on labor gangs for some of the faulty works, this still would not excuse engineers, staff, and field officers for not addressing the tactical problem of holding longer lines with fewer men. The Confederate earthworks we observed seemed somehow static and unevolving—to the point, that when we did find a section of well-sited parapet it seemed like an innovation!
Another explanation offered for avoiding the military crest was a “morbid fear of Federal artillery.” Confederate accounts during this period commonly complained of the accuracy of Federal gunners. Pulling entrenchments back off the military crest might result in fewer casualties from long-range artillery, but it leaves the line in defilade and vulnerable to assault. Had the soldiers and engineers grown careless because the Federals had made few frontal assaults? To assume that the enemy would not attack was simply unprofessional. Are we dealing with rank amateurs here? The preferable solution (which we have seen innumerable times) was to claim the military crest with thicker entrenchments that could absorb artillery rounds. In fact, the better defense against artillery would be to dig in on the reverse slope, rather than along the compromise elevations we have seen. In many cases, digging in on the reverse slope would actually have extended the field of fire of some of the poorly sited works we observed, which were “neither fish nor fowl!”
Joe Johnston’s Fabian strategy probably influenced how his engineers, overseers, and soldiers moved earth. Johnston was known for his ability to make “clean” withdrawals, leaving nothing of military value behind. Many Confederate positions seemed concerned more with securing covered lines of retreat than effective fields of fire. A position on the military crest typically required soldiers to withdraw across an exposed hump of ground to their rear. If a quick escape were demanded, the troops might tend to pull back from the military crest and dig closer to the actual crest of the elevation, so that egress would be covered. This would assume that field officers and soldiers knew better but that their orders established a higher priority—the ability to withdraw quickly with minimal exposure. Might Johnston have purchased his ability to withdraw cleanly by sacrificing the strength of his fortifications—by issuing orders or suggestions down the chain of command insisting that the troops be prepared to withdraw at a moment’s notice rather than encouraging them to strengthen, hold, and extend their lines? Translating such demands to the ground might result in the kind of compromised positioning of field fortifications that we observed.
One Confederate regimental position south of Pigeon Hill appeared to have grappled with conflicting expectations. Their rifle trench was dug in precisely on the military crest but each company—there were ten of these—dug an escape route through the hump of ground in the rear. Thus, they could deliver effective fire and retreat quickly if the need arose. Adjoining entrenchments on either side of this regiment pulled their works back from the military crest and saved the extra digging. (Labor gangs at least didn’t dig this part of the line!) I would suggest that this regiment had found an engineering solution to a dilemma that was plaguing the Army of Tennessee. A key to unlocking the puzzle might be identifying this regiment, its officers and combat experience. Typically, a design innovation that worked—that resolved a tactical dilemma—would diffuse quickly throughout the army, but we saw no evidence of this solution spreading to other regiments.
Finally, several members observed that the Army of Tennessee appeared to be mounting a “timid defense.” In many positions the Confederates were bringing only a small portion of their available weapons into the firing line. Many infantrymen could not fire until the enemy was at very close range. Could it be that Confederate soldiers were expected to defend their earthworks with the bayonet and not the rifle-musket? Could such an archaic doctrine have continued in the Army of Tennessee so late in the war? During the Virginia campaign, the Army of Northern Virginia developed a sophisticated military architecture that defied assault. It accomplished this by aggressively seizing and occupying the military crest, by creating crossing fires and killing fields at vulnerable points in the line, and by using artillery against personnel rather than indulging solely in counter-battery fire. By comparison, the Army of the Tennessee’s field entrenchments do seem timid. Are we looking at divergent tactical doctrines or seeing psychology frozen in turned earth—an attitude of inferiority that might be attributed to differences in leadership, discipline, and morale between the armies? Had soldiers in the Army of Tennessee already accepted the inevitable end of the war and hesitated to put themselves in harm’s way? Were they just going through the motions?
In sum, what do we have?
1) A pattern of incompetence or negligence among high command, staff officers, and engineers that borders on the sublime.
2) A situation where engineering knowledge is not trickling down to the ground from “on high,” caused by too few engineers and intervening layers of overseers and labor gangs.
3) Officers and soldiers not learning that they could break up an assault at longer range by military-crest musketry and canister.
4) A culture within the Army of Tennessee so rigid that initiative and tactical innovation on the part of field officers and men was suppressed.
5) Joe Johnston, so insistent upon making a “clean” withdrawal that he gave it precedence over building strong defensible works.
6) A countervailing doctrine, developed from the ranks up perhaps, that it was better to build earthworks that could be more easily abandoned.
7) Slaves building earthworks and soldiers blindly mimicking them.
8) Soldiers directed or expected to defend earthworks with the bayonet.
9) The Army of Tennessee “hiding” in the Georgia wilderness from Sherman and his artillery.
10) A demoralized army with an inferiority complex.
The solution likely involves some combination of these factors. The use of slave labor, I would suggest, figures heavily into the equation. In our research in the coming year I think it a good idea to keep an eye out for tidbits in the documentation that might help explain what we observed on the ground. The Confederate earthworks we examined in North Georgia suggest to me a troubled and dysfunctional organization. By contrast, the Federal armies had learned their combat lessons and were entrenching aggressively. Herein may lie new understanding of how the Atlanta campaign unfolded. Could the Confederate Army have delayed Sherman indefinitely if its earthworks were intelligently sited to allow defense by fewer riflemen per mile of trench? (Francis Shoup attempted exactly this on the Chattahoochee line.) With clever engineering and the terrain in his favor, Joe Johnston could have stretched his lines much farther than he actually did. He might have freed up a strong mobile strike force. This is certainly what Sherman was up to. All’s more the pity that so many fortifications from the Atlanta campaign were destroyed. The rest are disappearing faster than we can visit them.