- Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign
Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee is the second volume of a projected three-part series on the role of field fortifications in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War. In the first volume (Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864, 2005), Hess showed that during the early years of the war both sides built and used fortifications much more often than is commonly recognized. In this volume, Hess focuses on the transition from open-field fighting to bloody trench combat that occurred during Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign in May and June 1864, ending with the stalemate at Cold Harbor. The projected third volume will continue the story through the Petersburg and Appomattox campaigns.
Trench Warfare follows Grant's grueling five-week drive south through three major battles, one abortive battle (the North Anna), and innumerable skirmishes. Unlike previous commanders, Grant endeavored to maintain close contact with the enemy, and he repeatedly hurled his formations against Robert E. Lee's wary Confederates. Under this pressure, the tactics and even the very nature of battle evolved as the soldiers of both sides dug in in an effort to survive on the lethal [End Page 579] battlefield. "The use of field fortifications evolved during the Civil War … due to a real and potent threat: the continued presence of an enemy army within striking distance" (p. 216). The Battle of the Wilderness began as a stand-up fight (albeit in a dense forest) and ended in a fortified stalemate. At Spotsylvania Courthouse, a trench battle from the start, Grant spent ten days trying to maneuver around or force his way through Lee's hastily built defenses with horrific results. During the struggle over the "Mule Shoe" salient on 12-13 May, for example, thousands of men remained locked in continuous combat for almost 24 hours, much of that time on opposite sides of the same earthen parapet. At Cold Harbor on 3 June, the Federal survivors of the failed assault for the first time dug in to hold the ground they had gained, sometimes within a few dozen yards of the Southern line. Over the next week the battle began to take on the form of a siege, with the Federals digging approach trenches, covered shelters, and even a mine, until Grant withdrew to maneuver against Petersburg. By this time, 100,000 men—64,000 Northerners and 36,000 Southerners—had become casualties. Both armies had been severely weakened by losses and exhaustion; the famed Union Second Corps was virtually wrecked by the single massed assault it made on the Mule Shoe.
This is an important and valuable study of a long neglected subject. Hess has spent many years tramping the battlefields and has amassed considerable evidence. Unfortunately, he often strays from his subject when he gives in to the incurable urge to maneuver the troops in comprehensive detail and pronounce judgment on the generalship. Here he has little to offer that can't be found in other narratives (especially Gordon Rhea's four volumes on the campaign, upon which Hess relies very heavily). However, when he sticks to his topic, Hess is very effective. He avoids technical jargon and describes the form and construction of the fortifications using the words of the participants themselves as much as possible. The chapters on Cold Harbor are particularly illuminating and the brief concluding chapter provides sound insights on the nature of the campaign. There is also a useful chapter on the engineers of the two armies, a subject he neglected in his first volume. Finally, Hess adds a lengthy (37-page), well-illustrated appendix describing the surviving earthworks he has examined.