Earl J. Hess
The University of North Carolina Press, 2009, 403 pp., $28.00
Image courtesy of amazon.com
In the Trenches at Petersburg is the conclusion to Earl J. Hess’ trilogy on Civil War engineering in the eastern theater. Among the Sesquicentennial of the Siege of Petersburg, interest has peaked in to the type of warfare going on during those endless months of the siege. The type of warfare going on during the Petersburg Campaign, however, was much different than the rest of the war. Napoleonic tactics had taken a turn towards modern warfare a year earlier. Here, Hess analyzes the trench warfare going on during the campaign and does it with magnificent style.
Earl J. Hess is an associate professor of history at Lincoln Memorial University and has authored other works such as The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi and Pickett’s Charge – The Last Attack at Gettysburg. His book on Pickett’s Charge was the winner of the 2001 James I. Robertson Jr. Prize from the Civil War Library and Research Center. The first in the series on fortifications was Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaign and the center work of the series is Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign.
In an analysis of military history, many people tend to think of World War One when concerning the idea of trench warfare, but Hess has proven with his previous work and this work that trench war was alive during the Civil War. With the incredible amount of attention which Hess has given to the previous works on this series, he begins the study with a look into the engineers which participated. As he moves through the work, he goes month by month through the campaign and even goes into certain battles when dealing with engineering. For example, Hess devotes an entire chapter to the Battle of the Crater and the engineering which took place along with the battle itself. He analyzes both the Federal and Confederate attack and the aftermath including the ideas about where to go from there. In the aftermath of the battle, the Confederate force was victorious but had to deal with the much more difficult task of cleaning the works of dead bodies and other minutia from the engagement. This is something generally overlooked in the studies on the Battle of the Crater. Another part of the analysis which was quite interesting was the talk of the evolution of trench warfare as they were fighting the war. Hess talks about an English military board during the Crimean War that utilized electricity as a more effective means in the mines than a powder train. It is these types of statements which prove that Hess is the master of Civil War Engineering. Hess also aides his arguments and analyses with pictures and maps which show the horrors of what happened to the city of Petersburg and the land surrounding it. In his conclusion, he states that these trenches are what made the preservation of the battlefield quite difficult over the years not just due to what happened to the land, but the passing of the land between owners.
My first conclusion will be made on the parameters of this book. On its own, this work on the trenches of Petersburg is quite excellent and should be hailed as the doctrine of trench warfare during the Petersburg Campaign. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in the military strategy and tactics of the Civil War. My second conclusion is made on the series. I was sad to see this series end since I have enjoyed the topic so much since I was introduced to it by Mr. Hess. As each volume finished, I realized that he had touched on a subject not many historians have talked about and he should be praised for that effort. Hess has given us a series of books on the engineering during the war and has not been handled in such a way before. This series is highly recommended and should be on the shelf of any serious Civil War historian. Highly Recommended.