Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Hess's first volume of his work on field fortifications is positively drowning in narrative. He starts out in his introduction stating that he didn't want to write a technical book, and that he wanted to chart a middle course between popular and technical. At the time, I thought this was a laudable goal, as I wasn't sure how far into a truly technical discussion of field engineering I could get before putting it aside for easier goings. By the end of the eighth short campaign summary, I was more than ready for a little technical digression from the relentless march of story.

The first volume concentrates on the eastern campaigns prior to the Overland Campaign of 1864. That is, that period and theatre which is usually offered as a contrast to the trench warfare of 1864-1865 in the traditional narrative. Hess's thesis is that the emergence of hasty fortification in particular, and field fortification in general, was not a sudden or abrupt process, but rather the result of sustained military contact, modified by whether there had been any recent open-field Confederate victories in the period in question. He describes a process by which the Confederate successes against variously fortified positions during the Seven Days and the defensive victory of Jackson at Second Manassas in an unfortified position led the eastern armies to discount field fortifications, and favor open-field maneuver.

Hess has a number of fairly interesting, but highly narrational points to make. Firstly, he notes that post-battle entrenchment was far more common in the early war in the east than is generally noted. After outbursts of extreme violence and heavy casualties, the opposing armies tended to dig in until they were done recovering from the losses of the previous battle. Fredericksburg in particular is held up as an example. Hess claims that the fortification of the Confederate line prior to the battle has been exaggerated, and describes how much of the very extensive set of field fortifications behind Fredericksburg were constructed after the repulse at Marye's Heights.

Hess also argues that the conditional failure of extensive Union field fortifications around Chancellorsville and the storming of Early's position on Marye's Heights in the spring of 1863 caused another reversion to open-field tactics at Gettysburg, followed by another return to field fortification in response to the open-field butchery, and the success of hasty fortification on the Union flanks at Culp's Hill and Little Round Top. He goes on to describe the Bristoe Station/Rappahannock Station/Mine Run campaign, but rather neglects to note, in my opinion, how a Union open-field success (Bristoe Station) and a Confederate failure of fortification (Rappahannock Station) *failed* to produce the usual reversion to open-field battle, instead resulting in what he calls "trench gridlock" at Mine Run.

This is perhaps my biggest gripe with the book. He spent more than twenty pages discussing the Maryland campaign, which saw no field fortification of any significance, and wasted another significant chunk of prose on the similarly unfortified fighting of Second Manassas, chasing some vague notion about the substitution of terrain features - the railroad grade at Manassas, the sunken road at Sharpsburg - for field fortification. Meanwhile, the Mine Run campaign, which seems like it's probably the key period for understanding the late-war shift to hasty fortification operations, is given about the same amount of attention.

Although the book is supposedly about field fortifications, Hess still spends a good amount of time and attention siege operations and positional warfare in the Carolinas. These sections are interesting - I've never read much on the subject, and learned a good deal - but seem somewhat off the subject of field fortification. These are point defenses, where the infantry are in support of the engineers, rather than field army operations, where the engineers are in support of the infantry.

Overall, I'm torn over whether the work would have been better served by a topical organization, rather than the roughly narrational structure chosen by the author. I know I was bitching last month about Nosworthy's topical disjointment and uneven organization, but between the two works, I'm starting to lean in Nosworthy's direction, I fear.

On a style level, I have one complaint about Hess. He provides a glossary of engineering technical terms, which is useful because they're pretty technical and excessively French. But he defines "demilune", which I can figure out from context, but fails to define "lunette". I *thought* it was a detached or semi-detached circular artillery emplacement - but Hess doesn't tell me. The interweb helpfully informs me that it's a detached bastion, btw. He uses words like retrenchment without initial definitions - after a while, I figured out that retrenchment was the engineering equivalent of a refused flank. I think.

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