On rifle-trenches: The General says…

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Sherman Memoirs vol II map III

This map is number III of volume II of General Sherman’s Memoirs, and shows the area immediately north of Atlanta, including Cassville, Cartersville, Allatoona, Acworth, and Marietta, and the railroad line that connects those communities; Kennesaw Mountain is unlabeled. The photograph below of the General is the frontispiece of volume I.

Peruse General William T. Sherman’s Memoirs*, and you will read one man’s experience and recollections of the US Civil War. General Sherman lead the Union Army effort, and his perspective encompasses tactical maneuvers, timing, and provisioning and transportation.

Sherman Memoirs vol I frontispiece author

However, in describing the Atlanta Campaign, in mid-June 1864, he provides considerable detail (vol. II, pg. 55–56) about the rifle-trenches the soldiers fought from. This fits into his narrative as he discusses fighting around Kennesaw (Sherman spells it Kenesaw) Mountain, before Confederate forces fell back to Marietta, and later to Atlanta.

The enemy and ourselves used the same form of rifle-trench, varied according to the nature of the ground, viz.**: the trees and bushes were cut away for a hundred yards or more in front, serving as an abatis or entanglement; the parapets varied from four to six feet high, the dirt taken from a ditch outside and covered the way inside, and this parapet was surmounted by a “head-log,” composed of the trunk of a tree from twelve to twenty inches at the butt, lying along the interior crest of the parapet and resting in notches cut in other trunks which extended back, forming an inclined plane, in case the head-log should be knocked inward by a cannon-shot. The men of both armies became extremely skillful in the construction of these works, because each man realized their value and importance to himself, so that it required no orders for their construction. As soon as a regiment or brigade gained a position within easy distance for a sally, it would set to work with a will, and would construct such a parapet in a single night; but I endeavored to spare the soldiers this hard labor by authorizing each division commander to organize out of the freedmen who escaped to us a pioneer corps of two hundred men, who were fed out of the regular army supplies, and I promised them ten dollars a month, under an existing act of Congress. These pioneer detachments became very useful to us during the rest of the war, for they could work at night while our men slept; they in turn were not expected to fight, and could therefore sleep by day. Our enemies used their slaves for a similar purpose, but usually kept them out of the range of fire by employing them to fortify and strengthen the position to their rear next to be occupied in their general retrograde. During this campaign hundreds if not thousands of miles of similar intrenchments were built by both armies, and as a rule, whichever party attacked got the worst of it.

What does an archaeologist learn from this description—besides the fact that the General wrote long paragraphs? How might this information inform archaeological investigation of a known or probable battlefield? Would you expect the trenches to be visible archaeologically nearly a century and a half later?

One can theorize that these features would, if undisturbed over the many decades since abandonment by soldiers, be lines of trenches perhaps as much as several feet deep, with the soil piled to the side facing the opposition, located in strategic positions across the landscape. Many would be in groups, either along a linear landform, or in several rows in other locales. We would expect that the head-log would have been removed or rotted in place. Rain and vegetation would have partly filled the trenches and reduced the height of the parapet.

Of course, some trench-parapets would have been leveled as fields were reclaimed for agriculture. Still, even flattened, the disturbance of the soil should be visible archaeologically, even if the general area had been plowed and suffered typical Piedmont erosion.

Now consider this: today, the area around Kennesaw Mountain is dotted with housing developments, shopping areas, gas stations, and considerable construction, many of them built during the last half-century. What impact does all this construction have on the remains of rifle-trenches that survived, however eroded or flattened from plowing, say, until 1950?

* Quotes here are from the 1931, second, revised and corrected edition; full title: Memoirs of General William T. Sherman; two volumes; D. Appleton & Company, New York and London; original copyright: 1875 and 1886.
** The abbreviation “viz.” is from the Latin videlicet, and means namely, or in other words; it signals that an explanation will follow and is used only in written English.