Are those trenches real? – Part 2


From Mink:

In Part 1 of this post (found here), NPS Historian T. Sutton Jett proposed the reconstruction of earthworks in a 1935 concept plan he wrote for FRSP. He identified the following areas where he believed interpretive reconsturctions should be built on three of the four battlefields:

“Fredericksburg Battlefield – The restoration of one of the gun pits on Walker’s Artillery position near Hamilton’s Crossing, and of another gun pit on Lee’s Hill.

Chancellorsville Battlefield – The restoration of a one-hundred-foot stretch of the line occupied by the XII and III Federal Corps on the morning of May 3. The program also calls for the restoration of a gun position at Fairview.

Wilderness Battlefield – The restoration of an infantry work on Ewell’s line near the Contact Station on the Orange Turnpike, and of a hastily constructed log barricade on the Hancock line near the Plank-Brock Road intersection.” – T. Sutton Jett, “The 1935 Trench Restoration,” copy in FRSP CRM office

Jett included Spotsylvania Court House in his memo, but noted that the reconstructions there had already been built.

The idea was endorsed by FRSP management, as some of the proposed reconstructions appear on the park’s 1940 Master Plan maps. These maps provide us with specific locations for the trench reconstructions.

At the Wilderness Battlefield, a portion of reconstructed earthworks was planned, and built, directly behind the  Contact Station (see discussion of these structures here) on the north side of State Route 20, and across from its intersection with Hill-Ewell Drive.

"Information Station and Trench Restoration" from the 1940 Master Plan map of the Wilderness Battlefield. The red arrow points to the location of the reconstruted earthworks.

Photos in  FRSP files reveal that the Wilderness trenches were built as early as 1936, which suggests that park management implemented Jett’s suggestions at this location shortly after he wrote his memo. It is obvious that the reconstruction was based upon an 1866 photo of the Confederate trenches along the western edge of Saunders Field.

Comparison of the 1866 photo (left) and a 1940 photo (right). Note the effort to replicate the historic image.

In addition to the trench, the park also reconstructed a gun pit to the rear of the infantry earthworks. Whether this was an existing gun pit, or merely an interpretive construction, is unknown. Its location on the downward slope to the rear of the infantry trench suggests it was likely not the location of a wartime lunette.

1936 photo of the reconstructed Wilderness earthworks and gun pit. The infantry trenches are on the western edge of Saunders Field.

A visit to the location shows that the battlefield, and time, has reclaimed the trenches and gun pit. Unless one knows what he or she is looking at, it would be nearly impossible to find much noticeable difference between the reconstructed trecnhes and the remains of adjacent wartime earthworks. Likewise, the gun pit could easily be mistaken for a tree throw.

The Wilderness Battlefield reconstructed earthworks and gun pit, as they appear today. The two red arrows indicate the length of what was once the reconstructed trench. Note the difference in height between its parapet and that of the adjacent wartime works. The dip in the trench, to the right, is where a small wooden footbridge once crossed the earthworks. The shallow depression in the foreground is all that remains of the gun pit.

There is no evidence that the park  followed through on Jett’s suggestion to reconstruct a section of trench near the Brock Road-Orange Plank Road intersection. Such a reconstruction does not appear on the 1940 Master Plan map of the Wilderness Battlefield, nor have any photographs been found to suggest its existence.

At Chancellorsville, Jett’s suggestion to reconstruct one of the lunettes at Fairview was implemented almost immediately. A photo from 1936 shows park and/or CCC staff digging out the inside of a Union gun pit.

1936 photo of the gun pit reconstruction at Fairview. Berry-Paxton Drive, a park tour road, is visible running in front of the lunette.

Like the Wilderness trench and gun pit, the reconstructed Fairview lunette has been reclaimed by the battlefield.  No visible evidence of the reconstruction exists today.

The reconstructed Fairview gun pit, as it appears today. In the right foreground, can be seen the trace of Berry-Paxton Drive, which originally ran through the Fairview fields and connected with State Route 3. This section of the road was removed in the 1970s.

Details from the 1940 Master Plan map for the Chancellorsville Battlefield show the Fairview reconstruction, as well as a proposed “restoration” of Union trenches west of Fairview. These are undoubtedly the trenches Jett suggested for reconstruction, but like the Brock Road-Orange Plank Road trenches in the Wilderness, there is no evidence that they were developed.

Details from the 1940 Master Plan map of the Chancellorsville Battlefield. The sketch for the proposed reconstruction of "Slocum's Works" was actually targeted for a stretch of earthworks south of State Route 3, not north of the road as suggested here.

Finally, Jett called for reconstructions of gun pits at Prospect Hill and Lee’s Hill on the Fredericksburg Battlefield. The 1940 Master Plan map for the Fredericksburg Battlefield does include a detail for the proposed work at Prospect Hill.

"Gun-Pit Restoration (Proposed)" from the 1940 Master Plan map for the Fredericksburg Battlefield.

Note, however, that a large “X” was drawn through the detail. Perhaps this means that park management chose not to puruse this reconstruction. That may be the case, as there is no evidence that the lunettes at Prospect Hill or Lee’s Hill were ever reconstructed.

It is obvious that some of Jett’s 1935 proposal was implemented, but that not all of his interpretive reconstructions were developed. At what time the decision was made to abandon the trenches remains elusive. Only one of Jett’s trenches remains as an interpretive display, but that is only because the NPS has reconstructed the reconstruction.

Part three of this discussion can be found here.

Eric J. Mink

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8 thoughts on “Are those trenches real? – Part 2

  1. I would not presume to understand the debate about reconstruction within the NPS and Preservation Community – but from a “user” point of view and a frequent visitor to Bloody Angle – the lay of the land – the geography as seen now seems very exposed but just reading here and seeing one reconstruction at the cul-de-sac on Anderson Drive – provides a better appreciation.

    By the way – yesterday – the guys with the articulated bush hogs were out cleaning off the vegetation from the trenches…. and being careful about it.

    Until this year, many of the trenches had been so well covered by vegetation that unless one knew what they were may not have recognized them.

    Many new kiosks are being added also… so someone has been pretty busy at NPS.

    • Larry: managing vegetation on earthworks is one of our greatest conundrums–finding a balance between pure preservation and visibility and comprehension. This is an issue the NPS at large has struggled with over the years, and the debates still rage. We have suffered significant damage to earthworks by tree throws–Isabel was especially damaging on that account–and we continue to consider ways to eliminate or minimize that damage. Eventually, the earthworks will fade to mere bumps, but we’d like to put that day off a few centuries…. John H

      • Stephen–good to meet you at Aquia the other night. Generally, when we get a tree throw, the preferred solution is to push the root ball back into the hole. After Isabel, we took this approach with several downed trees along Lee Drive. Beyond that, we generally let nature take its course. If we were to “repair” damage (off the top of my head, I am not entirely sure we’ve done this), we would do so with a base soil (like sand, covered with topsoil) that was obviously different from the original, to distinguish the original from the repair from an archeological standpoint.

  2. Thanks John… I pretty much mangled the intent of my message and that was that when the trenches are (better) revealed and we also understand how the barrages and barricades were part of them we can see how the soldiers had at least some cover from the gunfire – and even then we know from the 22inch tree cut down just how much gunfire there was …

  3. Pingback: A little perspective: the value of a view from above « Mysteries and Conundrums

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