Parts 1 and 2 (found here and here) looked at the reconstruction of earthworks, for interpretive purposes, at FRSP in the 1930s. The reconstructions were located at the Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House battlefields.
Such reconstructions ultimately require a good deal of maintenance. It does not take long for the elements to cause cave-ins, sloughing of dirt and the decomposition of the logs. At some point, either by decision or neglect, the reconstructed earthworks began to dissolve into the landscape. Only one stretch of reconstructed trench was targeted for renewed attention. This occurred in 1977 at the section of reconstructed trench directly behind the “Bloody Angle” on the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield.
The paperwork associated with the proposed rehabilitation (or reconstruction of the reconstruction) states that by 1977, the “logs, and earthworks have deteriorated due to the forces of nature, resulting in a shallow embankment devoid of log works.” The plan called for re-establishing the interpretive works and providing a defined pedestrian trail from the Bloody Angle to the reconstructed trench. The work was accomplished the following year. There is no evidence that any of the other trenches received such attention.
In the 30 years that have passed since the most recent reconstruction, the trenches behind the Bloody Angle once again show the need for attention.
In the late 1990s, FRSP decided to add more reconstructed trenches to the landscape. These interpretive works were built at the terminus of Anderson Drive on the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield. Unlike the 1930s reconstructions, no original trenches were excavated or harmed in the process.
The construction of Anderson Drive in the 1930s, as a park tour road, had already obliterated roughly 20 feet of Confederate trenches along what is known as Lee’s Last Line. That section of Anderson Drive that connected with Brock Road was removed in the 1980s, thereby reducing through traffic and turning the drive into a strictly interior tour road. This location for the reconstruction of trenches was chosen because of the disturbed nature of the ground and the ability to juxtapose the interpretive works with the adjacent remnants of the original trench line. In the ten years since its construction, it too is beginning to show the signs of deterioration.
Reconstructed trenches as interpretive tools continue to be used on Civil War battlefields. For years, Petersburg has maintained an elaborate set of works that show all manner of siege trench construction. At nearby Pamplin Park, the use of synthetic materials results in a very impressive field fortification exhibit that probably requires less maintenance than the use of organic material.
It’s likely that the use of reconstructed works as interpretive tools by the NPS will continue, but it’s doubtful that they will be built at the expense of original trenches, such as was the approach in the 1930s. Today, placement, materials used, and maintenance probably receive more consideration than they did in past efforts to provide an interpretive experience.
So, are those trenches real? It depends on what trenches one is looking at. It’s safe to say that the CCC and/or NPS did not reconstruct, rebuild, or re-excavate the trenches on the FRSP battlefields wholesale. Aside from adding sod to stabilize the works, there was no effort to enhance the appearance of the trenches, except in the select locations mentioned here. The abandonment of the reconstructions at FRSP may result in some confusion when investigating and untangling the battlefield landscape – what is real and what is rebuilt – but fortunately surviving documentation helps to identify those areas that were subject to reconstruction.
Eric J. Mink