Are those trenches real? – Part 3

From Mink:

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.

1970s Spotsy Trench

Reconstructed trench to the rear of the Bloody Angle – 2010

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.

1990s Spotsy Trench

Reconstructed trench along Lee’s Last Line at Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield – 2010

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.

Pamplin Park1

Field Fortification Exhibit at Pamplin Historical Park

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

6 thoughts on “Are those trenches real? – Part 3

  1. A great series of posts Eric. Thank you for taking the time to assemble this material.
    Of all the reconstructed areas of trenchline in the FRSP battlefields, the only one that I would categorically define as “damaging” to its interpretive value, is the one formerly on the east face of the Mule Shoe Salient. It is one thing to take a simple, straight section of trench, or even a lunette, and enhance its eroded condition. It is quite another to force fit an interpretation based on a post-war photograph, as was done in 1935 at this location. Not only was this specific reconstruction based on ill-conceived assumptions, it was also signed at the time with a rendition of that photograph, a photograph taken at a location over a mile away. I would have to believe that as long as that section remained “enhanced” the signage gave visitors the impression they were looking at a faithful reconstruction of the genuine article. Now of course, as it sits today, it presents a softened character, but one that still continues to give a false impression, albeit one not so overtly displayed.

    • John

      Where exactly was the reconstruction done, near where the ranger station was? I go there often, and would be interested to know the spot. I am surprised to learn that the reconstruction behind the Bloody Angle has been there since the late ’70s, I thought it was more recent.

  2. Stephen,

    The east angle reconstruction was near the intersection of Burnside Drive and the now removed section of Bloody Angle Drive.
    Also, as Eric mentions, the section behind the Bloody Angle itself was originially built in the 1930s but re-revetted with logs in the 70s. As Eric’s current photo shows, it has fallen apart again. Still, it does have the distinction of being the longest maintained reconstruction in the park.

  3. Great material, Eric. Thanks. I recall reading that one of the tasks undertaken by the CCC was to provide for drainage of the various trenches. That is something soldiers would not have bothered with, as they were more concerned with putting dirt between them and and any conceivable source of hostile fire. For long term preservation, though, drainage is a basic consideration and would have entailed moving dirt to create that positive flow.

  4. The reconstructed section of works behind the Bloody Angle was still a very useful interpretive tool in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I worked at FRSP as a seasonal historian. Many of the logs had not deteriorated at that point and I always found it useful to take visitors back to these works when leading walking tours of the Bloody Angle. These works were featured on the FRSP park brochure when I was a seasonal with Chris Calkins posing in front of them as a Union officer. I think Calkins did living history programs there before my time at the park.
    Keith Bohannon
    Dept. of History, University of West Georgia

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