Lee's Failure to Entrench

“Lee took longer to learn from his experience that the frontal assault contributed only to attrition without victory than any other field commander in the Civil War.”[i]


Edward Hagerman covers in detail the practices of the Federal and Confederate armies as it relates to entrenchment. McClellan and his successors employed it masterfully. Lee and his generals came to the practice slowly. Hagerman suggests that the reason may have been that, unlike McClellan, Lee lacked a peer group from the Corps of Engineers in the Army of Northern Virginia. [ii] Lee also graduated from West Point before Dennis Mahan (see post here) arrived to instruct cadets on the benefits and “how to” of entrenchment.

An example, despite having the time and equipment to entrench at Antietam (see photo below), Lee did not. According to Hagerman, “his failure to do so suggests that he may have identified with an extreme tendency in American tactical thought opposing all fortifications on the open field of battle, on the grounds that they made green volunteer troops overcautious and destroyed discipline and the will to fight.” [iii]

Burnside Bridge (below) taken from the Confederate viewpoint on the
west side of Antietam Creek looking east.


Likewise at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where Lee assumed “a tactical defense where doctrine called for fortification of his front,” Lee again failed to entrench. “He had his troops construct only a few minor earthworks at scattered positions. This despite Antietam and despite the fact that the rifled musket, with its greatly increased range and accuracy, was now in general use in the eastern theater.” [iv]


Longstreet (above) finally broke the tactical pattern, not Lee.

“Although he occupied one of the strongest natural positions in the Confederate line, Longstreet ordered ditches, stone walls, and railroad cuts occupied and strengthened with rifle tranches and abatis. The Federal assaults against his positions on Marye’s Heights never got within a hundred yards of the stone wall. Behind the wall were four lines of infantry armed with rifled muskets, supported by sharpshooters in rifle trench, and entrenched artillery that directly covered and enfiladed the wall from the two terraces that rose behind it. Their fire cost the Union troops 3,500 dead to their own loses of 800 men.” [v]

Watching the battle with Longstreet, Lee (finally) ordered fatigue parties to entrench the heights as soon as the fighting stopped. [vi]

[i, ii] Edward Hagerman, The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 123.
[iii] Ibid., 116.
[iv, v, vi] Ibid., 122

9 Replies to “Lee's Failure to Entrench”

  1. There are several ways to interpret and qualify the “entrenchment” question. First and foremost, what is the difference between a simple field expedient fighting position and an entrenchment? Some will split hairs, others will disagree. And I would also question if in some tactical settings, given the nature of ACW combat, if entrenchments were worth the time and effort expended.

    In the case of Fredericksburg, with several natural and extant man-made features offering good cover, concealment, and fields of fire, perhaps Lee was correct not chaining his army down to a fixed defensive position. That is to say, if you build a redoubt, lunette, or even simple extended trenchwork, then if you don’t properly man it, then folly on you. Lee sought to keep options on the table, IMO. Remember in May 1863, the Federals were able to occupy the works on Marie’s Heights, and temporarily place Lee in a dilemma. A more enterprising commander than Hooker might have turned the tide at Chancellorsville, even after Jackson’s flank attack. But we all know how that went down.

  2. Thanks for your note elektratig. My interpretation of Hagerman’s assertion is that he referring to “orders” to entrench and therefore degree. He indicates that a Antietam Creek, “Lee did not give the order to dig in.” But he also says that there was a “conventional use stone fences and rifle trenches to fortify a vital bridgehead at Antietam Creek…” Beyond that, “there was no fortification on the Confederate line when skirmishing began late of the evening of September 16.” (Hagerman, 116)

    He also points out the “one divisional commander (he doesn’t mention who), seemingly on his own initiative, fortified that part of his line covering the exits from the woods through which the enemy would have to pass over open ground to attack. The fortifications consisted of a sunken road, stone fences and breastworks of fence rails hastily thrown up to extend the barricade. Otherwise, the Confederate line was without fortifications.” (Hagerman, 116)

    What I find interesting is the length of time it took Lee to come around to a strategy that made room for fortification while the Federals entrenched (arguable to the extreme) from the get go. West Point’s Mahan may have been the key. One can only speculate.


  3. Rene,

    I’m probably just displaying my ignorance here, but I was under the impression that Civil War soldiers began to entrench more or less spontaneously after they experienced a battle or two. In other words, entrenchment was not a top-down phenomenon: unless a commander ordered troops NOT to entrench, they were going to do so. I’ve never questioned this, probably because it makes so much sense. If I had the opportunity on a Civil War battlefield or potential battlefield, I’d entrench in about two seconds!

    Your post, of course, contradicts that assumption, but now you’ve got me wondering whether Lee’s men were idiots. You would think they would build entrenchments unless they were being ordered not to do so, and I gather that you are not saying that Lee issued orders forbidding entrenchment.

    What am I missing?

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