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Military History Word of the Day – Salient

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salient ˈsālyənt; -lēənt n.
1. a piece of land or section of fortification that juts out to form an angle.

Salient at Spotsylvania

2. an outward bulge in a line of military attack or defense. (see example below)

Salient at Spotsylvania

The word “salient” is used frequently in John F. Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History (see post on his book here).

Due to the extremely close proximity of the opposing lines between the two forts, sniper fire was heavy and constant in this area. Potter’s division was located in the ravine a little more than one hundred yards from Elliott’s Salient, which itself was situated at an angle in the Rebel line of works, the closest at any part to the Union lines. Observers at the time felt the Union line had penetrated into the interior of the Confederates’ lines in this area after the last battle and was thus occupying a tenuous position. (2)

Petersburg, Virginia. Interior view of Confederate works near Elliott's salient, Courtesy of the Library of Congress # LC-B811- 3222

The National Park Service identifies Elliott’s Salient as a point where Federals and Confederates had come close together.

One of these locations was in front of Elliott’s Salient, a Confederate strong point near Cemetery Hill and old Blandford Church. Here the Confederate position and the Union picket line were less than 400 feet apart. Because of the proximity of the Union line, Elliott’s Salient was well fortified. Behind earthen embankments was a battery of four guns, and two veteran South Carolina infantry regiments were stationed on either side. Behind these were other defensive works; before them the ground sloped gently downward toward the Union advance line. (3)

“]Gracie's Salient Petersburg

Petersburg, Virginia. Confederate fortifications at "Gracie's Salient." LOC Call #: LC-B815- 1059[P&P

Someone has done a nice job exploring the term salient as military term on Wikipedia including a variety of examples of “salients” from the American Civil War as well as other military engagements which you can read here.

Other well known military salients:

Heth’s Salient

From the National Park Service’s virtual tour of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania Battlefields: By mid-afternoon on May 12 the fighting at the Muleshoe Salient had reached an impasse. By coincidence, both sides focused attention on another bulge in the Confederate lines known as Heth’s Salient. General Grant ordered General Ambrose Burnside to attack Heth’s Salient at the same time as General Lee ordered General Jubal Early to attack Burnside’s left flank. In doing so, he hoped to relieve pressure on the Confederates at the Bloody Angle.

Muleshoe Salient: Look for reference to Mule Shoe Salient in the Wikipedia post here.

From the National Park Services (see the full story here): The armies flowed onto the battlefield the rest of the day, extending corresponding lines of earthworks east and west of the Brock Road. Ewell’s corps filed in on Anderson’s right and built their entrenchments in the dark to conform with elevated terrain along their front. First light revealed that Ewell’s soldiers had concocted a huge salient, or bulge, in the Confederate line, pointing north in the direction of the Federals. The men called it the “Mule Shoe” because of its shape, but Southern engineers called it trouble. Salient’s could be attacked not only in front but from both sides, and as a rule officers liked to avoid them. Lee, however, opted to retain the position trusting that his cannoneers could keep the “Mule Shoe” safe enough.

Doles’s Salient:

From the National Park Service (see the full story here): On May 10, the Union found a weakness in the Confederate defenses. Colonel Emory Upton was ordered with 5,000 men to attack a slight bulge in the Confederate lines known as Doles’s Salient. Upton’s men approached the Confederates on a narrow road (typical of the roads in the area that linked one farm with another) through the woods.

Ypres Salient: Famous for the World War I battle that took place there.

(1) “salient.” The Oxford Essential Dictionary of the U.S. Military. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2009). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O63-salient.html

(2) John F. Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History, (Jefferson, North Carolina: 2009), 50.

(3) “The Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864,” http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/hh/13/hh13f.htm

The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History

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Battle of the Crater

Battle of the Crater

I have happily received a review copy of John F. Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History. I can be counted among those whose interest in this remarkable 9 hour battle was piqued after watching the mesmerizing opening sequence of the film based on Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

Scenes of The Battle of the Crater in the trailer of Cold Mountain, a film by Anthony Minghella

It would be hard to find a similar military event in history that paralleled this one in terms of overwhelming potential for success run amok. Schmutz’s use of an opening quote about the July 30, 1864 battle by Ulysses S. Grant perhaps says it best…

The loss in the disaster of Saturday last foots up about 3,500, of whom 450 men were killed and 2,000 wounded. It was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war. Such an opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.

- Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to Major General
Henry W. Halleck, August 1, 1864.

According to Schmutz, his interest in the Battle of the Crater began with the discovery that he had “two direct ancestors in the battle, one with the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, which at the last minute, and without any preparation or forewarning, was chosen to lead the assault, with disastrous consequences.” (Preface) This seed germinated into one of the first studies to take a broad-brush approach to the battle, examining the events leading up to it, the country’s mood in its now third year of civil war, brutality committed against black troops, atrocities perpetrated by both sides, first-hand accounts, and the impact of the battle “on the body politic of both sides.”

Schmutz appropriately gives readers a sense for war in the trenches that were part of the Siege of Petersburg.

As both sides dug even deeper entrenchments and more infantry obstacles, the rolling farmland east and south of the city was soon churned into scenes resembling a moonscape. These tandem ramparts ran for twenty-six miles, crossed two major rivers, and traversed parts of four Virginia countries, from White Oak Swamp, east of Richmond, across Bermuda Hundred and south of the Jerusalem Plank Road below the city. No campaign of the war quite equaled the siege of Petersburg, which was the object of the longest military action ever waged against an American city. More battles were fought and more lives lost there than in the defense of any better-known Southern cities such as Richmond, Vicksburg or Atlanta. (p. 40)

Henry Pleasants

Henry Pleasants

The excellent chapter titled “The Earth Movers,” reveals how Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants and the men of the 48th Pennsylvania, many of them coal miners, accomplished what Meade’s engineers mockingly called impossible, the building of a lengthy tunnel without detection by the Confederates. Receiving literally no support from Meade or his men, Pleasants overcame every challenge with ingenuity and innovation. As an example, he used a combination of miner’s bellows and fire to create draft to circulate air through a shaft built into the tunnel wall. This bit of creative thinking, the details of which are a must read, became what Schmutz called Pleasants’ “greatest engineering feat.” (p. 61)

The Crater

The Crater as it appeared in 1865. The Union soldier seated at the end of the tunnel gives an idea of the size of the Crater. National Archives.

Of note, Schmutz provides an impressive set of references in his appendices, something I always value in a book of serious history. These include:

  • Organization of Opposing Forces on July 30, 1864 including Union and Confederate Corps, Division, and Brigade, and in some cases Company commanders and officers
  • Casualty counts by Corps, Division, Brigade and Unit
  • Medal of Honor Recipients and Confederate Roll of Honor Recipients by Corps including a brief statement about why they received the award
    Union Officers Killed or Mortally Wounded by Corps, Division, and Brigade
  • Full and extensive Chapter Notes
  • An impressive Bibliography which demonstrates the extent of primary sources used in Schumtz’s research

I greatly look forward to fully reading this book and fully expect that a Highly Recommend will be forthcoming.

Kevin Levin has recently provided a review of The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History on H-Net here.

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