Petersburg: Mowing History

Battery 5 at Petersburg National Battlefield

This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at  This is the fourth in a series.

On many Civil War battlefields, all that is left is the land. For battlefield enthusiasts, just looking at the terrain can evoke the battle, the movement of the units, the decisions of the commanders, and the experience of the soldiers, and perhaps even the war’s greater meaning.

But for a lot of us, it’s just a bunch of grass.

The Petersburg battlefield, in contrast, provides an education in what all that terrain means. There is of course the Crater, one of Kevin’s areas of expertise. To me, the stories came to life at the entrance to the mine shaft and in the depth of the hole, something very hard to judge 150 years later and from the trail along its edge. The other batteries of the Eastern Front—especially Battery 5, which you can walk through, around, and “under,” along the trail to the Union mortar—gave me the best sense of the power of these earthworks, the size and scope of the battle lines they were part of for months, stretched out for miles around the city. (It also helped that I could hear the yells and chants from nearby Fort Lee during my visit, breaking the silence of a sunset otherwise dominated by bird chirps and insect buzzing.)

Petersburg’s siege encampment exhibit gives a better sense of what is missing from the landscape. Then you add the historic photographs, showing all the men, black and white, who filled these positions, and you can begin to see it: the men creating earthworks, digging tunnels, maneuvering artillery, shaping the land to participate in the battle.

At many eastern battlefields, National Park Service has left some grass tall and mowed open areas short, in order to show where earthworks once stood. This is an effective (and inexpensive) way to create a shadow of the battle’s landscape. Such a subtle element can help us visualize the battlefield, but it can also educate us about the importance of earthworks and landscape to understanding Civil War battlefields. It is not just terrain, but crucial terrain—ridges and hills, strategic lookouts and river fords.

As the armies hunkered down in sieges, what was increasingly important is what we might now call environmental design—altering the landscape, changing the access points, even moving streams to provide the food and water and make encampments easier to protect. My book starts with the destruction of the Mounds around St. Louis, as the city expanded; our 21st-century knowledge about pre-Columbian mounds, ditches, knolls, and ridges has altered our understanding of the civilizations of the Americas. A landscape and environmental history of the Civil War could deepen our understanding of the war’s experience, recovering that which busy soldiers and civilians failed to remark upon.

The late Jack Temple Kirby called for such “an environmental view” of the war, considering flows of animals and plants as well as the landscape, and Mark Fiege has written about the importance of environment at Gettysburg, and other turning points throughout U.S. history. Lisa M. Brady has written a dissertation that considers the Union Army’s use of the landscape at Vicksburg, in the Shenandoah, and marching through Georgia and the Carolinas. Brady has argued (in Environmental History) that “the landscape was not simply a backdrop to the events of the war—a place where battles took place—but a powerful military resource and an important factor in military decision making.”

These articles provide just a start—more, both from these scholars and others, can help us understand the landscape of the Civil War. And Petersburg is a place where everyone can start to feel its importance.

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11 comments… add one
  • Vince Sep 8, 2011 @ 16:07

    “A landscape and environmental history of the Civil War could deepen our understanding of the war’s experience, recovering that which busy soldiers and civilians failed to remark upon.”

    Although I’m fascinated by both terrain-oriented tactical studies and social/environmental/industrial history, I fail to grasp what you actually mean in the statement I quoted above, or really what the point was of Kirby’s article. My null hypothesis is that environmental history and tactical micro-history have little meaningful to say to each other–one measures time in decades, the other in minutes–and I don’t see the evidence to the contrary. Yes, Civil War military history usually has the environment as a major player, but specifically how can a “consciously ecological view of the Civil War” cause us to see something in a way we couldn’t see with a subconsciously ecological view of the war?

    The subjects of nineteenth century trends in agriculture, forests, migration patterns, etc, are very interesting, but their connection to Civil War battlefields seems tenuous to me. As Kirby wrote, “in several senses the Civil War’s massive damage was temporary and arguably, not very significant at all.” Plus, there were a couple bizarre statements in his article that triggered red flags in my mind: if Kirby’s cutting-edge environmental history analysis says a major environmental legacy of the Civil War is that “some excellent farmland was forever lost” through national battlefields and cemeteries (wow, a whole square mile?), I’m not sure this consciously ecological view of the war is worth listening to.

    I hope I don’t sound too pessimistic, as the general idea sounds great. I just can’t imagine the real contribution and was very disappointed by the Kirby article.

    • Adam Arenson Sep 8, 2011 @ 18:26

      Vince, thanks for your questions.

      First, I think we need a different definition of environmental history. Some environmental history considers change at the pace of geology or evolution — but most concerns how humans can quickly change their environments. (Think the Columbian Exchange of flora, fauna, and disease in 1492, or the destruction of the bison through hunting on horseback and then railroads.) So I am less concerned with what created the Shenandoah Valley and more with human-landscape interactions just before and during the Civil War, and their implications like: What kind of fields were best for infantry — plowed, fallow? Which crops offered cover, and which resistance? And if the agrticultural cycle was disrupted by the constant fighting of the last years of the war, how did that altered landscape help or hinder the soldiers’ fighting, beyond lessening their supplies? Similarly, I think the earthworks–where they were built; where they failed; how they interacted with rain and snow–offer another new angle.

      If Kirby’s comments, and/or mine, seem only to suggest the obvious, I think that simply shows what Fiege, Brady, and others have left to tell us about the Civil War’s environment; we may just know too little to sound impressive yet.

      Thanks again for the excellent questions.

      • Vince Sep 9, 2011 @ 18:03

        Ok, your examples make a little more sense. Perhaps too one of the problems is that the Civil War is analytically interesting to contrast against twentieth century wars because its environmental impact was to a large degree temporary. So, while it’s important as a baseline, that negative result doesn’t provide much usable content for battlefield interpretation.

        Thanks for your posting your initial thoughts and your response. I’ve enjoyed reading your series of posts on battlefields and their relationship to cultural history.

  • Ray O'Hara Sep 7, 2011 @ 19:37

    RE: Indian Mounds, a sidelight of visiting Battlefields was my “discovering” Indian Mounds first at the excellent NPS site at Etowah Ga. I quickly read up on them and would always include stops at all I’d encounter while driving around Battlefields, Kahokia {East St Louis}, the Snake Mound in Ohio along with Etowah are just a few of those I’ve searched out.

    in Andover Ma. there is the Turtle Mound , it’s on pvt property but in the past the owners were friendly and asking permission generally got a yes answer .

    Mystery Hill “America’s Stonehenge” in Salem NH is very controversial. some claim an 18th Century farme name Pattee built it {highly doubtful} or that either Indians or ancient Celts {my fave theory}created it. It’s a short ride, just over the NH border exit 2 of I-93 and taking NH Route 101 east's_Stonehenge#Carbon-14_dates

    there are many other very cool sites like these all over New England, in the Foxboro State Forest on Rte I near Gillette, Royalton Vt. and supposedly in the Gungywamp in Groton Ct
    {a nice side trip when visiting the USN Submarine Museum-USS Nautilus Memorial also in Groton}

    There are many theories about these sites, from Indians to Ancient Celts or St Brendan and even that Vikings built some {see the Newport Tower} personally I think all three groups contributed .
    Alas, they won’t let anybody dig around the Newport Tower in Newport RI to see if Lord Sinclair really did hide the treasure of the Knights Templar there.

    As I said, visiting battlefields and the like exposed me to American Pre-Columbian history and I became as interested in visiting them as I am in Military History sites.

    • Adam Arenson Sep 8, 2011 @ 8:27

      Thanks for the comments.

      There is a lot of good academic work being done on the American Indian nations’ earthworks, in North and South America; clearly a lot we don’t know.

      As I note here, even though we have photographs and accounts of those who made Civil War earthworks, excavations, etc., I feel we often hear about what the plan was, their inspirations or ideas. The Crater is an exception, and the Napoleonic-style forts around the U.S. (star-shaped, with earthen outer structures) provide an obvious model, but thinking about a time before airplanes, when the shape of the terrain mattered so much more in battle, opens new avenues for thinking about the environmental impact of the Civil War.

  • Ray O'Hara Sep 7, 2011 @ 19:07

    Eastern front? never heard the Eastern Theater called that before, and it has rather been taken by another later war.

    The Visitor Center there has always been a favorite because of the “mud display” in it that showed, albeit in a small way, what the ground looked like at the height of the siege and it was the first CW battlefield I ever visited, back in 1974. It is a great place and I’ve been back several times.

    Somewhere in the pictures I’ve taken is one of a clueless fool who is looking at a sign that says “don’t walk over the earthworks” as he was of course walking over the earthworks, in fact he was walking on a well worn path next to the sign, so he was just one more in a long line of idiots. I was prevented from saying anything by my travelling companion as I do have the habit of saying something in a less than polite way.{ Get off the earthwork you f…..g moron, can’t you read the G..D… sign!.}

    The mortar Dictator which figures in so many siege pictures is today sitting in front of the Ct State House in Hartford, it was crewed by the 1st Ct heavy Arty and they took it home with them at wars end, the mortar on display is identical but an impostor..

    I’m looking forward towards your book.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2011 @ 1:34

      It is the NPS designation for a section of the battlefield.

      • Ray O'Hara Sep 8, 2011 @ 1:43

        I don’t ever recall seeing it and I’ve been to almost every one.east on the Mississippi.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2011 @ 2:01
          • Ray O'Hara Sep 8, 2011 @ 8:53

            I never noticed or if I did it didn’t register.

        • David Coles Sep 8, 2011 @ 4:04

          As Kevin indicated, the term Eastern front is used by the NPS at Petersburg to refer to the lines established during the earlier period of the siege (to the east and south of the town), while Western Front is used to desribe the lines that were extended in that direction during the latter stages of the siege.

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