Trench Warfare Predates World War I

May 16, 1864/2014
Volume 5, Issue 20 (188 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Trench Warfare Predates World War I. Conditions Equally Horrific.

May 16, 1864. Trench warfare was not a World War I development; it was a product of the Civil War. Entrenchments on the Spotsylvania battlefield, for example, were just as horrific as they were in the Great War. A. M. Stewart, chaplain to a Pennsylvania regiment, recalled the scene at Spotsylvania: “From where I stood, and in front of a Rebel rifle pit, lay stretched in all positions over fifty of our unburied soldiers, and within the pit and lying across each other, perhaps as many Rebel dead. It seems almost incredible what a change of little less than a week had wrought, by exposure to sun and hot air. The hair and skin had fallen from the head, and the flesh from the bones — all alive with disgusting maggots.

“Many of the soldiers stuffed their nostrils with green leaves. Such a scene does seem too revolting to record. Yet, how else convey any just conception of what is done and suffered here?”

Battle of Spottsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup

Battle of Spotsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup


Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, My Brother’s Face, p. 104.

Black Sailors Make Up a Quarter of the Union’s Sailors

May 21, 1864. Historian James M. McPherson wrote, “Negroes had enlisted in the Union Navy from the beginning of the war. Unlike the army, the United States Navy had never followed a Jim Crow policy, and there were many black sailors in the prewar navy. It has been estimated that during the Civil War as many as 29,000 Negroes (one-fourth of the entire naval enrollment) served in the Union Navy. Four black sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor for outstanding bravery.”

“Some Black Mariners Fought on Land as Well as on Sea”

George W. Reed, a black sailor serving on the United States gunboat Commodore Reed, Potomac Flotilla, wrote the following account on May 4; it appeared in the Christian Recorder on May 21:

“Sir, having been engaged in the naval service nearly six years, I have never before witnessed what I now see on board this ship. Our crew are principally colored; and a braver set of men never trod the deck of an American ship. We have been on several expeditions recently. On the 15th of April our ship and other gunboats proceeded up the Rappahannock river for some distance, and finding no rebel batteries to oppose us, we concluded to land the men from different boats, and make a raid. I was ordered by the Commodore to beat the call for all parties to go on shore. No sooner had I executed the order, than every man was at his post, our own color being the first to land. At first, there was a little prejudice against our colored men going on shore, but it soon died away. We succeeded in capturing 3 fine horses, 6 cows, 5 hogs, 6 sheep, 3 calves, an abundance of chickens, 600 pounds of pork, 300 bushels of corn, and succeeded in liberating from the horrible pit of bondage 10 men, 6 women, and 8 children. The principal part of the men have enlisted on this ship. The next day we started further up the river, when the gunboats in advance struck a torpedo [as mines were then called], but did no material damage. We landed our men again, and repulsed a band of rebels handsomely, and captured three prisoners. Going on a little further, we were surprised by 300 rebel cavalry, and repulsed, but retreated in good order, the gunboats covering our retreat. I regret to say we had the misfortune to lose Samuel Turner (colored) in our retreat. He was instantly killed, and his body remains in the rebel hands. He being the fifer [and I being a drummer], I miss him very much as a friend and companion, as he was beloved by all on board. We also had four slightly wounded.”


James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War (1965, 1991), pp. 160-61.

– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter A. Gilbert

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1864

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