Take The High Ground: How Rocks Helped Win The Civil War

May 18, 2016

The trenches at Stones River could easily conceal a Union soldier.
Credit Thomas R Machnitzki / Wikimedia

From limestone trenches at Stones River to the rolling hills at Antietam, a new report looks at how geology shaped the outcome of the Civil War.

Commanders on both sides used the natural terrain to their advantage, according to Scott Hippensteel, associate professor of Earth Sciences at UNC Charlotte and the author of the study.

“Leaders during the time were always looking for the high ground, and the high ground was basically created in large part by the geology,” Hippensteel said.

His research examined the composition of several significant battlefields, including Antietam, Stones River, and Chickamauga.  While the geology didn’t favor either side on the whole, it played a key role in the outcome of some battles, he said.

One striking example is the naturally occurring limestone trenches at Stones River in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The chest-high trenches were just the right height to hide a kneeling soldier, Hippensteel said.

This gave Union troops an advantage in the 1862 battle.

“It just happened that that was the one spot where Confederates really had difficulty driving the Union out of those rocks at the Battle of Stones River,” Hippensteel said. “It really helped save the Union Army.”

The study “Carbonate rocks and American Civil War infantry tactics,” appears in the journal Geosphere.