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Grundsätzliches über "Rifle Pits"

Civil War Field Fortifications Website - Grundsätzliches über Rifle Pits


Within the historical context of the American Civil War rifle pits were any light field work that combined an interior ditch with a low parapet that was intended exclusively as cover for infantry. Rifle pits were distinguished from major works by their low profile which included a shallow interior trench and a low parapet, neither of which was intended to serve as an obstacle to attacking body of troops. Unlike major field works the soil composing the parapet was usually untamped and the interior slope generally (but not necessarily) unrevetted.

This broad category of field fortification may be further subdivided into two distinct types of works defined by their lateral extent (rather than their profiles) and functions. Skirmish pits were short detached rifle pits which provided cover for one, two, or a small group individuals and were generally were sited in advance and on the flanks of either a fortified or unfortified position to provide cover for skirmishers or pickets. Rifle trenches were extended and continuous lines of rifle pits which were used to connect major field works and cover the front of infantry deployed in a position. Both types of rifle pits were quite common and often used in conjunction with each other.

As with all field fortifications there were certain advantages and disadvantages inherent to the fortification form and its use in specific situations. Rifle pits were relatively simple to construct, required no engineering expertise, could be thrown up relatively quickly almost anywhere that a deployed line of infantry happened to stop, and provided fairly efficient protection against small arms and some artillery fire. Ease and rapidity of construction made this fortification form (particularly rifle trenches) a viable alternative to major works in lines of works. Major works in the defensive line around Vicksburg were connected with continuous low profile rifle pits that were either constructed in advance of the Confederate army's occupation of the line or in the hours immediately after its retreat to the position. The Dimmock Line surrounding Petersburg, Virginia, constructed in 1863, also used rifle pits to fortify the intervals between batteries. At Fort Donelson the Confederates' northwestern flank was covered by a line of short rifle pits sited at intervals of about 100 yards. Application of rifle pits to lines of works reduced the amount of time, labor, and expense, that were generally involved in fortifying an extended position. In the later stages of the war armies tended to fortify their positions using rifle trenches and skirmish pits, often without any pre-laid trace. Skirmish pits, either sited prior to an army's occupation of a position or by the first pickets sent out to act as an advanced guard, had the distinct advantage of allowing the pickets to maintain their posts in positions that would otherwise have been untenably dangerous. These low profile works also had the supposed advantage of allowing troops to pass over them with more or less facility to advance to the attack or counterattack a disordered or retreating enemy.

he primary disadvantage inherent to rifle pits was the lack of an inclusive obstacle that could slow down an assault and hold an attacking body of troops under the defenders' fire. Works constructed with a low profile and without exterior obstacles were vulnerable to being overrun by unexpected attacks. When both time and means were available rifle pits were often covered by external obstacles such as palisadings, small pickets, and abatis. Skirmish pits established in advance of a stronger line tended to isolate individual pickets, especially during daylight hours, since there was generally insufficient cover to allow safe movement between picket posts and the main line of works. While advanced skirmish pits allowed the defenders some measure of warning against an attack, they could also interfere with defensive fire from the main line of works if their occupants were slow to retreat to the main line ahead of an attack.

One of the most important points concerning the study of field fortifications that needs to be clearly stated is that the specific fortification form indicated by the use of the terms "rifle pit" or "rifle pits" can almost never be assumed. These were catch-all phrases that more often than not were used without any uniform degree of precision. Even though modern scholarly usage has tended to limit these terms to the definition of the skirmish pit variation presented here, if one reads source material with this limitation too firmly fixed, unfortunate errors in understanding specific fortification forms used in specific cases can occur. Major General Edward Canby's report of the assault on Fort Blakely, Alabama in April, 1865, for example, describes the Confederate line of works as consisting of "nine strong redoubts connected by rifle-pits and palisades." If Canby's "rifle pits" are understood to mean one or two man holes in the ground, his meaning will inevitably be badly misconstrued and his description of the form and implied strength of the Confederate line

In this case Canby used the term in the sense of a rifle trench as defined above. In almost all cases other evidence exterior to the use of the term, such as a detailed description of the work itself or an examination of its physical remains, must be brought to bear to help determine the exact extent of the fortification form referred to as a rifle pit. Imprecision in the use of the term and its lack of a commonly recognized definition at the time of the Civil War usually prohibit any general assumptions concerning the form and extent of any field work described in source material as a rifle pit.
Webpage courtesy of P. E. McDuffie, Civil War Field Fortifications Website CD-ROM, 2002, formerly available at http://www.civilwarfortificatons.com.