How rocks shaped the Civil War

March 17, 2016
Figure 5 from the Hippensteel article, "Carbonate rocks and American Civil War infantry tactics." Union reenactors during a National Battlefield Park demonstration in the limestone outcrops at the center of the Union line at Stones River on the 152nd anniversary of the battle. Karrens (or "cutters," right) provided critical defensive positions for the center of the crumbling Union line during the Battle of Stones River. Credit: Scott P.Hippensteel and Geosphere.

The most studied battleground from the American Civil War, from a geological perspective, is the rolling terrain surrounding Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Here, the mixture of harder igneous and softer sedimentary rocks produced famous landform features such as Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top that provided strong defensive positions for the Union Army.

Another even more common type of rock—carbonates such as limestone—provided similarly formidable defensive positions at numerous other battlefields in both the eastern and western theaters of conflict.

Limestones and dolostones shaped the terrain of multiple important battle sites, including Antietam, Stones River, Chickamauga, Franklin, Nashville, and Monocacy, and these rock types proved consequential with respect to the tactics employed by both Union and Confederate commanders.

This article by Scott P. Hippensteel of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte describes how produced rolling terrain that limited the range and effectiveness of both artillery and small arms. Additionally, thin soils above limestone bedrock prevented tillage and the resulting forests provided concealment and cover for advancing troops. From a defensive perspective, on a larger geographic scale carbonates provided natural high ground from chert-enriched limestones. On a smaller scale, erosion of these same rocks produced karrens (or "cutters") that provided natural rock-lined trenches for defending troops.

Explore further: War from the ground up

More information: Carbonate rocks and American Civil War infantry tactics,

Related Stories

War from the ground up

October 1, 2008

The connection between geology and the history of the Civil War has fascinated Robert Whisonant since his undergraduate days, and now Whisonant has teamed up with geomorphologist Judy Ehlen, both of Radford University, to ...

Western Wall weathering: Extreme erosion explained

August 11, 2014

Visitors to the Western Wall in Jerusalem can see that some of its stones are extremely eroded. This is good news for people placing prayer notes in the wall's cracks and crevices, but presents a problem for engineers concerned ...

Study reveals gold in Millport rocks

February 12, 2016

The discovery of microscopic concentrations of gold in rocks from a popular Scottish holiday destination has raised the possibility of bigger finds elsewhere, according to research carried out by scientists at the University ...

Recommended for you

Entire Himalayan arc can produce large earthquakes

October 26, 2016

The main fault at the foot of the Himalayan mountains can likely generate destructive, major earthquakes along its entire 2,400-kilometer (1,500-mile) length, a new study finds. Combining historical documents with new geologic ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.