Sustainable Military Earthworks Management

Civil War era sketch illustrating earthworks construction to prevent a night attack, Library of Congress.

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General Overview

The ground plane has long been consciously shaped before, during, and after battle to provide cover and protection for soldiers. Today these forms, called earthen fortifications or earthworks, are broadly defined as any earthen structure excavated for military purposes.

Earthworks place a barrier between an army and its enemy, and in their most basic form consist of a protective embankment or mound of earth called a parapet and a ditch that supplies the earth to build the parapet. In some fortifications, the parapet may be reinforced by a facing material, such as wood, stone, brick or sandbags, which is called a revetment. The nomenclature associated with earthworks is varied—entrenchments, breastworks, fieldworks, trenches—as are their forms and purposes. As military technology advanced, the design and construction of earthworks responded by expanding in complexity to include numerous features such as batteries, gun emplacements, magazines, and dugouts. [ see: Diagrams showing fortification parts ]


Fort Stedman with grass cover, Petersburg NB, VA, NPS Photo.

Earthworks surviving in today’s landscape range from low, eroded mounds to massive well-preserved forms with clearly articulated features. Erosion, the process whereby particles of soil dislodge from earthworks and are transported away, poses the greatest threat to their longevity. Over time, this natural action can completely degrade the resource. Therefore, management should always focus on erosion prevention, whether earthworks are covered in grasses or forest.

In the United States, numerous historic battlefields held by private, local, state, and federal jurisdictions contain remnant earthworks. The National Park Service (NPS), which manages military earthworks at numerous locations, has surviving examples from the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the War with Mexico, the Civil War, late nineteenth century coastal defenses, practice trenches from World War I, and Pacific Island sites from World War II. Often municipal parks seemingly unrelated to battle, such as Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, Grant Park in Atlanta, and Point State Park in Pittsburgh, may also contain military earthworks because the boundaries of the park now include historic locations of strategic, logistic, or topographic importance and the original designers such as Olmsted Brothers or Ralph Griswold protected the earthworks and integrated them into the park’s original design.

Many state and local parks also actively manage surviving military earthworks. Internationally, Canadian agencies responsible for several World War I military sites associated with the Somme in France are taking active measures to preserve extensive earthen trench systems.

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