These are fortifications built in a direction perpendicular to the primary line. If, for example, a line of earthen defenses was constructed on a north/south axis, facing east, traverses would be built on an east/west axis, on the western side of the main line.
Traverses were intended to protect defenders from incoming fire that swept along the length of a line, rather than hitting it head-on. On battlefields where long strings of entrenchments stretched for miles, they often snaked along without much regard for linear precision. That meant that the opposing enemy lines might, in some spots, be situated with an opportunity to fire down the length of the defenders’ primary line. The presence of traverses allowed the defenders to receive protection from that down-the-line firing, giving them protection from three different directions if necessary.
Some of the best traverses on field fortifications in Virginia survive at the North Anna battlefield, north of Richmond, and at Cold Harbor. This map of the Cold Harbor battlefield is enlarged to show a section of the fortifications where traverses clearly are visible on both the Union and Confederate lines. It is easy to see from the map how exposed both armies would be to down-the-line firing, were it not for the presence of traverses.
Traverses were not confined merely to field entrenchments. They had equal utility in fixed fortifications, in cases where the defenders might be exposed to fire from multiple directions. One of the best examples is at Fort Harrison. The so-called “Great Traverse” is a massive oblong pile of dirt that still stands nearly 20 feet high and 40 yards long. It is the equivalent of a separate, interior, free-standing wall of the fort. After Union soldiers captured the fort in September 1864, they reconfigured things in a manner that made the Great Traverse less obvious. But it still remains today as a reminder of the elaborate planning that accompanied the construction of Richmond’s defenses.
Above, this wartime view shows how the Great Traverse towered over the eastern wall of Fort Harrison, which is the low dark line running through the center of the image.
Below,a perfect photographic comparison is not possible today because of non-historic trees at the original camera position. In this shot the Great Traverse is directly beneath the tallest tree in the right-center; the main wall of Fort Harrison is visible on the left, beneath the spindly tree. Union soldiers reduced the Great Traverse’s height in 1864-65, and erosion has taken a small toll.
Last updated: February 26, 2015