Railroad Iron in CS Earthwork Fortifications

mjr251

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Sometimes when doing research, you come across a true gem.

Last year I paid a researcher to dig up some Civil War maps and engineer drawings for me from the National Archives. Though some were already available online through the JF Gilmer collection, most of them, including a map of proposed earthwork defenses for the city of Orange, Texas, I had never been able to find online.

One of the drawings was of a casemate fortification, named Fort Point, at Pelican Island in Galveston. This drawing, along with a similar one of Fort Griffin in the Gilmer collection, bears the signature of Richard M. Venable, who was a captain of engineers on the staff of General E. Kirby Smith, commander of the Confederacy's Trans-Mississippi Department. Venable's drawings were copies of originals done by Colonel Valery Sulakowski. His original map of Fort Sabine, later renamed Fort Griffin in honor of Colonel William H. Griffin of the 21st Texas Infantry Regiment (which is strange, because Griffin was unpopular with both his soldiers and fellow commanders. Sulakowski was also unpopular, as he and Griffin were both considered stern disciplinarians, but he had two Texas forts named for him), is included here.

This Fort Point drawing is a gem because of its description and schematic of the layering of railroad iron, timbers, and sand. Sulakowski placed a lot of value in layered protection for the fortifications he designed in Texas, and Fort Griffin had the same type of construction. I've read various descriptions (none of them from wartime reports) of Fort Griffin having been constructed of railroad iron and cypress logs, but I have no doubt that milled timbers were used in Sabine Pass just as at Galveston.

When the war ended, US Navy Lieutenant Lewis W. Pennington (who was a Sabine Pass resident who stuck with the old flag when the nation split in 1861) was the first Federal commander to set foot at Sabine Pass since the battle at Fort Griffin on September 8, 1863. Apparently impressed with the structure, Pennington described the bombproofs (rooms built into the parapet to shelter the garrison during bombardment) and magazines at Griffin as being "covered with two feet of solid timber, two layers of railroad iron, and four feet of earth (sand) on top." Without even (likely) knowing him, Pennington described Sulakowski's design almost as well as he did in the Fort Point drawing.

It's interesting that the concept of layering different materials as armored protection, which we see now in the Chobham-type armor of US M1 Abrams tanks, had already been put into combat use so many years ago.

Griffin.jpg


Image3.jpg
 

ucvrelics

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Great Info. As far the M1 goes, I can see a little and I mean little on the design. As a retired US Army old tanker and being station at APG during the development of the Abrams I really can't see the complete honeycomb design is this fort. As far as the rail goes I believe @DaveBrt have some info.
 

mjr251

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As far the M1 goes, I can see a little and I mean little on the design. As a retired US Army old..
Hey UCV! I didn’t mean it literally presaged Chobham, just the idea of layering materials to protect against incoming ordnance.

I was an 11B at Fort Hood, lived in Bradleys for a while. My battalion, 1-12 Infantry, was reactivated in 2005 as a combined arms battalion - two companies of infantry, two of armor, and one of combat engineers. I rode in the loader’s hatch of a SEP to the field once - quite a different experience from the Brads!
 

DaveBrt

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Layering of different materials was a common, though not well understood, method of protection. Ironclads had iron on the outside and wood, of various types and run in various directions, behind the iron. This would help absorb much of the impact of a projectile and aid the iron in resisting penetration. This worked, or not, depending on many factors.

The use of iron on battery faces was started on day one of the war. I suspect it did more for morale than for protection.

The similarity of the two forts is not surprising since they are both trying to get the maximum number of guns bearing on enemy ships approaching up a well-defined channel. Experience had made it clear that if the ships got abreast the fort, they could run on past it and land troops behind the fort. This design helped stop the ships before they got past the guns.
 

ucvrelics

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Hey UCV! I didn’t mean it literally presaged Chobham, just the idea of layering materials to protect against incoming ordnance.

I was an 11B at Fort Hood, lived in Bradleys for a while. My battalion, 1-12 Infantry, was reactivated in 2005 as a combined arms battalion - two companies of infantry, two of armor, and one of combat engineers. I rode in the loader’s hatch of a SEP to the field once - quite a different experience from the Brads!
Ground ponders, got to love'm, I went in with M60 A3 and M113, came out with M1's and Brads. They were great times, from the stone age to the Jettsons.
 

A. Roy

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This Fort Point drawing is a gem because of its description and schematic of the layering of railroad iron, timbers, and sand. Sulakowski placed a lot of value in layered protection for the fortifications he designed in Texas, and Fort Griffin had the same type of construction.

Interesting! I'd hear of layering various materials to build fortifications, but not railroad iron. Most of what I've been studying has been field and semi-permanent fortifications, so engineers just used what was at hand -- timbers or stones might have been incorporated into earthworks, for example. From what I'm reading here, iron turned out to be not such a great material for forts. Why would that be -- brittleness and a tendency to fracture into shrapnel? Unless I've misunderstood what folks are saying here.

Roy B.
 

Championhilz

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In 1864 Union occupation troops at Vicksburg used railroad iron in some of the defenses they built in the city. In a report filed by Captain Charles G. Sawtelle, an assistant quartermaster for the Division of West Mississippi, he complained that the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Texas Railroad "For about 8 miles from the Mississippi River the rails and many of the ties have been taken up. For the first three miles from the river all, or nearly all, the ties are gone. Much of the iron has been brought to Vicksburg and used, either on the railroad on this side, or as shields for earth-works around Vicksburg. Most of the iron has been heated and bent, and a considerable quantity covered by dirt and mud." (OR, Series 1, Volume 34, Part 4, 305.)
 

DaveBrt

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Interesting! I'd hear of layering various materials to build fortifications, but not railroad iron. Most of what I've been studying has been field and semi-permanent fortifications, so engineers just used what was at hand -- timbers or stones might have been incorporated into earthworks, for example. From what I'm reading here, iron turned out to be not such a great material for forts. Why would that be -- brittleness and a tendency to fracture into shrapnel? Unless I've misunderstood what folks are saying here.

Roy B.
Iron worked great against field artillery. Against the big guns, it required the proper backing to absorb the energy in the projectile without shattering the iron.
 

Rhea Cole

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The battleship Bismarck’s torpedo blister was constructed with a layer of wood backing up the steel armor. A pound of sound wood has about the same strength as a pound of steel. The fibrous nature of wood allows it to absorb a blow that would shatter steel.
 

jrweaver

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Interesting! I'd hear of layering various materials to build fortifications, but not railroad iron. Most of what I've been studying has been field and semi-permanent fortifications, so engineers just used what was at hand -- timbers or stones might have been incorporated into earthworks, for example. From what I'm reading here, iron turned out to be not such a great material for forts. Why would that be -- brittleness and a tendency to fracture into shrapnel? Unless I've misunderstood what folks are saying here.

Roy B.
Totten did a lot of work regarding firing against iron, and adopted that as his embrasure material for forts. Delafield, who took over after Totten's death, was involved in the proposal to hang iron sheets on the outside of masonry forts. That proposal died on the vine because of cost, but it was considered a technically sound idea.
 

bdtex

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Great information and thread @mjr251 . I think I was dealing with Arctic aftershocks when you posted it and completely missed it. I love looking at old maps of fortifications even though I still am not familiar with the engineering aspects. I appreciate the work that engineers put into it and the work members like you do to post the information here in CWT and explain it in a way that members like me can understand.
 

mjr251

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Great information and thread @mjr251 . I think I was dealing with Arctic aftershocks when you posted it and completely missed it.
Man, I was in the same boat. Luckily we bounced back quickly.

I agree about the engineering aspects of this subject. As my pal @AndyHall has said, being steeped in the minutiae is the key to achieving deep understanding.
 

mjr251

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Fort Esperanza up near Indianola, Texas was it designed by Col. Sulakowski as well? Esperanza in the Spanish language means "Hope" by the way, an appropriate name for a Confederate Fort.
I can’t say for certain but I’m fairly sure Sulakowski designed it, as it very closely resembles Fort Griffin. Interestingly, it was apparently named Fort DeBray. I’m not sure why or when it was changed to Hope 😄
 
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