Wednesday, November 19, 2008

News---Limestone, Dolomite and Casualties At Antietam

Geology and the Civil War, Reeves Wiedman, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 21, 2008.

The Battle of Antietam left 23,100 soldiers wounded or killed in the bloodiest single-day conflict in American history. Rifles downed most of the soldiers, but a pair of geologists say they have found an unexpected accomplice: limestone. A survey of the 25 bloodiest battles of the Civil War by Robert C. Whisonant and Judy Ehlen, both geologists at Radford University, has found a correlation between high casualties and the Civil War's terra firma.

"Military people have known for thousands of years that you want to have the high ground," says Mr. Whisonant. "But there's a reason for the terrain, and that's geology." At Antietam, for instance, the battle in Miller's Cornfield produced about half of the day's casualties. One reason: It took place on pure limestone, which proved to be a sign of heavy casualties in several battles, because it creates flat, open fields that proved deadly for the lines of riflemen that dominated 19th-century warfare. By contrast, a nearby struggle with a similar number of soldiers at Antietam saw fewer than half as many casualties, in part due to the dolomite rock that produced more rugged terrain.

Geology was an equal-opportunity killer at Gettysburg, where limestone fields left Confederates vulnerable, while hard igneous rock prevented Union troops from digging trenches as protection from artillery attacks. The study of terrain in warfare is nothing new. Mr. Whisonant points to studies of the geological reasons why the D-Day invasion took place at Normandy (the ground was softer, making it easier to build airstrips), and the effects of hard and soft sand on battles in the Middle East.But he says few studies have assessed geology's effect on casulaties, and he hopes to change that when he presents his paper — "No Place To Run, No Place To Hide" — at next year's biennial International Conference on Military Geology and Geography, in Vienna.

Text Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, November 21 2008.

Image Source: Figure 33. Domestic structure in the Antietam Village Historic District (WA-II-031, WA-II-032, WA-II-033), Washington County (Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Trust)

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