BUILDING AND ATTACKING REDOUBTS
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Previously published by Journal of the American Revolution at www.allthingsliberty.com. Republished with permission.
From Bunker Hill to Yorktown, a feature of military actions during the American Revolution was the redoubt. Of course, redoubts were a fixture in world-wide military operations long before, and long after, that war, but those fortifications built of earth, sod and timber were usually more complex than their simple materials suggest. At a glance, a redoubt was little more than a ditch with a wall behind it built from the dirt dug out of the ditch. Some were just that, but most were more sophisticated with a great deal of thought put into the exact size, shape and placement. Locations were chosen carefully to take advantage of topography and provide tactical or strategic advantage. The type of threat was important in determining whether a redoubt was fully enclosed or open on one or two sides. The size was carefully calculated based on the number of troops available to man it.
The angles of the walls and slope of the faces were, when possible, carefully calculated to provide the best field of fire. The interior face of the walls might be shaped with a step so soldiers could fire over the top then step down for protection. The approaches were cleared of vegetation and other obstructions for at least a musket-shot distance. Woody brush was tied into tight bundles called fascines, or woven into cylindrical baskets called gabions, which were used to face and reinforce the walls. Turf was laid down over the dirt to prevent erosion. Sharpened stakes might be implanted into the exterior slopes as impediments to attackers, with other obstacles formed of felled trees with sharpened branches placed farther in front to slow anyone approaching. A host of other features could be added, especially if artillery was available, and redoubts could be placed in carefully laid out networks.
Military engineers spent years learning how to design redoubts and to supervise their construction, but even infantry company officers did well to have some basic education in creating earthworks. You never know when you might have to throw up a hasty redoubt to defend a key position! Where does a young man obtain that knowledge? From any of a number of handy reference books published throughout the eighteenth century. While classic tomes like Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban’s Manual of Siegecraft and Fortification (translated into many languages from the original French) and John Muller’s The Attack and Defence of Fortified Places went into exhaustive detail, pocket-sized volumes like Jean Louis le Cointe’s The Science of Military Posts for the use Regimental Officers (translated from French into English and published in London in 1761) provided quick information that could be applied on the small scale that typified warfare in America.
These images show the fold-out diagrams from le Cointe’s The Science of Military Posts, a portion of the table of contents from that book, and a plate from the 1757 London edition of Muller’s The Attack and Defence of Fortified Places showing various tools and constructions used for building and attacking redoubts.